A new José Stevens Article

Boundaries, Containers and Safety: The United States on the Block – New Article by Jose Stevens

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In this physical universe most things have boundaries around them that delineate them as separate physical objects from other things. Chairs, cars, rocks, trees, fish, birds, reptiles, and people have such boundaries. Some physical objects have less clear boundaries such as air, water, and such things as mountains that spring out of the earth with no exact foundation boundary. Boundaries are necessary for containers and account for the size and shape of the container in question whether it be a bowl, a basket, a box, or a whole shipping container. What is less clear visually are psychological boundaries and organizational boundaries consisting of preferences, comfort zones, laws, or cultures. As you can see this is a complex and vast topic so in this article I am only going to focus on these latter type boundaries, their characteristics,  and the containers they create.

To begin with, boundaries allow us to have containers and containers are extremely important for humans because they define the territory of certain activities and either  prevent us or allow us to act upon all the possibilities and choices. For example a jail is a clear set of containers that severely limit the choices while a university allows for a much greater range of choices despite being an educational container with specific limits, rules, and norms.

Containers are interesting because they can be either comforting for people or raise their stress levels. For most people a bedroom that is not too big or too small feels right for relaxing and getting some much needed rest. However a mattress in a large auditorium may not provide the same level of security or feeling of safety. Of course there are huge variations in people as some are more claustrophobic and others desire a tighter container. Let’s transfer this over to the more psychological container that we call marriage. In general there are certain agreed upon boundaries and rules that define the activities of a marriage and the parties must negotiate them.  In monogamous relationships the rule is no sex with other partners. This makes both parties feel more secure about the container. If someone violates the rules, the container feels damaged, perhaps no longer viable as a safe and trusted place. Some marriages throw those rules out, open up the container to multiple partners or polyamorous experiences, and experience some success. Social research shows that these more experimental loose containers do not often succeed because they fail to hold the partners together.

On the other hand many marriages become prisons because the containers are held too tightly as when one partner is extremely jealous and wants to know exactly where their partner is at all times. There may be curfews, the need for reporting in, and even surveillance and these marriages also do not have a good track record for long term success.

So containers with medium boundaries tend to be more successful than ones with either too loose or too tight boundaries something like the children’s story of the three bears.

With larger populations like organizations and corporations boundaries turn out to be extremely important. When the staff knows the rules of the game they are much less stressed even if not all the rules are not particularly to their liking. For example clear work hours, job descriptions, lines of authority, compensation structure, general work guidelines and procedures, and consequences for poor performance are extremely important to the success of the organization. If these aspects of work are vague, unclear, or constantly shifting the staff and management as well tend to become unnerved and heavily stressed. We could say that the container is no longer trustworthy, the boundaries are shifting around, and no one feels contained by the supposed container. Obviously if the container becomes too rigid with no flexibility whatsoever it cannot adapt quickly to changing conditions in the marketplace or in the workplace itself and may fail as well.

A big part of social containers and their boundaries is of course the role of authority and the clarity of their expectations. Because of many situations where people have experienced authority as being oppressive or controlling many people have an innate distrust of authority. This distrust often reveals itself in the form of subtle if not blatant resistance. One form of resistance is stubbornness, a subtle refusal to adopt changes, use new software, or follow directions. This passive aggressive response can be the undoing of an office place.

There are sometimes much more blatant forms of resistance such as total refusal to go along with a new set of rules, subtle or not so subtle acts of sabotage, campaigning and organizing protests and strikes and the like.

These forms of resistance to authority come about more often when authority does not communicate well with their personnel and when they initiate changes with no warning or discussion, or when they exhibit a blatant disregard for the well being of the employees, in other words when their actions are based on greed, arrogance, and/or total disrespect.

Interestingly these same dynamics can take place within the psyche where there are different sub-personalities at play with different voices and agendas. We could say that your body is the container for your personality, that which differentiates you from other people. Your body is also the vehicle for your core or essence self that is beyond your limited personality. The more limited personality appears to have subsystems that have their own unique agendas. One part of you may be afraid of commitment whereas another sub-personality within you is more afraid of abandonment. How are these two characters going to get along and how do they negotiate being members of the same body. Freud tried to get at this with his designations of the more simplified id, the ego, and the superego. There does seem to be an inner critic, various agendas promoted by the voices of various states of earlier childhood. There is the voice of the two year old, testy with authority and the voice of the latency age child who is playing king of the mountain and seeing if she can get away with lying to authority and so on.  All of these inner voices may be in competition to dominate the self that occupies the container of the body just as there may be various factions in any organization competing for control of that body.

One thing is very clear. We can’t do without the support system of the container of the body. It is a prerequisite for being an alive human being. That container must have both physical boundaries and psychological boundaries, the ability to say no, the ability to relay the rules of engagement to other people. These boundaries have to be relatively consistent so that we have integrity, consistency, and authenticity. Otherwise we don’ t really have an identity.

Once again these same dynamics apply to the nation at large. The nation has its physical boundaries, its culture and belief systems, it’s identity. The USA is a container for not only a set of ideas but for a group of people. We are Americans and this means X, Y, and Z.  Now just like the body and the personality the nation has its sub-personalities and inconsistencies.  One sub-personality says we are a melting pot, a nation of immigrants and another sub-personality says no, we are a nation of primarily white Christians and immigrants are a threat. One voice seeks to make the container more exclusive, tighter, and the other voice seeks to make it more diverse, looser with other voices voting as well. The ones who want it more diverse feel the others want to make the container too tight. They are feeling someone trapped by the conservatives. The conservatives who want it more exclusive feel the liberals want to make it too loose and they therefore feel less secure.

However even here there are contradictions. The ones who want to tighten up on immigration also want to deregulate, loosening the boundaries for industry and the business world. The liberals who want looser identity around immigration want regulations to stay in place to protect the environment and protect humans from toxicity and pollution. They want more protections. So while each side seeks to tighten some things and loosen others both sides feel afraid and seek security.

As the nations’ new administration moves to rapidly deregulate, this action acts to reduce the sense of identity that many liberal Americans have come to expect and rely on. The net result is that many citizens are looking around saying, “This is not the America I know or recognize and it does not feel good.” On the other hand many Americans who had a definite sense of what Americans are supposed to be are beginning to look around and say, “Who are all these LGBT people and women with headscarves and people speaking Spanish and so on. This isn’t the America I know and those are not Americans, I don’t care if they were born here.” So what is happening is a massive dismantling of what people think America is and what Americans are supposed to look like. The container is unraveling and the anxiety associated with this is going through the roof.

The question on many people’s minds is, Is the USA a viable container any more? Can it hold our notion of who we are? And if not, then, who are we? As you can see this article seeks not so much to answer questions but to shed some light on what is happening and why it is so disconcerting for so many. It is the nature of life in the physical plane to provide containers that by alternates become too loose or too tight. There is a constant ebb and flow and this is what we call history. We are constantly outgrowing our containers and forming new ones. Is the United States resilient enough to grow to the next level or does it need to shrink, contracting and become smaller and tighter, shedding many of its members in order to keep fewer more comfortable. In the end whatever it does, the human race is accelerating to its next level of consciousness as we speak, requiring larger contexts, more space for who we are becoming. There are those who are so frightened by this prospect that they want to shrink back instead. In the bigger picture this will be a failed strategy. There is no going back, only forward. Prepare for a much bigger world with much greater diversity. In the short run prepare for backlash against this. Violent confrontation will accomplish nothing but it will be tried even though it has failed innumerable times. In the end the only solution is to hold those people’s hands who are afraid and lead them forward to discover that they are indeed going to be Okay.

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José Stevens

José Stevens PhD is an international lecturer, corporate team builder and organizational coach, consultant and trainer. A psychologist, licensed clinical social worker and author of more than twenty books and numerous articles, he is also co-editor for A Journal of Contemporary Shamanism and a board member of the Society for Shamanic Practitioners. He is the founder, with his wife Lena, of the Power Path School of Shamanism and The Center for Shamanic Education and Exchange, a non-profit organization dedicated to educating youth in indigenous cultures. He has completed a ten-year apprenticeship with a Huichol Maracame in Mexico and has studied with the Shipibos of the Amazon and the Paqos of the Andes for the last thirty years.