Setting boundaries can be hard. Experiencing set boundaries can be even harder. Understanding that we get to set boundaries even when they are experienced as hard or uncomfortable is an important part of becoming our most healthy and human self. Lately I've been contemplating the archetypes of the swan and the dragon and representations of how boundaries can be experienced. If a boundary is felt like a swan, it is felt as beautiful. If it is felt like a dragon, it is felt as burning. Sometimes however, our inner ponds or lakes of connection turn to swamps, and in order to replenish, they have to burn off the undergrowth and soggy dead roots. When this happens, anything no matter how gentle and lovingly offered as a boundary can feel like we are being harmed.
Boundaries have to do with rhythms and flow. Sometimes we find life to be so synchronous, we feel goosebumps on our skin, and other moments our timing feels off, and we have to make quick decisions to navigate our world. If I am feeling guilty when a boundary is set, this can be experienced as shaming and aggressive. It doesn’t mean it is, it just can be felt that way. When I am setting a boundary, I can feel warm and soft even as I say, "here's where the line is!" and it can still be experienced as firing and burning someone. This is okay and unpleasant at the same time. Boundaries are part of life.
I also call boundary setting my dragon energy, and when this dragon shows up, I feel the awkwardness as if I was a giant dragon in a people setting, trying to not burn anyone and also get my needs met. Dragon's are all about come-forting themselves with treasure and they need their caves to be mostly undisturbed. They are also known in the myth world as maternal and loyal, with a memory that is immortal.
Recently, several people in different roles have walked away from our relationship when I began to set boundaries. Many did not, and it is more interesting for me for the sake of growing and learning to look at how the relationships that broke did. Walking away from relationship when a boundary is set means two things: 1) that our relationship did not have enough roots to sustain the challenge of these boundaries, and 2) that I as the one creating the container (or boundry'ing) get to keep practicing setting more palatable boundaries. Often when a boundary is experienced as harsh, it has not been set up well enough from the beginning and wasn’t caught as a need for me, them, or us until it was too late. A well set up boundary, like a womb holding a child in as it grows, grows with the child, and allows them to flow through when they get too big. Another example is a bridge, where we can meet in the middle, or pass each other by on our way to other places, and a bridge with clear boundaries can be experienced as beautiful, practical, and safe.
Sometimes the rhythm in life feels synchronous, like a dance between swans, and at other times it can come back to a crashing and clashing stop. If I take this from a place of shame, I just grow the shame stew within me. However, if I release blame towards myself and the other person, and allow myself to trust the rhythm and flow again, I can also trust that even though I want a different outcome next time when I set a boundary, maybe this outcome did the least harm this time around. Even more, maybe it will be the greatest learning and growing experience for everyone involved in the long-term. Returning then to curiosity, I can look for the tools I need to be more ready when I sense that it is time to set a boundary next time.
This is no easy thing, and it is a more than worthy endeavor. It is where passive and aggressive meet, bow or shake hands, and find assertiveness again. What are your best boundary setting memories?
About the Author
Ruth Diaz, LPC, Psy.D. is a counselor, organizational consultant, and coach on connecting relationships with ourselves and each other at every level. She currently works as an organizational consultant and therapist in Portland, Oregon.