29 Jan The “Internal Boundary”: An Effective Strategy for not Taking what my Partner Says Personally

Posted at 3:47 pm in Couples Therapy by jlbworks

The second chapter of The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz, in titled, “Don’t Take Anything Personally.” Ruiz opens this chapter with the following proposition:

“Nothing other people do is because of you. It is because of themselves. All people live in their own dream, in their own mind; they are in a completely different world from the one we live in. When we take something personally, we make the assumption that they know what is in our world, and we try to impose our world on their world. Even when a situation seems so personal, even if others insult you directly, it has nothing to do with you.” (pp. 48-49)

For most of us, Ruiz’s proposition is quite radical. Much of the conflict in relationships results from the overwhelming tendency to take what my partner says or does personally, and then to react defensively or to go on the attack. The idea of “not taking it personally” is appealing, but how am I to do that, when I so easily get triggered or hijacked by my emotional reactions? Terrence Real, in his book How Can I Get Through To You, discusses an extremely effective strategy for not taking what my partner says or does personally. This strategy involves developing an “internal boundary,” which he describes as a kind of “‘internal technology.”
Here are some of the things he says about developing this boundary:

“In order to listen well, a capacity most in this culture have not developed must be cultivated—a functioning internal boundary… (It) is to your psyche as skin is to your body. It is where you end and the world begins…I sometimes call it a “receptivity regulator”; it modulates the extremes of over- and under reactivity…A poor internal boundary allows other people’s feedback, beliefs about you, even, at times, their emotional state to pierce you to the quick. “How could you think that of me?” “I’m so hurt that you feel that way!” or “It depresses me when you get so sad,” are hallmark sentiments of someone with a “thin skin,” a poor internal boundary.

…a healthy boundary is supple; it allows you to be both protected and yet connected at the same time. As your partner speaks, whatever emotion she throws at you goes splat on the outside of your internal boundary. Imagine this psychic shield as resting about arm’s length away, encircling you. Safely ensconced within your boundary, you cast a cool eye on what’s being asserted, point by point. If the material rings true for you, or if some portion of it seems true, you relax your boundary and let that in—“Yes, I did that,” or “I know I can sometimes be that way”…(However) that portion of the material that does not seem true you simply let drop, like an egg sliding off glass and landing on the floor. You understand that such inaccurate descriptions of you are important information about the speaker…

Projections are human. We make up things about one another all the time. You needn’t feel shame about someone’s misperception, nor grandiose because your partner “got you wrong.” Healthy self-esteem and a good boundary work together. Going neither “one down” (shame) nor “one up” (grandiosity), you hold both yourself and your partner in warm regard while accepting nothing that inaccurately describes you.

Visualizing an internal boundary works like this. Picture a place—it could be real or imaginary—in which you have a sense of relaxation, a feeling of “I’m enough and I matter.” Then drop the imagined place, and stay centered in that state of “enoughness”…Imagine a shield encircling you. It can be realistic or fanciful, a screen of flowers, a force-field, or a glass dome…Be certain that your internal boundary remains impermeable; nothing can get past it unless you choose to let it. The nastiest comment, the most raw feeling—an emotional atom bomb could go off and you would remain unfazed. Inside your circle you can afford to be open, spacious, curious, relaxed.

“The important thing to remember about practicing an internal boundary is precisely that it is a practice, similar to getting physically fit…Although it takes months, even years, of slow, steady effort before an internal boundary becomes consistent, most people experience an exhilarating glimpse of its effects within a few weeks…The lack of an internal boundary inevitably leads to control or withdrawal. If there is no membrane between you and whatever external stimulus gets thrown at you, then you attempt to regulate your own level of comfort or discomfort by managing the stimulus. (“I could be happy, if only you were less angry.”) When control fails, the only other option is withdrawal.” (pp. 237-241)

In my 40 years experience as a couple’s therapist, I have found that developing this “internal boundary” is the foremost technique that individuals and couples can use to decrease the defensiveness and reactivity and conflict in their relationships. As Real suggests, one does not develop an internal boundary overnight. It takes a daily diligence and practice to remember that I can develop an invisible psychic shield for protection. With an internal boundary in place, I am much more able to choose how I respond to my partner, instead of being hijacked by my own reactivity.