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Boundaries are Like Skin

Living open requires exquisite boundaries.

First, what are boundaries? Boundaries are many things, but for the sake of this piece, we are going to speak about boundaries as points of connection.

That may seem counterintuitive if you think of boundaries only in terms of boundaries of protection. But boundaries do not just protect us from threat, they have many functions, including to define distinction and enable pleasure.

My favorite allegory for boundaries is your skin.

Your skin covers your body, and some things are not safe for it. Hot objects and the sun will burn it. Sharp things will cut it. Pointy things will poke it. Projectiles will pass right through it and out the other side.

In order to be safe, you need to be safe from all these things. Potholders, sunblock, protective gloves, kevlar vests—those are boundaries of protection for your skin.

Boundaries of connection are the ones that allow your skin to feel pleasure. They sound like “I like to be touched like this.” “That’s a little too rough for me.” “OMG YES THAT.”

These are the boundaries we employ in times of safety, without the presence of threat.

You enact boundaries of connection when you put on your favorite soft warm sweater, find the perfect position to cuddle with your lover, sink into a hot bath.

Boundaries of connection are about comfort and pleasure, and unfortunately these needs and desires can often take a backseat. Sometimes there’s an insinuation of weakness, fragility, or being high-maintenance about these boundaries.

Many of us were told as kids that “I don’t want to” or “I don’t like that” are not good reasons. Many of us have been coached out of tending to and tuning for our own pleasure and comfort.

Some of us even seek out opportunities to meet others’ needs, in part so that we don’t have to face our own relationship to pleasure and comfort. (Definitely me, for a long time, and I still catch myself in it sometimes.)

These boundaries of connection are important, and your life will only become richer as you tune for a more comfortable and pleasurable experience for yourself.

There are also times when boundaries of connection are not available to us. Times when protection and preservation is the only option, pain is the default state and it’s only about managing the pain.

When your skin is covered in a bad sunburn, there is no sweater soft enough, no touch gentle enough, and hot water is punishment rather than sweet relief.

People who have lacked boundaries of protection can find that boundaries of connection are simply beyond them. This is not about fault or blame or retribution—it’s about what IS.

It does not matter why you were out in the sun without sunscreen. There may be emotions there for you to feel, (shame, regret, humility, self-forgiveness, blame for whoever forgot to pack the SPF) but at the end of the day the thing you need to move forward is the conditions and the time for healing to occur.

You will not heal a sunburn by sitting in the sun, no matter how you got it. You will not heal a sunburn by yelling at or burning whoever forgot to pack the sunscreen. (Yelling could be part of the emotional management piece of this, but that’s a different topic.)

Your sunburn will heal with time and hydration in a place out of the sun.

When I work this with clients, I call it a pristine container.

When you create a pristine container for yourself, you maintain exquisite conditions for your protection and your healing.

It’s not about what is reasonable for a human to need. It is not about the range of acceptable behavior from others, or about making others wrong for their behavior. It is not about what happened or how or why or who is at fault. It is about what you need in this moment, to be protected, to be safe, and to heal.

From the healed-state, a new negotiation of boundaries is possible.

But it is NOT possible before that.

All attempts to negotiate the boundaries you require to feel safe, protected, and to heal, will create further injury.

This is why it’s important to understand that openness is not better than closedness. In each moment, it is only about what you need.

Being closed might be protective or necessary, and it isn’t for anyone else to judge.

Being open may not be available to you in your current circumstances, and you may not want to change your circumstances, which means that opening would be harmful.

You may feel perfectly safe in your life, and then as you begin to experience an opening or awakening, you could find you need to change the standards of your life to accommodate it. (This is what happened with me.)

There is no right way to be. There is only your recognition and preservation of the rightness of your being, there is only you claiming that what you need is correct and that you will not give up on claiming and creating it. You can have it and maintain respect for the sovereignty of others.