SOURCE: Audrey Sherman, Ph.D.
I talk often about boundaries, the healthy need for them and how they define the ways you treat yourself as well as how you allow others to treat you. There are physical, emotional, sexual and spiritual boundaries that you develop in order to know where you stand in life in relation to yourself and others.
It has come to my attention that clients sometimes do not understand the difference between healthy boundaries and emotional walls. Emotional walls are like boundaries on steroids. Your brain develops them in order to protect you. They are often seen as or referred to as defense mechanisms. Sometimes they are a good thing, but sometimes your brain goes overboard in its efforts to protect you. Emotional walls are not usually conscious efforts to define yourself but unconscious efforts to protect yourself. If you have these, there is nothing wrong with your brain, it is working just fine, but maybe a bit overtime.
Think reactive rather than proactive when you think of emotional walls. An example of this would be:
You have been hurt in some way in past relationships so you begin doing things or involving yourself in activities that pretty much guarantee you will be solo. You may tell yourself you have too much to do, not enough time or some other excuse not to engage in things where you might meet someone. You really want someone in your life but can’t see how to have that happen and not experience pain so you are essentially walling off the opportunities to meet someone.
If your basic thoughts about people are that they can’t be trusted, you may be guarded with how you share yourself. By these behaviors, you remain alone and lonely. A boundary around this topic would be allowing yourself to trust until someone has broken that trust. Your boundary would be ” I give people the benefit of the doubt but if they break my trust I am done.” You maintain the power in that decision and allow yourself the freedom to be open to meeting others.
In an effort to protect yourself you may also come up with a definition of the perfect person for you that can never be attained. You may tell yourself this is the profile of the only person that could work out for you. You can see the problem with this as it becomes an order that can not be fulfilled. Although it is important to find a good match, it is not likely a person will be “perfect” in every way. You have built an insurmountable wall. A healthy boundary setting for choosing a significant other would be to set guidelines pertaining to how they speak to you, how they treat you overall, spiritual, educational and political preferences and let the rest fall into place.
One of the main differences between setting boundaries and establishing emotional walls is that boundaries leave in place the opportunity for joy and for you to be in control of your life. Emotional walls, on the other hand, usually limit you in some way and reduce potential experiences and opportunities. Emotional walls make you feel like a victim of something while boundaries allow for control and freedom.
It is not to say that someone won’t break a boundary and hurt you in some way, that can always happen. The “perfect” person could also just die or be in an accident. Unfortunately, life can dole out some very nasty experiences. We really can’t protect ourselves against all of them and living in fear limits our life in many ways. It is better to develop the skill base you need to get you through those times than to live fearfully trying to protect against them.
Without the necessary skill base, you may experience emotionally painful things and not know how to come through. You may become depressed, anxious or angry and not be able to see your way clear of these negative emotions. Not everyone learns the necessary skill bases to overcome negatives in life, many times parents don’t know how to teach these skills or the opportunity just doesn’t present itself in childhood. Sometimes there has been a very dysfunctional background that has taught dysfunctional thinking patterns that don’t allow for healing and moving on.
These can be learned. There is no need to wall yourself off from the joys of life.