Boundaries—Binoculars that Help You Find Yourself

By Ken Wells - 08/19/2022


Series Three: Blog Fifty-Four

When people are bullied and physically dominated, sometimes I feel their pain in my bones. I remember watching my older brother Dave get into fights. I absorbed the pain and humiliation of guys that he would dominate in a fight in front of their girlfriends. There are times when listening to stories of people under extreme emotional and physical control that I feel their sense of claustrophobia physically. Clinical research suggests that there is a strong possibility that people carry the traumatic feelings of shame and fear, etc from past generations in their body. Literally, you can feel it in your bones.

Like many, I grew up in a family where boundaries were either non-existent or skewed and abused. When I was young and impressionable I learned to please others. Pleasing others was a way to fit in. I once played tackle football without a helmet. I did this to prove to my older brother who was the coach that I was tough. That’s how I fit in. I learned to keep my mouth shut about the sexual abuse that was perpetrated by a pastor toward me and others. I pleased the pastor who told me I was more mature than other kids because I kept quiet. Learning to go to any lengths to fit in became a strategy in my young adult life. I worked between 80 and 100 hours with no pay for three years primarily to get the approval of a senior pastor. When I confronted the pastor who promoted an attendance figure that was inflated by 1000 that it was deceitful, he scorned me and I learned to keep my mouth shut to maintain his approval. I buried my fear, anxiety and shame with a hurricane of activity all around the ministry of the church. Those observing thought of me as a dedicated follower of God. I was and I desperately wanted to fit in.

I learned to doubt my own perceptions. I learned to question my own worth and self-esteem. I prided myself in that I could accept any challenge in ministry and figure it out. There were times I was asked to give a sermon in a moment’s notice and I did. Once I was asked by the senior pastor to close out a concert with meaningful words. I didn’t even have a sport jacket and was wearing work jeans during an era that it was not cool. He handed me his sport jacket and I went out and closed the concert. I thought I was practicing resilience when really I was demonstrating no boundaries.

Addicts in recovery quickly learn about external boundaries. They are challenged to get rid of all access to their drug of choice. They learn to make painful choices about their environment that will keep them sober. They learn to change the crowd of people they interact with. Some even change jobs.  It’s remarkable when considering the external boundaries that an addict installs in order to maintain sobriety. These are all necessary but not sufficient for long-term serenity.

Often it takes a lifetime to understand and implement internal boundaries that weed out the dysfunctional patterns of destructive childhood experience.

I listen to addicts in recovery apologize for things that are not about them. Stories that indicate tolerating the impossible. Stories that highlight the ongoing practice of denial of feelings. All of which promote a lack of boundaries.

It is common for addicts in recovery to continue avoiding the pain of past abuse. Of course, many carry the pain and shame of generational abuse and don’t recognize it.  What is helpful is to recognize that we are all a work in progress, particularly therapists, since I am one! I think I will be growing myself up the rest of my life. At least, I hope so! The journey in healing and creating healthy boundaries is long and engages a circuitous path. There is seldom a distinct “before” and “after” result. No real sense of “now I have arrived”. Though I have stopped a lifestyle of acting out many years ago, there are many flaws and shortcomings that require consultation and accountability in order to improve my development of healthy boundaries in my life.

Boundaries engage an evolving awareness. Like binoculars, boundaries increase spiritual vision and awareness. Surrounding myself with people who have and do validate my feelings has increased the sensitivity of my own personal limits and empowered my capacity toward assertive living. End result is that I experience myself saying “no” more often.

Learning to say no has helped me to recognize commitments that are hurtful. It has helped me to understand people who in their own destructive neediness require a boundary that created healthy distance between me and them. This has been a challenge since historically my sense of self-identification was pinned to caring for and pleasing others.

Boundaries required that I not be invisible. It has been necessary for me to insist and assert my expectations, needs and wants in business and personal relationships.

Boundaries have helped me to fill the hole that exists in my soul from the inside rather than creating a cocktail of external experience that never satisfied.

Addressing historical trauma has helped to release the grip of generational traumatic experience in my life. It has positioned me to offer a new legacy to my children and theirs. I have been able to observe how a lack of boundaries have taught others to disrespect me. I allow others to be abusive to me when I do not employ healthy boundaries. Healthy boundaries require consequences when they are not recognized. In some cases, it has ended relationships. 

I am learning that letting go of pleasing and caretaking others is helpful in clarifying boundaries, of knowing where I stop and others begin. The process of surrender in Step 3 promotes and strengthens solid relational boundaries. Valuing myself in the presence of those who don’t has increased my own visible awareness of how to care for myself. Boundaries help me to shrink back from trying to do for others what they can only do for themselves.

These personal declarations come from my own personal recovery journey. There are days when I look around me and I feel overwhelmed by shortcomings. I sometimes feel defeated and hypocritical regarding broken boundaries and times where I have given my power away to someone else in order to please them. Yet, as I view the past and present terrain, I have unmistakably forged forward with great gains that have transformed my respect for personal boundaries. Establishing boundaries has become the binoculars that have increased my vision of being an unrepeatable miracle of God. Boundaries give me a life force toward the fulfillment of my destiny.

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