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39. How to Use Boundaries to Self-Regulate

In freeing ourselves from a dysregulated nervous system, an important step is learning how to reframe our experiences and manage our triggers, reactions, and baggage. We need to do this so that we are no longer subject to learned ways of behaviour that negatively impact our lives and the relationships we have with others.

The goal is to go from the diagram on the left below to the one on the right.

In the diagram on the left, in which our baggage is represented by the red squiggle, triggers are the green arrow, and our reaction is the red arrow, you can see a dysregulated nervous system - one that overreacts to the trigger. The diagram on the right represents a nervous system that is well regulated as a result of using boundaries and containment. To reframe our experiences, we must bring attention to our triggers, our baggage, and our reactions. It’s easy to consider ourselves the victim in situations that trigger us and make us feel unsafe, but there is very little we can do to control what life throws at us. What we can do, however, is use boundaries and containment to lessen the impact that our triggers have on our baggage. When we do this, we create something like a shield around that vulnerable, wounded part of ourselves. The whole process of regulating the nervous system would be far easier if we experienced fewer triggers less often. So, keeping things manageable is a priority and to do this, we can use boundaries to begin to build a bubble of containment around our dysregulated nervous system. But how do we know in practice exactly what those boundaries should be? Let’s look at the following story about John and Mary. John has agreed to pick up Mary from a work drinks event and take her to a dinner with his friends. He’s supposed to collect her at 7pm. At 6.55pm, she tells everyone she has to go, gets ready and is expecting him. He doesn’t show up. There’s no call, no message, nothing. As she’s waiting by the lobby of the bar, some of her colleagues leave together and comment that they thought she’d left. They ask her if she’s ok. Mary smiles bravely and tells them that everything’s fine. But inside she’s dying. She has no idea what’s going on and having played it all cool, like she had to leave because she had another event to go to, now she’s the one standing on her own looking foolish. It doesn’t help that one of the people passing her in the lobby is her work nemesis! John finally turns up at 7.50pm. Mary is still waiting, but not exactly pleased to see him. As he walks into the bar, all flustered, and greets her, she must make a choice in what to say. When talking about her triggers, Mary would respond well to this situation by saying: ‘When we agree to meet at 7pm and you show up at 7.50pm, that’s a trigger for me.’ In doing so, Mary makes her response about her and her own triggers, not about John. Mary could add to the communication about the trigger by also including a good description of the reaction. And now I notice that I feel very angry, upset, hurt, confused and scared. My stomach is tight, and everything feels hot in my abdomen. I don’t feel safe. Once you have carefully identified your trigger, and diligently noticed and safely articulated your reaction, it’s time to open up the bit in the middle, the bit that links the trigger to that reaction. For Mary, that looks something like this: “When we agree to meet at 7pm and you show up a 7.50pm that’s a trigger for me. And now I notice that I feel very angry, upset, hurt, confused and scared. My stomach is tight, and everything feels hot in my abdomen. I don’t feel safe. This reminds me of when I was always waiting for my Mum. She was always late for me when I was younger.” What does this help Mary to learn about herself now as an adult? She has an over-reaction to people she cares about being late for her. She obviously has some work to do on this, but in the meantime, how can she keep the triggers to a minimum, so that this work is easier to do? She can ask John to help: “So, in the future it would really help me if you could be on time, or let me know if there’s a problem as early as possible. And what I will do to help myself is if you are late and I’m getting uncomfortable, I will just go home.” This does two really important things. First, Mary is letting John know how he could be her buddy in this whole process. This is not a demand she’s making; it’s a request. It is not John’s job to manage Mary’s nervous system, but he can help out if he wants to. Like anyone, he can only be helpful if he knows what to do. This level of awareness and communication from Mary sets him up to succeed in helping her if that’s what he wants to do. He now has a roadmap to follow. Second, Mary states what she is going to do for herself if John can’t help. This is her backstop. The very worst thing you can do with a so-called boundary is make it someone else’s responsibility and then act like a victim if they don’t do it. The goal is for you to get your own nervous system more regulated. Only you can do that. Others can collaborate. They can even cooperate. But they are not responsible for the outcome. That’s all down to you. The bottom line is that Mary needs to find a way to rescue herself from her trigger, baggage and reaction when someone is late for her. She needs to show up for herself and take herself home to somewhere safe. This, it turns out, is more important than going out to dinner with John. In fact, rescuing the nervous system is the most important thing of all. It is the foundation of a better life for you, your colleagues, your family, your village, your society, your world and your planet. Definitely more important than dinner. So, once you find the boundary, which protects you from a trigger, take responsibility for making sure that you take care of you. And when you do, you can start to solve all your other problems from a different, more regulated place.

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©2019 by Benjamin Fry