Coaching

Grounded Not Bounded

One of the realities of developing a condition that involves a significant amount of fatigue is that you end up hearing an awful lot about the need to set boundaries.

And as a parent of kids with autism, and a wife to a husband with autism – as a person who wants and even needs to be involved in community to be able to function – I found this an incredibly frustrating suggestion, but for years I haven’t been able to figure out why.

And then last week, as we were reconnecting after my husband had been away at a conference, he was telling me about a session he had been to about the peacemaking lessons you can learn from Tai Chi. He was talking about how tai chi teaches that you can acquiesce, resist or be centered and turn as the strike comes toward you.

The key is to become GROUNDED, like a mighty oak tree, with roots that stretch deep down into the ground. Winds and rains and snow and sleet can all come at it whenever and however they want, but because the tree has a supple core and deep roots, it can weather the storms, and even nurture itself back to life when damage is done.

And at that moment a light bulb came on in my head!

This was what had been missing from the conversations about boundaries for me!

You see, I completely agree with the boundaries conversation when it comes to the idea of not simply acquiescing. Many of us (myself included) struggle with wanting the people around us to be happy. So we might want to have a nice quiet evening at home with a book and a cup of hot cocoa, but when a friend or a child or a partner or a boss say that they need something out of us, we find it hard to say no.

Acquiescence uproots us, and leaves us on the ground with no life-giving source to renew us or bring us back to health.

Although there are certainly trees in the forest near my house that have managed to survive being uprooted, they are on the ground in the shade, instead of standing tall and reaching for the sun. As such, they are living stilted, impaired lives because of their positional disadvantage.

Maybe I’ve misunderstood along the way, but resistance, to me, feels like the boundary approach.

I imagine boundaries as firm, unmoving walls guarding a medieval city. (I’ve seen some of these walls in Europe, and many of them are over a meter thick!) Your option is to shut the draw-bridge or open the draw-bridge. You are either available or you’re not. The answer is either a firm yes or a firm no.

And if there is a disagreement with someone else who also has firm boundaries, things can very quickly escalate into a ‘my-way-or-the-highway’ kind of fight. Which can be disastrous, because the only way to fight with someone with high-walled boundaries is to unleash the catapults and attempt to destroy the walls. This kind of a scenario is damaging to both the person setting the boundaries, and the person who disagrees with these boundaries.

More to the point, the idea of boundaries is often encouraged in situations where nuanced give-and-take is necessary if you want the relationship to be maintained. Sure you can make hard and fast boundaries with your boss, but sometimes emergencies happen, the company needs everyone to work together to achieve something, and then what?

Or you set a boundary with your partner about something, but it doesn’t take into account what will happen when they end up out of work for six months with depression – then what?

Or worse yet, you set a boundary (or series of boundaries) with your kids leaving you no room to respond flexibly when they are frightened or sad or excited or hurt, and they begin to think that you are not a safe place to go to with those emotions.

We easily back ourselves into corners with our boundaries, and can rapidly find ourselves as much a slave to them as those around us – mostly because there is little explanation as to how we are supposed to set our boundaries, or who gets the right to help us shape what they look like.

Which brings us back to our grounded oak tree.

When we are grounded, we are able to stay centered in who we are and turn this way and that in response to the stimuli around us.

We become grounded by knowing our values – our centre – our core. When we know these things, we have a lens through which to filter all incoming messages and inputs. Does this fit with my values? Yes? No?

My boss is having “one of those days”? I know it’s not likely about me (unless they’ve specifically told me it is) and I’m just going to keep going with what I know I need to do.

Someone swears at me in the parking lot? I know that’s not who I am, and I might simply ignore it, or I might say, “I don’t really think that’s helpful in this situation, do you?”

My children are bickering with each other? This goes against the way I want them to treat each other, but it matters to me why they are bickering, and since they’ve been cooped up in the house all day, instead of yelling at them or punishing them, I can simply send them outside to play.

My partner is anxious about an upcoming event? That’s his anxiety, not mine, so I can see that he’s anxious. I can value his courage in doing the event, I can even do something to make him feel like I think he’s special, but I don’t have to fix him or rescue him or otherwise try to remove him from the situation.

The supple core of our values allows us to bend and sway.

And then we add to those values an honest assessment of how nourished we feel. How would the real me (the one grounded in my values) respond to this situation if I was being fully and completely honest with myself about my emotional, physical, relational and spiritual well-being right now?

Sometimes the answer will be no – perhaps because I’m hungry or I’m tired, because I’ve spent too much time with people or not enough time sitting down by the water.

And sometimes the answer will be yes – I have the emotional, physical, relational and spiritual well-being to do that thing.

As we grow in self-awareness of how nourished we feel, we may find ourselves frustrated by how often we have to say no. At which point, we might even discover that we need to make changes to our daily and weekly routines to increase the amount of rest we are getting; adjust the type or amount of nutrition and exercise we choose; find ways to increase or decrease our people time (depending on whether we’re introverts or extroverts) or develop a deeper awareness of our spiritual best practices. But now these changes will come out of a desire to become more fully the people we were made to be. It will come out of love, and not out of fear.

Becoming grounded is like growing a healthy, mature oak tree – it’s a much longer process than simply setting boundaries. It may require weeks or even months or years to get to the point where your roots go deep enough to hold you up in even the most torrential of storms. 

Yet when we are grounded deeply in who we are – when we have deep streams of nourishment to draw on – then we can respond in a supple, nuanced manner to whatever comes our way. We no longer have to live out of fear that someone will attack us, nor rigidity that we must always protect ourselves. Instead, we are free to live in love of our true self in such a way that it can overflow into love for those around us.

And surprisingly, the transformation is not as impossible as it may seem.