I want to share with you all about a recent family meltdown that had a big impact on me, one that poked fire into my deepest wounds, and one that ultimately led me to a relationship with boundaries I’d never experienced before.
I want to give you a little background context for what happened, then tell you what went down, and then share with you what I got out of it – a radical new perspective on boundaries, and a new practice of naming and establishing them.
First, the background context…I recently moved up to a 40 acre property in the mountains near Boulder. I’ve been searching for a piece of land to call my own for my entire adult life, so it’s been particularly special to find this place. When I was younger, my family had a house on 40 acres in upstate New York, surrounded by rolling hills, endless woods, and a feeling of sweet peace and solitude. But after my dad died when I was 23, that property was sold, and a small piece of my soul went with it, and I’ve been looking for my own piece of sacred earth ever since.
I moved up here last November, the day after a record-breaking blizzard dropped over 3 feet of snow in the Boulder mountains. I couldn’t make it up the half-mile long driveway, not even in my new 4×4 truck with snow tires, and had to shovel my way to the house in thigh-deep snow. It felt like a rite of passage, the mountains letting me know that it’s a different world up here. It was super challenging living here at first, and I realized how unprepared I was for mountain living. Even though I’m only twenty minutes from Boulder, it feels like I’m in the middle of nowhere.
But some part of me finally relaxed and let go being here, some part of me that’s been in tension for a very long time. It’s so quiet and still and so connected to the seasons, a soundtrack of distant wind, bird song, and silence always in the background. I’ve seen a pair of moose and lots of deer rolling through my front yard, found a deer head lying in a meadow nearby, the victim of a mountain lion, many of which roam this area. I spend at least part of most days roaming aimlessly around the forest, stopping when I feel like it, watching the tapestry of nature envelope me in a state of presence and fascination.
Anyway, on with the story. I finally got all my furniture set up, old nasty carpet replaced, new appliances connected, artwork on the walls, sheets on the bed and other symbols of settling in, a few days before Christmas. I invited my family – my four kids, my ex-wife, her dad, my mom, and my mom’s husband – all up for a family Christmas gathering. A part of me felt good about bringing family vibes to my new home, and being a stand for a family that’s been through a lot but can emerge out of past challenges to be carried by love and forgiveness into the future. Moving to the mountains itself symbolized a new start, a completion of my past life, and it felt right to honor that with a family gathering.
Another part of me felt dread and a nagging sense that I was setting us up for a fireworks show – not the fun kind. The splits and divisions and past tensions were still an open wound, and putting us all together in a remote space was like poking fingers into a wild tiger cage.
And this is what happened…
Everything is fine at first. We chat, prepare and serve food, and gather around my new dining table and pour wine. At some point, my 10-year-old son gets frustrated about something and locks himself in the kids’ room and starts banging on the wall. And it’s at this moment that the apparently irreconcilable differences in my and my ex’s parenting philosophies decide to make a headline-grabbing appearance.
My parenting philosophy has pretty much always been to give a lot of space for my kids to have their emotional experiences, to mostly trust them to work it out on their own, and to not interfere unless it’s a safety issue or things are really going off the rails. My own childhood was overwhelmingly controlled and managed, so I’m trying to provide a childhood for my kids that is distinctly more free and spacious and explorative than was my own.
I totally acknowledge the shadow side to this approach though – I’m not as present and engaged with my kids as I probably should be, and can sometimes meet their requests for attention (which occur to me as a never-ending stream of constant interruptions) with a subtle energy of resentment and groaning, especially if I judge that they don’t really need me to resolve the situation.
My ex is what I would call the quintessential loving mother figure, giving them loads of affection, lots of kisses and hugs, very protective of them, and carving out a good chunk of her life to be a loving, engaged, accessible and available parent. There is a shadow side to this too – her desire to protect can often rob them of their self-authority, and puts her in a position where they need to rely on her to resolve a challenge, whether emotional or physical. Her own mom had to be institutionalized soon after my ex was born, so I’m sure it’s important to my ex that she is constantly available for our kids – sometimes to an overbearing degree, in my view.
Neither of these parenting philosophies is inherently wrong, damaging, or neglectful. Yet the divide between them was one of our most intractable themes of breakdown in partnership, she accusing me of being a distracted, unavailable parent, me accusing her of suffocating them and instilling fear into them. We were never able to get to a place of really getting each other’s worlds and offering space for each other’s way of parenting without judgment, while standing in the dignity of our own way. I was always the one to collapse, and she was always the one to posture, and that was how we showed up as parents and partners.
So my son is banging on the wall and my ex looks at me like, aren’t you going to do something about that? He obviously needs attention. And I can immediately feel the defenses go up in my body, like this is my home, my sanctuary, and I’m the boss here, and you can’t tell me what to do in my own home, fuck you… but underneath I’m scared, and judging myself for doing it wrong, and it’s an oh-so-familiar feeling that I’d really hoped I was well past.
She abruptly gets up from the table, with an expression and energy that I interpret as, fine I’ll just deal with it myself, like always! So now I feel like shit, it’s all starting to go off the rails and all I wanted was to have a nice peaceful family dinner and get back to enjoying my temple space. So I slink away to my bedroom – at least one iota of power I still have is being able to damn well choose where I want to be in my own home! This is my usual pattern, played out a million times during partnership.
Some time later my ex comes into the bedroom and declares that she’s leaving and now the kids want to go with her and I need to come out and keep the two kids I’m supposed to keep. She has a frown on her face, forehead furrowed, a bitterness and edge in her voice that scares me and that I want to get away from as far and as fast as possible.
Against all my protective instincts I go back to the dining room and the kids are all clinging to her wanting to go home with her (after the divorce she got our family house so they are still very attached to the only home they’ve ever known, and it’s a big adjustment for them to be way up here away from town). And I’m feeling a pounding fear in my chest, and no access to my voice or any semblance of power, and I feel like I’m lining up for the fire squad that is coming.
And then it comes. I don’t remember the exact words but I remember her yelling at me from a couple feet away in the middle of my living room with its new carpet and furniture, all the kids and extended family watching, me feeling desperate to disappear into a small hole and cover myself with rocks and have absolutely nobody ever see me again. It feels so familiar, and some part of me is furious that it has followed me all the way here to this land I’d been seeking for so long.
It seems to go on for a long time, and I’m frozen. I’m completely off my center, all circuits firing inside of me DANGER DANGER, no access to self-awareness, openness to connection, just fear and a flee instinct coursing through my body. I feel completely humiliated in front of everyone, especially my kids, seeing me so weak and small. She stops yelling with a final “I’m never coming back here!” and storms out the front door with the kids trailing her.
And then, as if that isn’t enough to dredge up old pains and hurts, my mom apparently thinks this is the ideal time to unload all of her own frustrations about me onto me. Something about me being so self-absorbed, I really should take a look at myself, telling everybody else how to be when I’m the one with the issues. Again, I don’t really remember the words but this is how I hear it, and I remember her face as well, full of contempt.
And then I spiral into my oldest story, my core wound, bad things happening to me while my mother was nowhere around to protect me, and resenting her ever since I learned what resentment was. Here it is again… bad things happening, a story that my mother is discarding me like a chicken bone. My young tender self interprets all this as, you’re not worth protecting, you deserve what you get. And the tears come.
It’s my ex’s dad who’s still there with me, in the kitchen, after everyone else has left, and he offers me a shoulder to cry on. I sob, and stain his shirt, and he’s doing his best to offer comforting words, and I’m just grateful to have someone, anyone, willing to give me a shoulder.
My son comes back in, the one who was earlier banging on the wall, to go use the bathroom, and he sees me crying and offers to stay with me. I thought that was an incredibly sweet moment, and more tears flow.
Finally they all leave and my son and I have a brief conversation, and in the coming days I’m left sifting through all the pieces.
There’s some rage at first. Not just at my ex and mom but at the whole world beyond the edges of my land. Stay the fuck away, everybody! Deep down I just want to feel safe. I’ve so rarely ever felt safe in my life, and I finally found the place to let it all go and turn inward and soften and breathe, and right in my living room the demons show up.
Then, as the reactivity starts to fade, I notice myself turning toward that pesky yet profoundly wise 4th Practice, Own Your Experience. I love when I’m able to really look at what happened and be able to identify my part in it and trace it back to some story or pattern lodged in my unconscious self. I know that this process leads to illuminating something in myself I hadn’t seen before, transmuting the shadow into light, and I get to reclaim another part of myself. I always come out of a process like this feeling more whole, like a fog has lifted and I can see more parts of myself to bring along on the journey.
As I’m looking for where I can take responsibility for what happened, I realize that I’m completely useless at boundaries. It’s an obvious weakness in my ability to be in healthy relationship – I don’t know what they are, and even if I did, I’d be too scared to name them out of fear of the other person saying well, then I’m not interested, see ya. And then I’m just alone. Much better to just say whatever I need to say for them to like me, love me, and stay with me. I’d come to judge boundaries as blocks and walls, keeping people out of connection and relationship.
I go back in time… my boundaries were crossed so many times as a child that I lost all contact with a sense of sovereignty and the feeling of safety that permeates within its domain. In partnership, there were so many times that I said yes while my whole body was a no, because I was scared of losing her and being discarded. So many times that I convinced myself to do something, to show up in a way, to say yes to another invitation or demand, to override what my body really needed and wanted, all leaving me in a state of constant anxiety and inflammation.
I realize that my part is that I don’t know my own boundaries and make clear what those boundaries are, and what my needs and preferences are for me to be in healthy, self-loving, self-honoring relationships with the people close to me. I light up when I realize that this is all coinciding with my move up to this mountain land and how it perfectly symbolizes a stepping into the practice of boundaries, and how I can feel the most safe and most relaxed and most centered, most available to being resourced and nourished, when I name and express my boundaries.
I write long emails to my ex and to my mom, taking responsibility for my part and sharing how weak I’ve been in the past in naming my needs and wants, and as a practice of honoring myself by naming what I need and want, I’m going to be making a stronger effort at doing so going forward. For now, I need space and less contact and communication, and time to be with myself. I feel gratitude for everything that went down, which is a good sign that I can be in touch with the gifts and insights that even the most challenging experiences make available.
A few months have gone by and the boundaries I named have been in place, and honestly I feel powerful, like I fill up more of my space, like I can pull my shoulders back a bit more and open my heart and chest up more. There is something about using my voice to say what I need, to be in touch with an understanding that I’m speaking what’s true for me not only in honor of myself but also in honor of the other, that feels so empowering and loving.
It actually doesn’t so much matter how the other person reacts, whether it’s with love or anger, acceptance or resistance… I can welcome whatever shows up from a place of alignment, where my interior world lines up with my exterior world. I can let go of my own anger, bitterness, story-making, and collapse, and come home to myself, to hold myself and be an agent of my needs and wants to the outside world. It feels like I’ve got my own back, and that is something I’ve never experienced before.
At some point, I’ll feel open and willing and ready to soften the boundaries, to venture out or invite in, and see what shows up. I know I can alway retreat back here to my safe space, like a prairie dog into its burrow, and say what I need anytime it occurs to me. I’m emerging out of this process with a desire to be in relationships in which our respective needs can be fully voiced, so that we can be in the most honest, transparent, aligned, and authentic relationship possible, however that might look – intimate or distant, frequent or seldom, lighthearted or deep, or whatever other form most fully honors the needs and wants of the people inside the relationship.
I think I finally get boundaries, and rather than their being a block, a wall, a way to hide and isolate, I see how they actually support people to be in right relationship with themselves and with others, how they allow people to keep their hearts open and show up resourced and centered in connection. A whole new frontier of this world of authentic relating is opening up for me, and I’m very excited to continue exploring it, on my own and together with all of you.
Thanks for following along, sending you all big love and a desire for all of us to stand up for our needs, wants, preferences, hopes and dreams, to say what’s true and feel safe and empowered in honoring ourselves as fully as possible.