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BOUNDARIES VERSUS BARRIERS

Pema Chödrön Transforming Confusion into Wisdom
City Retreat | Berkeley Shambhala Center
Fall 1999

Let me address this question of: What's the difference between dissolving the barriers and setting good boundaries?

This came up in some of the discussion groups, and this question also comes up —you won't be surprised— in many of the places where I do this teaching. I've given this some thought —and I've heard a lot of other people's views on this too, so I've been educated by other people's thinking on this. Currently, this is my answer, and I'm sure it's a work in process.

I feel that setting boundaries, good boundaries —the intention of that— is to allow for communication to happen. And, barriers are shutting down communication.

To set good boundaries takes a lot of courage. And you have to be going through this process of acknowledging your pain, and also what triggers you, and acknowledging how much you can handle and how much you can't handle. Theres already a lot of courage that's gone on in coming to the place of setting boundaries. But, the intention is to make communication clearer.

For instance, the classic situaton of you're in a relationship where you're beaten. And, all your friends are saying, "Why do you stay in that relationship?" Well, it's because of barriers, and turning away, and all of this stuff. Because, why do you to allow this to happen to yourself again and again? Well, it's very complicated, and it has to do with the ego structure and how we are afraid to actually to go into this, and we're hoping that this time the happiness that I'm seeking will come from staying in this destructive relationship.

A barrier is this turning away and staying stuck. There's ignorance involved in barriers. Maybe that's one of the main ingredients of the ego and the self-centeredness, or the barriers, cocoon— however you say it— is ignorance: not really looking at what's going on. So, then, usually with a lot of help from other people, and your own reservoir of courage beginning to come up, and your own reservoir of clarity and sanity and self-compassion getting stronger, you get to the place where you actually say: If you hit me again, I'm leaving, and I'm leaving for good, and I'm not coming back unless you do some work with a therapist, or whatever, around the fact that you keep hitting me. But, from my side, I'm out of here. And then you do it. That's an example of setting good boundaries. But it takes a lot of courage to do that, because that may mean the end of this relationship, which represents a lot of things.

Setting good boundaries is actually pushing you more and more towards going into it. And it's clarifying the situation. It is the most compassionate thing you can do for the other person and for yourself, because it's frightening because the other person is often not going to want to hear— your boss, your spouse, your child, or whoever it is, is not going to want to hear your boundaries, and they're going to get angry with you.

If you've ever been on the receiving end of someone setting their boundaries, and it provokes you and makes you angry, but at least you know what you're working with. And you can even say, This doesn't work for me, I have to go —or you decide to stay and work with it. But, at least, there's clarity.

Whereas, with barriers, and the whole way ego works, it just causes a lot of confusion —mixed messages are a sign of barriers— and so the suffering just escalates with barriers.

The idea of setting good boundaries is to provide clarity, communication, and it takes a lot of bravery to do it.

Photo by Christine Alicino.
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