Monday, 10 November 2014

On boundaries and taking care of tender hearts

Boundaries - self protection, therapy, psychotherapy

Take care of this tender heart of mine...

There are times when putting yourself first sounds like the selfish option. Or maybe it's the impractical option, or the just plain impossible option. When I met up with my friend Sam for lunch a few weeks back, she made it clear that she looks after her tender heart (her beautiful words). If she doesn't, who will? It's a good question, one that made me rethink.

We talked a lot about boundaries. In therapy speak, boundaries refer to the limits placed on the relationship between you and your therapist (eg you meet at a specified time and place) and specific boundaries placed on the communications that take place, so you aren't treating your therapist as you would a friend. In real life, it applies just the same. Boundaries refer to any aspect of our interactions with others, including our relationship with ourselves and our environment. It's about self-protection.

Trouble is, redefining those boundaries disrupts the status quo. My therapist uses the metaphor of a dance in which you know the steps and everyone in your life does, too. Changing your steps means you tread on people's feet, or they on yours. Things get uncomfortable, painful even.

Uncomfortable but necessary. Boundaries reflect our core values, our respect for ourselves and our need for safety and protection. They include being able to say no and mean it, or saying yes and meaning it. It's about separateness. It's about privacy.

It got me thinking about where I am in my life right now, and how to apply the idea of boundaries and self-protection as gracefully as possible without resulting in too many broken toes. You'll find no definitive answers here (nor, I suspect, in your own life, not really) but here's what I've learnt so far.


My darlings. Since becoming a single parent, my relationship with my two sons has grown, as has my heart. (Three sizes, perhaps, like The Grinch.) A single parent of either gender has to be everything to their children, right there and then in the moment. But the closeness that brings is worth the pressure. I take the French approach - they have a lot of freedom but there are certain, non-negotiables where I clamp down, hard.

We talk openly and honestly about their lives, their fears, their dreams. If they ask a question, I answer it as honestly as I can, applying my own adult boundaries to their child world where necessary. I give them privacy so they know they are respected and loved as individuals because of (and despite) whoever they choose to be. I'm not saying I get it right all the time, I'm learning as much as they are. But it feels healthy. We have space. We face things head on, we don't look away. It's unbelievably hard at times, but unbelievably rewarding.


The one I find hardest. I have gone from a secure, part-time job to full-time freelance, and it's terrifying and wonderful in equal measure. Only now, I'm the breadwinner, the only one responsible for paying this extortionate rent and all the bills and managing my tax and accounts and setting expectations for what the kids can and cannot have for treat day or Christmas or just because Mummmmmmmm, I realllllllly want it.

If the work comes my way, I have to make room for it. If I'm unwell, I have to soldier on. The buck stops here and there aint no amount of boundaries that can come before earning a crust. Without it, everything crumbles. So I have to be kind to myself and apply what boundaries I can. Get early nights. Eat good, nourishing food that gives me strength and energy. Take the vits. In theory, anyway.


The past year has made me seriously reconsider my definition of friendship. Turns out, when the chips are down you do really know who your friends are, and it's definitely not always the ones you thought. If you asked how many close friends I had this time last year, my answer would've been in the tens, possibly the twenties. My life was so settled: I'd been married for ten years to a man I'd known since school, we lived in a beautiful home with our two wonderful children. I was part of a very tight community, whose support was felt most keenly when the kids were babies. The women I regularly bumped into on the school run were my friends. I set up a branch of the Women's Institute. I was part of a much cherished book group. I fought a campaign to get more local school places.. These component parts were pieces of a jigsaw that fitted together so neatly to form my world. Fast forward 12 months and that jigsaw looks like something you'd find left, unsold, at the end of a rainy car boot sale. Incomplete and broken.

Some of these friendships broke because the decision to change the course of my life was unacceptable to those people. Some, I suspect, just didn't know how to respond. Some losses were the result of an unspoken custody battle. Casualties of war.

But the ones that remained are so precious to me it's untrue. The women who were there for me on Easter Sunday when I cried for three hours straight, believing everyone else was happy and I was alone in my pain and sorrow. The ones who carried on texting, kept asking how I was doing even though they knew the answer might be hard to handle, might require energy that they didn't have. The ones who didn't judge. The ones who offered no advice, no words, just their presence and love. The ones I've never even met before but whom I know well through the blogging world.

And the ugly truth of it? Before this happened to me, I was probably one of the former. I'm not sure how I'd have responded if this were happening to a friend, their actions bringing shadows and darkness into my perfectly light world. I can't honestly say I'd definitely have been there for them. But I damn well would be now.

I've had to move away from the ones who can't be there, both geographically and emotionally. Blinkers on, I focus on the things that matter - my priorities: the kids, work, keeping a steady ship for my immediate family, my loved ones, the people who showed up and extended their hand and held mine. My boundaries are firmly established here.


My relationships with my family - my parents and my brother - have been rocked so hard by the past year, and boundary issues have really been in sharp relief. Our old dance is dead. But a new one is forming, and it is - I believe - a healthier, more respectful one. There is work to be done but we are willing.

Determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past, my new relationship - fragile and young and intense - is defined by communication. I have no desire to be with someone who cannot hold my tender heart in his hands and take care of it as well as I can myself. If something is wrong, I am not going to not say it for fear of him loving me less. Strong boundaries in this kind of relationship are perhaps the most necessary of all. A manifesto for a different kind of relationship includes never bottling it up, always being kind, putting the kids first, cherishing each other, whatever the future may bring. One for regular review.


Never before have four walls and a roof been so important to me. Making this house into a home took energy and love, but it has been so worth it. The time it took to make rooms that make me happy when I'm there, working alone, were a necessary investment. They offer comfort and warmth and security to my kids, preventing us from setting adrift. When I don't feel up to being in company, my home is the perfect sanctuary. While I haven't exactly strung garlic around the door, I decide who gets invited in. Actually, I think this has swung a little too far in the other direction, and I've been craving more company in the evenings. There are meals with friends planned, sitting around that table with good food and music and laughter.

Home. A home for tender hearts.

I'm really aware this is quite a different, difficult kind of post for this blog, and would normally invite comments at this point. Instead, I'll just say this: engage if it speaks to you, move on if it doesn't. Apply your own boundaries if you need to. 

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