The Body Confidence Project
Developing healthy boundaries is incredibly important in the BCP.
What Are Boundaries and Why Are They So Important?
Boundaries are how you protect yourself and uphold your values.
You avoid walking past a building site where you might be whistled at.
You only see certain relatives at family events because they are so manipulative
You never see certain people because their manipulation is intolerable to you.
A friend sends you an inappropriate image/joke that offends you. You tell them directly “Don’t do that. It was really out of order.”
Your boss asks you to work weekends more than anyone else. You arrange to have a meeting to discuss this where you ask her outright why she is asking this of you and you believe it is unfair. Alternatively, you just say no.
Each situation above is an example of someone experiencing a boundary violation and responding to it with boundary repair.
Anger is the raw material required for boundary repair and it is is very useful in this regard.
How Boundary Work Fits In With The BCP
We have seen earlier in this month how increasing your physical fitness will calm Cavebrain down because it knows that you are getting better at dealing with any physical threats.
However, it is likely that there are many experiences in your life that CB sees as threats that are non-physical. For example:
Passive-aggressive treatment, especially from a parent figure. For example, you care for your elderly father, who repays this kindness with nothing but complaints and “I served this country for 30 years. Why haven’t I got a proper nurse?”
Being sent inappropriate images by a male friend
Working under a boss who takes out their lack of managerial skills on you. They ask you to do more than your fair share, blame you for their shortcomings etc
Working with others on the same level or below you who are unprofessional, and because they know you have high standards, actively encourage you to take up the slack or complain that they just can’t finish report X and translate your role of manager into “person who will complete what I can’t be bothered to”.
You tell your mother that a neighbour molested you as a child. She tells you not to tell your father, because of what he might do to the neighbour. In this example, your mother is asking you to both carry the shame of the assault and be responsible for someone else’s actions.
Why Does Cavebrain See These Experiences As Threats?
To answer this question fully for your own life, we would need to talk one-to-one. However, here are my general thoughts in answer to this question:
Parental figures have such a massive impact on our sense of self because as children we absorb the messages they give us without being able to filter them. If they were unable to show us unconditional positive regard (UPR), then CB did not feel secure as you grew up - your place in the tribe seemed at risk in CB’s eyes.
Part of my work coaching is often about helping clients disentangle themselves from the fallout of this lack of UPR.
Being sent inappropriate images and other sexualised behaviour from men - this is not going to set every woman’s CB alarm off. For myself, with my history of sexual assault, it really does. CB sees it as yet another reminder that you could be assaulted, because make sexual energy has been allowed to run so rampant in culture.
Work issues. You might feel that your effort is not recognised or others take advantage of you - here CB wants to contribute to the tribe called your workplace, and it wants that contribution recognised - otherwise it worries that you will get thrown out of the tribe. In addition, every tribe needs leaders - that is why we have serotonin in our brain (this is the neurochemical that triggers a feeling of safety when you get a promotion for example). If you are a natural leader, then CB DEFINITELY wants that recognised.
What experiences or relationships in your life fall under the banner of non-physical threats to CB?
How Shame Messes With Boundaries
Inappropriate shame is often foisted upon us as children/teens. Common causes that I see in coaching are bad parenting (especially if the parent figure has mental health issues), bullying, physical/sexual abuse and a feeling of being sexually unsafe (just about every girl experiences this in our culture).
Food and body shaming used as a parental weapon is something I have seen, for example making a child finish their dinner for breakfast the next day, or a mother dragging her daughter to diet clubs at the age of 12 (the message is: what you are changing into, ie a woman, is no good and we need to deprive it out of you).
In addition, for girls there is the cultural pressure to please men and let boys be bolder, louder and more successful than them.
For boys there are toxic messages about not being allowed to express fear or sadness and to be ‘real’ man.
Here’s the thing: adulthood becomes the playground for expressing all this toxic shame.
Shame is all about feeling like your place in the tribe is is danger. Cavebrain believes you might get chucked out of the tribe.
The boundary repair I needed to do and I help clients do happens because that shame means boundaries were NOT healthy.
I see this over and over, especially with female clients.
Here are some of the ways that this surfaces. See if you recognise any of these traits in yourself:
Saying sorry as a reflex response, eg when someone lets you go in front of them at the supermarket till.
Being Neville Chamberlain AKA Appeasing passive aggressive people (“My best friend is just like that. He had a terrible childhood, so he lashes out. It’s just how he is”). I remember my great aunty was a terrible racist and she would say things like “Coventry, Birmingham - the blacks are everywhere now”. I would look at my dad who taught me that such opinions were repulsive. My dad just looked at the floor.
Not fighting for what you believe in
Believing people when you say they have changed instead of making them prove themselves to you. (“She says she will never steal from me again, and I just want things to be how they were”).
A dread of conflict
Cavebrain on Red Alert
To Cavebrain that is a very dangerous situation. So it puts you in a state of fight or flight. The stress response. Being accepted is top priority, no matter how much people pleasing or intolerable behaviour you have to put up with. To Cavebrain, this is a life or death situation.
Children cannot repair any of these broken boundaries. They do not have the maturity.
In addition, if you have experienced trauma, your Cavebrain could be in a constant state of believing it is graduating to stage 3, which requires the tribe to tell you you have passed the initiation to adulthood. This will be invisible to your conscious mind.
For more on this, listen to the Me Too episode here:
Cavebrain’s Last Resort
What options are open to CB if it feels unsafe, both within its tribe and externally?
Answer: The Protective Fat Suit (PFS)
Cb knows that in nature, the bigger you are, the safer you are.
It is my belief that many women (and I imagine these days men too) are unconsciously putting on a PFS as a safety measure. This is completely unconscious.
Stop reading this page now, and consider this. Go make a cup of tea, or go for a walk and ask yourself if any excess weight you are carrying is in fact a last-ditch attempt by your CB to protect itself.
Ok, so now we have defined the problems that non-physical threats can create for CB and consequently you, let’s look at what to do about it.
Enter Boundary Repair To Save The Day!
I bet you have spent hours complaining about experiences like the above, and wishing more than anything that person X would just change. A wish fuelled by anger and a feeling of injustice.
I have been there - big time.
This almost pathological need for the other person/people to change is I think a symptom of the helpless state that your CB lives in. It is under constant low level stress, it does not feel accepted by the tribe and for many of you reading this, it feels constantly unsafe due to the prevalance of male sexual energy. The tribe itself represents threat.
The great news is that your CB does not need the world and everyone in it to rearrange themselves so it feels safe. Remember, CB operates not like a security nut; it is Usain The Bouncer It is created to deal with threats.
Your work is to learn how to navigate this world, preventing threats where possible and responding quickly to them otherwise.
You do this by strengthening or creating what have been until this point non-existent boundaries.
Graduating Beyond Cavebrain
Cavebrain is your red alert centre for social acceptance. But is is woefully inadequate for actually dealing with this situation in the 21st century.
Your passive aggressive mother, your overbearing boss, your so-called friend who steals from you, they are absolutely not the tribe Cavebrain thinks they are.
We have multiple small tribes in today’s world.
You do not have to stick around with the people who raised you, who you happen to share an office or friendship history with.
There are different ways that you can exit this horrible state of people pleasing, feeling guilty all the time and using food as a playground for expressing your inappropriate shame.
But I have found that the most effective and quickest route is by boundary repair.
This means that you start enforcing the boundaries that are important to you (such as the ones given at the start of this article).
This means ignoring Cavebrain’s panic (“What the hell are you doing? This means expulsion from the tribe for sure!”)
This means expressing your anger (remember it is the raw materials for boundary repair)
This means: feel the fear and do it anyway.
This means proving to Cavebrain that this boundary is not a threat to you.
This means having well-meaning friends (who themselves are terrified of conflict) wring their hands and say things like: “Look, can’t you just resolve things? Your mum won’t be around forever you know. Isn’t it better to just get on? Life’s too short.”
This means being more aware of how angry you are, which might feel a bit like opening an emotional jack in the box.
This means tapping into your inner warrior/warrior queen/warrior princess, even if you have never met her.
Here is my favourite ever warrior princess, Katniss from The Hunger Games:
Life With Boundaries Repaired
could the andy story go in speaking your truth?
The good news about boundary repair is that it allows your anger to do its job and then leave your system.
It ultimately de-stresses you
It is massively empowering
It makes you feel safe, which means that you might be able to get on with that difficult parent in some capacity, for example you feel able to attend family celebrations with them present.
It makes you an awesome role model for young people and children
I personally have found that boundary repair means I have had to own my fiery side. For example I was out with a group of friends recently where one of the men made a joke about a time he felt up a woman’s behind. “Well, she did work out” was his justification.
What he did was clearly sexual assault. He is always confused because if I see him with this group, I give him a cold stare when he says hello to me. This is me upholding a very important boundary. If he ever asks me why I am so unfriendly I will tell him, but he never has.
I explain all this to others in the group and they all look extremely uncomfortable, because this form of assault is acceptable in culture.
It may be better to sit down and talk diplomatically to this person. Who knows? That would be beyond my abilities, because of my history with this sort of thing. I know my boundary and respect it.
It is more important to me to have this boundary in place than it is to secure the approval of everyone in this particular tribe. But you know what? Nobody has come up to me yet and said: How could you criticise Andy in that way? I am never speaking to you again Harriet!
I am managing my Cavebrain and upholding my standards and boundaries.
Crappy boundary Harriet of the past would have meekly accepted his actions and been friendly, while actually feeling unsafe because her Cavebrain’s alarm bells would be ringing every time she saw him.
Which would you choose: be a bit fiery and have others sit in awkward silence or feel deeply unsafe? It is a no brainer.
Questions For You
What boundaries do you need to repair?
What is the easiest boundary to repair? Start with that.
How can you make Cavebrain feel less isolated while you go through this uncertain time? What other tribes can you join? Meetup groups for example. What friendships can you reaffirm?