Containers And Boundaries: What Shape Are Yours In?

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Boundaries are one of the main themes of the times we live in. While the term is bandied about in psychologically oriented circles there is still a lot of confusion about what they are all about so this article aims to unpack at least some of the main aspects. There is much more to the topic of boundaries than meets the eye. The average person knows very little about boundaries, what they accomplish, why they are important, what constitutes a good boundary or a bad one, and the all the types of boundaries that exist.
Let’s start by defining our terms. What is a boundary anyway? To talk about boundaries we must first bring up the concept of containers. Physical life is all about containers, large ones and small ones, adequate ones and inadequate ones, designed to hold our experiences, lessons, games, work, and relationships. Not unlike the various containers in your kitchen that hold everything from flour to pepper and baking soda.  A tennis court for example is a container for the game of tennis, without the boundary lines there is no viable game, instead, there is nothing but chaos. Hockey has boundaries as does football, baseball, soccer, boxing, car racing and almost all games you can name. The boundaries give the game meaning. Corporations have boundaries regarding their departments as do universities, non-profits, and governments. The boundaries determine who works there and who does not, the consumers who seek out the expertise of that department and so on. Our homes are containers that have boundaries as do our cars, our families, and our personal space, something much less visible than a physical fence or wall.
Boundaries can involve physical space as in the boundaries of a country, private property, or national forest, or they can be natural as a river, a canyon, a seashore, a horizon, a cliff, or the edge of an ice field. Boundaries can define the limits of time as in a deadline, the length of a year, the length of an era as in BC and AD, etc. Boundaries can also define speed limits, the extent of a law, the reach of government control and so on. All these boundaries define the limits of a certain kind of container and this is how we make sense of our world and our lives and they are so important that when breached they may cause wars, murders, rapes, and huge conflict or they can cause a surrender to love, passion, and infinite creativity.
Already I have said enough to fill a book if not several. This short article can only limit itself to a few points but that is a good start to a book that is coming.
I mean to focus here on some of the properties of boundaries and the adequacy of boundaries. The first thing we need to know is the grand variation of them and the fact that because people are different, perhaps different boundaries are needed for different kinds of people and this is the reason we find that one size does not fit all. The fact that humans often have to conform to boundaries that do not fit them causes huge dissatisfaction in the world. Marriages, work conditions, and social interaction between social classes, race relations, cultures, genders, age groups all chaff under the problems that boundaries bring. Like for example the glass ceiling that prevents women from rising in the workplace.
Here a just a few principles that apply to all boundaries. In general all boundaries invite greater activity over places where there is no boundary. Think about it. When you draw a line in the sand it creates a line of conflict, a line of discourse, a line of trade and a million other things. In a greater sense these are called borders between countries, restraining orders, deadlines, and the like. The closer you get to the deadline the greater the activity.
All boundaries are places of risk, possible danger zones. People break out of jail, confinement, and the like.  You can lose your life more easily at a boundary. Consider what might happen if you break the speed limit. You may get a ticket or lose control of your vehicle. What happens when you say no to a person who does not want to hear it?
All boundaries hold opportunities, potential windfalls, greater power, and major breakthroughs. Many people get rich at borders because of increased opportunities for trade, criminal smuggling, and business opportunities. Many people gain their freedom at borders. When you hold the line on invasive tactics you gain power.

There are many more principles but hopefully you get the idea here.
Let’s look at the adequacy of boundaries. When a boundary is inadequate it invites invasion from perhaps unscrupulous sources or from those who perhaps seek to help. An inadequate boundary fails to define the limit. Perhaps it is fuzzy or ever changing.  Maybe you say no today but yes tomorrow and then no again on future dates. There is a lack of clarity on what you stand for, what you are all about, where you will draw the line. This usually invites aggressive dominant types of people that always want to test the boundaries. Incidentally children are great at this when they seek to test the firmness of their parent’s rules. In this case stronger boundaries are necessary for the child to develop a sense of self. If they find they can get away with anything they don’t know who is in charge and they don’t know who they are either.
On the other hand a boundary can be overly rigid and this can cause great dissatisfaction, even rebellion. People are afraid they will lose their freedom and are perfectly willing to give up their lives to tear the boundary down. This is the case with repressive governments who seek to control and subjugate their people under a controlling and harmful regime. Religions and families can be much the same. Authoritarian parents create rebellious and stubborn children who take dangerous routes to express their independence. Repressive religions and cults can create equally rebellious followers. Rigid marriages can be prisons for one or both partners and may not survive the cramped emotional atmosphere. They often end up as examples of domestic violence.
So you can see that boundaries can be too rigid like brittle glass with no give and take, no opportunity for growth, creativity, and development. On the other hand they can be too loosey goosey and fail to provide enough clarity or security for the participants in that system whether it be a corporate environment, an organization like a police department, a school, or a marriage.
A healthy person knows what they need in terms of healthy boundaries. When the boundaries are just right they feel good in that environment and thrive. When the boundaries are too loose or too tight they know it because they do not feel safe or feel that the container does not support them in a way they want.
A healthy person knows that life is full of change and that an environment that offers a comfortable set of boundaries for awhile may not feel the same three years later because environments change or the participants themselves change. They must be prepared to either question the boundaries and seek to adjust them or move on. That is life and it is not always a situation where someone can be blamed. Sometimes it is just so. One partner discovers the situation is perfect for them and the other feels they have changed and need to move on. No blame; different strokes for different folks.
Being clear about reasonable boundaries and being able to set them leads to balance and happiness in the long run, not necessarily in the short run.
Dysfunctional people often do not know what they need in terms of boundaries. They are either afraid to set boundaries because they lack confidence or are afraid of losing acceptance of others. Sometimes they are afraid of taking responsibility and prefer someone else to set the rules even if they don’t thrive under them. This way they can justify feeling like a victim or a martyr.
They may tolerate boundaries that are so loose they never feel secure and or are unclear about what is needed in the relationship. Often open marriages fall under this category. In other cases they set boundaries that are too rigid for any reasonable person as a kind of love test or because the rigidity of their boundaries insulates them from any intimacy.  For example a person may demand of their partner that they not have sex until they are married and then set a marriage date seven years down the road.
All of these cases of poor boundaries lead to unhappiness and suffering.
In the end it is important to realize that the appropriateness of looseness or strength of boundaries has to do with different stages in life or kinds of personalities. Where as a young couple may require most of their time spent together, a couple who have been together for thirty five years may feel quite comfortable taking separate vacations or being apart some of the time. Their boundaries are so inculcated that they can be quite happy with loose external ones.  A person with a goal of acceptance may have much looser boundaries with regard to friendships and social interaction than another person with a goal of discrimination who requires much tighter and more stringent boundaries. A person with aggression mode is designed to crash through boundaries as in sports while a person with reserve mode would never behave in this fashion preferring to respect others boundaries while maintaining their own distance. Think of the different requirements of extroverts and introverts. These are natural differences and are not necessarily signs of dysfunction.
To make this more personal it would be useful for you to make a list of the different containers in your life, your work, your primary relationships, your social groups, the organizations you belong to and so on. You could even include your own body as your container or your belief systems. Place them in a column and next to some of them put a symbol that reflects if they have become too tight, too cramped, or too rigid. That could be a little dot like a period. For others that have become too loose, messy, or undefined put another sign like a dotted line. For ones that are just right put a third symbol like a plus sign or a check sign. This will help you assess the current status of your containers and their boundary states. Next you can determine what you want to do about the ones that are too tight or too loose. Do you want to adjust them or just cut them loose?
Life is dynamic and things change. Everything is always in flux. It is better to be on top of these dynamics rather than a victim of them. Be proactive about your containers and you will be happier. This will require more courage from you. Do not hesitate to be ruthless if you have to. There is an old saying that says, Doctors with dull knives make terrible surgeons.” If something needs to go, use a sharp knife. Don’t stretch it out.
Hopefully this has got you thinking about containers and their boundaries. Its too big a topic to ignore now.


José Stevens

José Luis Stevens, PhD is the president and co-founder (with wife Lena) of Power Path Seminars, an international school and consulting firm dedicated to the study and application of shamanism and indigenous wisdom to business and everyday life. José completed a ten-year apprenticeship with a Huichol (Wixarika) Maracame (Huichol shaman) in the Sierras of Central Mexico. In addition, he is studying with Shipibo shamans in the Peruvian Amazon and with Paqos (shamans) in the Andes in Peru. In 1983 he completed his doctoral dissertation at the California Institute of Integral Studies focusing on the interface between shamanism and western psychological counseling. Since then, he has studied cross-cultural shamanism around the world to distill the core elements of shamanic healing and practice. He is the author of twenty books and numerous articles including Encounters With Power, Awaken The Inner Shaman, The Power Path, Secrets of Shamanism, Transforming Your Dragons and How To Pray The Shaman’s Way.

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You may make copies of this writing and distribute it in any media you wish, so long as you do not charge for it or alter it in any way. You must credit the author and include this entire copyright notice. While the text may be shared, no audio files, including lectures, music and/or sound meditations, may be posted on any site for any reason without written permission from the Power Path.

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