Saturday, September 15, 2007


A project which I have often undertaken with new clients, toward the beginning of our work together, is what I call "The Castle Test." I will provide them with a blank piece of paper and a writing implement and simply request that they take a few moments and draw for me a castle. I ask them to concentrate not so much on making the drawing proficient, but to turn their attention to the details of said castle. I ask them to think of different castles they might have seen (history books, movies, etc.) and think of what commonalities most castles seem to possess. Once they have completed their drawing, I observe with them what details they keyed in on. The finished projects almost always have windows, a doorway, a watch tower, flags, long stairways; some even include guards and weaponry. Although there is one component that you'd find surrounding virtually any castle that they almost always seem to forget: a moat. This is a consistent exclusion which I find quite fascinating. For, what is the purpose of a moat? It provides protection. Thus, this individual who has entered my office, in large part, because they do not feel safe in the world, draws their castle chock full of elements both practical and ornate; but fails to include a device to provide safety. Let us again imagine a castle. In addition to a moat, your average castle also tends to have an enormous wooden door which raises and lowers with the aid of two thick chains attached to its right and left side. When the door lowers, it covers the expanse of water and provides passageway from the large pasture into the castle proper. In times of peace, that doorway can remain down at all times. Though, when danger is approaching, that door will be summarily raised to prevent an attack. The castle (and those who dwell there) have created a boundary. Now, what we have in this example is a physical boundary. Clearly, moats are no longer commonplace in the modern world. This does not mean that physical boundaries are not just as pertinent. Physical boundaries are critical in every walk of life. Think of it. What would happen to a business with no front door to lock after hours? What would happen to a house with no roof? What would happen to a person with no shoes or clothes? We have these items to protect us both from mother nature and those who might wish to cause us harm. Most people understand the need for these physical boundaries and are quite clear on the potential consequences of not having them. On the other hand, It amazes me how few people understand the dangers of having weak emotional boundaries. They know that they do not feel safe in their lives, but haven't a clue that their lack of boundaries are right at the heart of their challenges. What is an emotional boundary? An emotional boundary is: healthy emotional distance maintained between you and another so that you do not become overly enmeshed and/or dependent. An emotional boundary is: emotional space you need in order to be the real you without the pressure from others to be something that you are not. An emotional boundary is: a limit or line over which you will not allow anyone to cross because of the negative impact of its being crossed in the past. Do we know what is safe for us? Do we know when someone has crossed over into speaking or dealing with us in a manner that feels inappropriate? Do we have the fearlessness to stand up for our truth? Do we know how to do so in a manner which is clear and effective? An acronym I created a few years ago that has proven quite useful in terms of helping people build and maintain healthy emotional boundaries is H.A.R.M. I chose the word itself mainly because I have found few ways in this world to avoid being harmed than having strong boundaries (also it fit the words I wanted to use). H.A.R.M. stands for Honor, Ask, Reveal, Maintain. In short, we Honor our feelings, Ask to be heard, Reveal what needs to be shared, and then Maintain the boundary we have set. In terms of breaking this process down to its particulars, the first thing we need to remember is that most people want to go right to the reveal. That is to say, most people will have something on their mind that they want to share, and walk right up to a person and start talking. This is a monumentally aggressive action which is rarely effective and often ends in uncomfortability, if not volatility. The problem is that we have probably failed to ask some rather critical questions. Do we know what we need to say and how we want to say it? Do we understand what our part is in the issue at hand? Do we know whether this person is available for a conversation? It is my contention that most conversations that lapse into arguments are a product of poor planning. So, how do we plan for a boundaries conversation? First, a hypothetical situation that we can use as a framework. Let's take a married couple; we will call them Tom and Michelle. The situation at hand revolves around the fact that Tom constantly goes out carousing with his buddies leaving Michelle home alone with their children. Michelle is resentful of this but has failed to express her displeasure to Tom. Michelle wants to set a boundary by having a conversation with Tom about the ways in which her needs as a wife are not being met. Hearkening back to our HARM acronym, Michelle first needs to honor what is happening for her. To complete the "Honor" portion of the model, Michelle will now ask herself four pertinent questions. Question 1: What are my feelings? Michelle sits down with a piece of paper and begins to list the feelings she is experiencing. Michelle comes up with the following list: 1. rejected 2. abandoned 3. scared 4. helpless 5. hostile 6. tired 7. insecure 8. taken advantage of. Michelle now has some powerful language to help get her point across clearly. Question 2: What is my side of the street? Michelle is now asking herself how she has participated in the issue. As they say, it takes two to tango. Michelle is not an innocent bystander to this skirmish; she is, in some way, participating. She now sees that she has been withholding by failing to express her feelings earlier. She also sees that she has not taken steps to ask for some getaway time for herself. Question 3: What is it I need to share? Now that Michelle understands her feelings and has a sense of her part, she can pen a rough script denoting what she wants to tell Tom. She comes up with the following: Tom, I have recently found myself struggling mightily with some issues in our marriage. I am well aware that the magnitude of my current resentment is, in large part, a result of my own inaction. I have not found the courage to tell you what I have been troubled by and, therefore, there is no way that you could have known what was happening for me. The core of the issue is the frequency with which you go out in the evenings for leisure time, leaving me at home alone with the children. In addition to being very tired, I feel like you are taking advantage of me. Your nightly excursions leave me feeling abandoned and rejected; like you'd rather go cavort with the guys than spend time alone with your wife. I am aware this is not necessarily true, but I struggle with it nonetheless. It scares me that without more quality time together, our marriage might be end up in jeopardy. I can also see that it is difficult for me to ask for what I need, and therefore much of this feeling of rejection stems from my own insecurities. I love you Tom, and I hope that you can hear me and be available for some level of compromise. Now that Michelle has a sense of what she wants to tell Tom, she has one last question to answer in order to complete the process of honoring her situation. Question 4: What is it I need to ask for? Now that Michelle is clear about what she needs to tell Tom, she needs to remember that it is not Tom's job to decipher how to repair the problem which Michelle has laid out. Michelle asks herself what requests she wants to make of Tom. She comes up with the following: Tom, including bowling night, poker night, dollar beer night at The Moonlight Pub and Monday Night Football- you are generally with your friends four nights a week. I understand that bowling night is a league and you have a commitment to meet. I further understand that the football season is half over and those games are important to you. What I am asking is that you give up your bar night and limit poker night to once a month. Therefore, you would have two nights a week to go out and be social- and once a month you'd have three. As for the two newly opened nights, I would like to request that one night be for me. I have wanted to join my girlfriends in their book club, and that is a weekly commitment. The other night could then become a family night where we could play a board game with the kids or rent a movie. I am asking that this commitment be put into action immediately and last until the end of the football season, at which point we can reassess. Also, these commitments don't have to be carved in stone. If you have a concert that you want to see or a friend has tickets to a game, I am certainly willing to be amenable to a dialogue regarding a schedule change. Michelle has now honored her situation by getting clear about her feelings, denoting her part in the situation and planning a basic framework both for what she needs say and what she needs to ask for. Is she ready to address Tom? Yes. Is she ready to begin the conversation? No. The second piece of the HARM model, the Asking, is often missed by people, and is so integral in terms of not making a person feel ambushed. Michelle is now going to ask Tom three specific questions to establish that he is in a place to receive her. Question 1: Can you afford me some of your time? So rather than just beginning to speak to Tom, she is going to ask Tom if he has some time to speak. If Tom says no, she is going to accept that and ask when a better time might be. The point here is both to keep Tom from feeling sabotaged and to ensure that there will be little chance for interruption. Once Tom affords time for the conversation, Michelle will ask Question 2: Are you emotionally available for this particular conversation? Remember, just because Tom has made himself physically available does not necessarily mean that he is emotionally available. By asking the question, Michelle can avoid beginning and having Tom say something like, "You didn't tell me this was about something important. I have tons of pressure at work right now, and I am really not in a headspace to talk about this." Then, Michelle would have made herself vulnerable only to be precipitously shut down. This is easily avoided winply by asking the question. Assuming Tom has made himself both physically and emotionally available for this conversation, Michelle will ask one final question before beginning. Question 3: Might I have an uninterrupted forum? Perhaps the way Michelle will frame this question would look like this: Tom, before I begin, I would like to ask for something. This subject is rather emotionally charged for me and I really want to be able to explain to you where I am at, without losing myself in emotion. That will be far easier if I can say these things without interruption. So, if you would be willing to give me an uninterrupted forum, I assure you that after I have concluded, I will afford you the same. Assuming that Tom has answered yes to the three 'Ask' questions (and if he does not, Michelle should feel free to wait to have this conversation), think of how far down the chances of an argument have gone as compared to Michelle just storming into the kitchen and randomly saying, "Tom, I need to talk to you." Michelle is now ready to 'Reveal' to Tom what she planned for in the 'Honor' stage. There are now three more questions Michelle is going to bear in mind as she speaks with Tom. Question 1: Am I concentrating on feelings rather than thoughts? In conversations carrying more weight than just random chit-chat, it is almost always more effective to concentrate on what we feel rather than what what we think. Again, this is an excellent way to avoid argument. For example, if Michelle were to say, "I think that you are selfish," Tom could very well respond, "No, I'm not." On the other hand, if Michelle were to say, "your going out all the time makes me feel sad," Tom really cannot say "No, it doesn't." It is pretty challenging to argue feelings; and, henceforth, we will be more effective in getting our point across speaking from our hearts rather than our minds. Question 2: Do I know that honesty without love is cruelty? I have often seen someone say something hurtful to someone else, and when the person receiving the insult gets hurt, the insulter says, "Hey, I'm just being honest." No, you're being cruel. Anything can be said with love. Anything can be said without blame. This does not guarantee that the person we are speaking with will like what we have to say; but we will know that our side of the street is clean. Question 3: Is the success of this venture predicated on the response? Basically, if Michelle has come to the conclusion that the only way that this exercise will serve a purpose, is if Tom responds positively, than Michelle has lost before she has begun. Speaking our truth is about honoring ourselves. That is always a spiritually sound thing to do. As for the other persons response; it is none of our business, as we have zero control over the actions and responses of others. Finally, we come to the question of how we maintenance a boundary. Let us assume that Tom responded beautifully to what Michelle shared with him, and accepted her proposal without reservation. This is all well and good, although it certainly does not necessarily mean that Tom will make good on his promises. Therefore, we must be willing to 'Maintain' any boundary that we set. Once again, three questions for Michelle's consideration. Question 1: Do I have an expectation of what will happen? I have heard it said that our serenity level is inversely proportional to our expectations. Consequently the goal for Michelle ought to be 'expect nothing; prepare for anything.'" Which leads us to Question 2: Is there any room for this boundary to be violated? It is a simple yes or no question. If there is no room for this boundary to be violated, than this means that if Tom violates the agreement, the marriage is over. If there is room for this boundary to be violated, than question three comes into play. Question 3: What are we willing to do to defend this boundary? If Michelle knows that the consequence of Tom violating the boundary is not going to be divorce; than it is imperative that she knows what the consequence will be. Is it another conversation? Is it a demand for counseling? Is it a trial separation? This, of course, is up to the individual; but without knowing the answer to this question, one risks having their boundary violated without there being a consequence; in which case, they would have been better off never having set the boundary in the first place. And so, our theoretical heroine has laid down a boundary. Will it save her marriage? Not necessarily. Will it improve her marriage? Not necessarily. Will it improve her life? I would contend yes. Will it create more safety and serenity in her life? I would contend absolutely. The main question for any of us in manifesting the courage to honor our truth is: what do you value most? Is it companionship? Is it friendship? Is it popularity? Or is it happiness? Sometimes you can have them all. Sometimes you cannot. What is least expendable? For me, the answer is simple.

God bless you,

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