Those of you who read my blogs regularly know that sometimes I can be a little random, but bear with me here. I was recently struck by a simple analogy that I feel explains the importance of boundaries quite powerfully: a filter in a fish tank. The filter is there to provide a boundary between the fish’s living space and the crap that could potentially invade or spoil it. Without it, the fish will be sharing its environment with things that compromise its wellbeing. And before you know it, you start to see a very downcast fish which starts swimming in odd circles or hovering despondently in a corner. But with a healthy filter on the other hand, you see a happy, vibrant fish which swims around its living space perfectly in control of its kingdom.
All very simple, you might think. But is it? Although for many of us, healthy boundaries aren’t an issue in our professional lives and friendships, I’m always surprised at how easily they go out of the window in our relationships.
Back to the fish tank. Many of us have experienced those times when our ‘filter’ has been a little broken. Deep down we know we’re letting too much crap into our mental and physical space but we put off fixing it that little bit longer, just in case things turn out to be OK after all. But the outcome of allowing crappy people - or crappy treatment - to have access to us is always a dead fish, or certainly one that floats despondently in the corner.
So why is having healthy boundaries in our relationships so difficult?
Sometimes we don’t even realise our boundaries are being tested because at first it’s very subtle. Take the new relationship you’re in that's started to feel a little intense. You might have children who need your attention, a busy job, or other commitments, but you seem to be feeling obliged to spend 80% of your time in contact with your new partner. Although you don’t want to hurt their feelings, you might explain that it’s all moving a little too fast and that you can’t be in constant contact all day every day. You might say that you want to take things slowly until you’re sure, but they don’t listen. Maybe they’re turning up when you’ve said you need some time to yourself. Maybe they’ll switch confusingly from hot to cold or withdraw affection until you agree to do things on their terms. It might feel passionate and romantic at first, but before you know it, you’re kind of lost yourself and are accepting treatment you’ve never accepted before.
It might feel passionate and romantic at first, but before you know it, you’re accepting treatment you’ve never accepted before.
Being married for 13 years to someone who would never play mind games, I was largely protected from alot of this stuff until I hit my very late 30s. I've been struck by how little I knew since I emerged from my marriage and began to carve out my new life, and how much I've had to learn since. I've also been able to reflect on my own behaviour as a partner and feel so much clearer about what this will look like should I enter into something new. I really feel we should talk about these issues more openly before they happen - and quite early on in life - so we're equipped in advance rather than blindsided. Quite a few women of a similar age to me messaged me following my blog about unhealthy relationships to tell me they were blindsided too, so we're clearly missing a trick somewhere.
We’re often so unkind to ourselves once we realise we’ve let ourselves be taken advantage of, telling ourselves we’ve been so weak, or so stupid. But it’s often not that simple. Our body, mind and spirit will always tell us when something is off – it’s that feeling of unease right in our core - but the difficult part is acting on it when we’re so invested in someone. What’s stood in the way of my boundaries is a fear of losing someone, seeing their potential rather than the person they actually are, or failing to see my own worth. But I’ve realised that anything I can lose simply by holding onto my own standards is utterly worthless to me anyway.
To put it more simply, if something – or someone - makes you feel uneasy, or like you're losing yourself, listen. Because your intuition is rarely wrong
Don’t be that dead fish.