Boundaries #4 – Thoughts and Feelings, Part 1: Introduction

The concept of personal boundaries as a method for keeping some things in and some things out can be applied in many areas of life, including our thoughts and feelings. Some of the boundaries we have around our thoughts and feelings are unconsciously made, and other times we realize that we need to consciously develop boundaries for our emotional and mental wellbeing. The relationship between thoughts and feelings is complex; which came first, the chicken or the egg? Do feelings determine what we think? Yes. Does how we think influence what we feel? Also, yes. In this post, we are concerned about how personal boundaries relate to our thoughts and feelings, and what circumstances might provoke an evaluation of those boundaries.

A boundary that someone might create around their thoughts might be something like “I am not going to allow myself to think about the climate crisis because it causes too much distress and anxiety, and I can’t function.” The thing that is being protected, or kept in, is the ability to continue to function in daily life to a certain level that is desired. The things that are being kept out are distress and anxiety, which get in the way of functioning. The cause of the anxiety and distress is thinking about the climate crisis. This person may choose to limit or eliminate news sources which discuss this topic, dialogue with friends and family who tend to get deep into the topic, and/or starve internal thought patterns that emerge involuntarily around the topic.

Thoughts flow through our minds unbidden. In any given moment, we cannot control what thought might pop in into our minds. We do have the ability to pay more or less attention to any given thought pattern, to grow or starve an idea or thought. Here is where we have more direct autonomy and agency. If there are thoughts that we have deemed unhelpful or inaccurate, but which continue to repeat themselves out of habit and a well worn groove in our minds, we can take actions to create a boundary around what thoughts we will invite more of, and what thoughts we will disallow. Methods such as distraction, negative and positive reinforcement, or reaching out for help are the ways that boundaries around thoughts might be maintained.

There may be a time when feelings come up with enough force as to challenge this type of boundary, and there no longer exists the strength needed to keep the boundary enforced. The breakdown of the this boundary around thoughts is an opportunity to examine the feelings that cannot be suppressed. One might ask questions like: What are these feelings that are making themselves known? What are other feelings that are connected to the more obvious ones? Why were they being kept at bay? Can I allow myself to feel those emotions in a safe way to release the pressure? What else is connected with those feelings? What do I need to do to take good care of myself while allowing my emotions? What personal boundaries need to be in place so that it is safe to allow those feelings to emerge and be cared for in a nurturing way? Do I need special support?

Feelings are not right or wrong, they just “are”. It’s how we care for ourselves while we are experiencing feelings that helps or hinders our wellbeing. There may be life circumstances in which it has not been safe or beneficial to allow certain emotions, or in which we have been conditioned to believe that some feelings are bad, some are irrelevant, and some are good. As we grow towards emotional health, we learn to create personal boundaries which create the space that allows us to feel our emotions in a healthy and helpful way. We need space to be able to notice and pay attention to what we are feeling, to practice self care as we allow our emotions to be expressed, and then to discover what it is that we need to understand from our feelings.

Similarly, we need space and time to notice what it is that we actually think, and how we want to think.

What thoughts are helping and/or true? What thoughts are harmful and/or inaccurate? What thoughts need to be evaluated and understood before I can decide what to keep out, and what to let in?

What personal boundaries do I need in my life that will allow me to cultivate awareness and care-taking of my own thoughts and feelings?

Every individual human has limited capacity for the amount of input, output and processing that we can do, just as a computer processor has limitations. We are finite biological/spiritual systems. It helps to understand how that system works, how to take good care of it, and what its limitations are. Using the computer analogy, it could be that there are add-ons that can be installed or drivers that help with a certain function, but if the hardware is corroded or the software is being asked to perform above its capabilities, those add-ons aren’t going to help very much or for very long. And, if there are a lot of band-aid solutions being applied to a deeper problem, it’s going to be very hard to diagnose that problem with such a convoluted system. What updates have we neglected to install? What file maintenance have we let slide? What notifications have we ignored?

How are we taking good care of our own human system? In what ways are we asking too much of ourselves to stay healthy, or not providing the care that is needed for self repair? What warning signals are we ignoring? What needs to be protected? What needs to be kept out?

The answer to these questions is, as always with personal boundaries, personal. No two people will have the same answer, and no one person will necessarily have the same answer at any two different moments in their lifetime. It’s a dynamic question, with dynamic answers for the time, place, situation and people involved. One thing that is always true is that we do need to be protected; some things do need to stay out, and some things need to stay in. At least for now.

How do I know where to start with boundaries around my thoughts and feelings? As with any evaluation of boundaries, the need to engage with your personal boundaries usually shows up when something is not working, something is not “okay”. There is a situation that comes up, or struggles that keep resurfacing, or an increasing feeling that things are not good. We know when something is not right, and when we pay attention to it and ask ourselves what is going on, and are able to listen to the answer no matter how unpleasant it might be, we have the opportunity to do something that will move us towards a healthier life.

We’ll use a scenario to explore what these concepts might look like in the next blog post titled Boundaries #4, Thoughts and Feelings, A Scenario.