The answer lies in the quality and depth of the engagement. And how comfortable we feel opening up. In my women's groups, trust frequently comes up as a particular challenge in relationships.
A lack of trust typically points to previous trauma. Many women (and some men too) have been in abusive relationships. Their trust was betrayed over and over. Many of them had entered codependent relationships, where their own will became secondary in the service of another person’s endless needs.
As a mental health counselor, I talk a lot about boundaries with my clients. We discuss how to keep an overprotective mother in check, what it looks like to have healthy boundaries in a relationship with an addict, setting limits how much to give to your colleagues, and so on. We must validate the need for safety in order to provide a space where fears and doubts can be explored.
But have we gone too far? Are we overemphasizing safety concerns (and what another person’s dysfunctional behavior can actually do) in the service of too much self protection, and inadvertently open the door to loneliness and self isolation?
Of course it is not only an issue discussed behind the closed doors of a therapy office. The messages of self insulation are glaringly visible in many facets of public life: Putting up fences. Driving to work alone. The permeating silence among the riders on a subway car. Electronic devices that give us control to chose carefully who we want to interact with, and on what level of depth. Of course there are good reasons for these phenomena in an age of endless work hours and overcrowded spaces. But it is the myth of the individualism this country is built on that provides the foundation for our exaggerated sense of boundaries.
We have to ask ourselves: Are our collective personalities really so fragile that we can’t imagine having a good debate with ___ (fill in the blank) and come out unscathed, with the relationship in question still intact? Is it so hard to communicate how we really feel without fearing that the person on the other end will either disappear or steamroll over us?
In this age of easy come, easy go relations, it is very tempting to simply discard people that don’t fit the bill. I am not advocating to nurture close relationships with severely out of control people (which do exist, of course). But we need a new vision of what healthy boundaries really mean.
Healthy boundaries - redefined - means to find the strength to authentically speak your mind, and say what you feel without shaming or blaming. It means to have the courage to have that difficult conversation you might have avoided for a long time. To face the possibility that you might lose something, or someone who can’t take responsibility for their part of the story.
And most importantly, it means to rebuild trust in yourself. To remember that you have everything it takes - the strength, the self worth and the wits - to turn your life around. And you can get the support you need, if you start looking in the right places.
We’ve all had that sleepless night.