My kids loved the aquarium! Stingrays. Otters. Tanks of wiggly octopuses.
But their favorite part was standing next to this giant aquarium window, a transparent boundary between them and a dripping rock face covered with seaweed. They giggled and bobbed on their toes in anticipation at what would come next: A sudden crash of water rushing down from above, as if they were on the underside of a great hammering wave. They’d squeal, surprised at the power of it! Only the glass window made it possible to witness this storm without being carried away and drowned by it.
I’m thinking we could all use a “window” like this: a shield through which we can observe the roaring tides of humanity around us without being crushed and sucked under. I think we can.
Let’s talk about boundaries. Emotional boundaries, to be specific.
Boundaries define. They define what is me and what is not me. When emotional boundaries are healthy and strong, they show me where I end and someone else begins.
Here’s what I mean: While chatting with my elderly dad, he begins to fume about something that happened that day. His voice gets louder…and, hmmm, my stomach starts to tighten. He’s complaining and name calling… my jaw clenches and my blood pressure rises. He rants his plans for retribution … and I want to run for the door or try to talk him out of feeling that way.
Wait. What’s going on here? I was suddenly aware that I was having a physical reaction to his emotions as if they were my own! Why am I absorbing instead of simply observing the feelings of others?
For most of my life, I have had considerable trouble separating my emotions from others in situations like this. If Hubby came home upset, soon I was feeling upset. If my child was feeling anxious, I could feel the anxiety building inside me too. If the grocery store lady was peeved, I took it home to the family and served it like a side dish.
I wasn’t taught boundaries growing up. I was taught to watch and anticipate, avoiding the emotional storm on the horizon. I was taught that the angriest person in the room gets to have their feelings, and no one else does. Consequently, when I grew up and moved out, I packed my codependency right next to my toothbrush and took it with me.
And even now, after a shelf of self-help books, several years of therapy and a couple of 12 Step programs, I can still struggle with knowing where my emotional self stops and others begin.
Maybe you’re like me. Maybe you struggle with an over-attachment to the emotional tides of others too. And maybe you’ve become aware it’s time to make a change. If so, I’d like to share with you a “mental visualization thingy” (yup, it’s a technical term. Write it down). I’ve learned to use this simple tool when I need space between my emotions and someone else’s. Anger, grief, frustration, whatever it is, this visualization helps me to feel safer, stay calm and be present without being washed away. Here’s what I do...
I build a window.
I imagine a huge plate glass window, like the aquarium window, and I install it between them and myself. Sometimes it’s a sliding glass door that glides into place. Other times it’s a fancy French door that I gently pull close with a click. This “window” reminds me I am not meant to take in or take on what they are feeling. It’s like standing next to the aquarium window, witnessing the crash without being drowned by it.
When I started doing this, something in me changed because I could now observe without being soaked. I could allow others to express what they feel (which they have a right to do) while I stayed calm enough to hear them honestly and respond, not just react. I also found, when in a hurtful conversation, I could slide the glass closed and protect my heart from injury. With more practice, I could have the window in place and still reach through with love and compassion for what they were going through.
Dear friend, God gave you a beautiful heart. I just know it! The Bible says your heart was fashioned after God’s own, full of goodness and grace. This beautiful heart needs to be guarded well so that it can love well.
If you are struggling, I want to encourage you. You can build healthy boundaries. Start today with something simple...like building a window.
Here’s to a happy heart!