For me, there is just something about stepping out into a bright blue fall day and taking a deep breath of the cool crisp air deep into my lungs. Simply hearing dry leaves rustling in the breeze and feeling the distinctly cool fall air on my skin has the power to completely shift my state of being. It awakens me to a sense of aliveness and possibility and brings a smile from deep within. I often find myself giving thanks to the gift that fall brings me and its ability to find the cracks in my own habitual thoughts and feelings during this time of year.
I must admit I am quite autumnally biased. Not everyone has this reaction to a beautiful fall day, though I’m sure many have their own version. Some people may react with a sense of dread at this harbinger of the cold winter months to come. But for me, it’s wonderful. Reflecting back, I notice that fewer things seem to have such a sudden and dramatic effect on me as days past. As a child I used to notice a sudden and exhilarating shift as soon as I could smell the salty air of the sea as my family and I made the four-hour drive to the coast. Simply remembering it was “movie Monday,” that wondrous day when we made our weekly pilgrimage to the video rental store, could change my world. As an adult many of these responses have either faded or altogether disappeared, a pattern I see in many.
So, what’s happening here? Why do so many become less and less affected by the world around us, often to the detriment of our emotional pallet and vibrancy? When looking at this phenomenon, I like to think in terms of Permeability. In a literal sense permeability is the ability of a substance to let another substance pass through it. In psychological terms it is quite similar, and I use it here to speak to an individual’s capacity to let the world in and allow it to touch and move us. Some people have too much permeability and get knocked around by the world, frequently experiencing overwhelming amounts of emotions, while others have very little and exist in a flatter state of being. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. I certainly fall in the latter category, and for the purposes of this article I will focus there. However, whether you find your permeability to be too high, too low, or you have no idea what that even means, this information will likely be helpful.
It is important to understand that when speaking about permeability we are also speaking about boundaries. Psychological boundaries are constructed to protect us from letting in unwanted aspects of the world. It is important to have boundaries. Without them we might walk around feeling like an exposed nerve in a lightning storm, an experience true for those with too much permeability. Healthy boundaries help us construct a sense of self and self-respect; they also help us stand up for ourselves, ask for what we need, and protect us from harm. Healthy boundaries have a clearly adjustable dial on their permeability level and can ideally be adjusted to fit each situation we encounter. A helpful analogy is found on the microscopic level. All the the cells of your body have a permeable membrane that lets important things in and keeps harmful things out, without which the cell and your body could not function.
For many, how we organize our boundaries and adjust them is fairly automatic and unconscious. Over time we develop a boundary style based on our life experience that is often either under-bounded or over-bounded. This style tends to harden over time and repeat itself indefinitely unless we bring attention to it. There are countless reasons one might develop an over-bounded style with low permeability.
The Over-Bounded Cocoon
Feeling a sense of control and safety are often part of the picture in creating an over-bounded style, both of which stem from a sense of fear about the world and the unknown. Over-bounded is a strategy of getting our needs met by focusing on safety and stability. Some of you reading this might be reacting by wondering why anyone would want to become more permeable and let our crazy and intense world in more, which is a reasonable question. Some of you might also feel that safety and comfort for vibrancy and deep feeling seems like a decent trade off. However, it tends to get a bit stuffy in there. To you I would say that perhaps it has been a good trade off, and I encourage you to take a look at where this trade off is no longer working for you and where you want to feel more alive. In my experience, living in the safe but deadened cocoon of a dense and hard boundary is ultimately not fun and it leaves me feeling like I am missing out on life.
Over the years I have learned different ways to consciously increase the permeability of my boundaries and let in the world and feel more. Simply taking a few deep breaths can make a difference. Sometimes it is dance or dynamic meditation. Other times it is allowing myself to be vulnerable with another. In those moments where my boundaries relax and I feel more deeply it is like taking a drink of cool water or a breath of fresh air; it feels natural, refreshing, familiar, and new all at the same time. Of course I want to be discerning about when I relax my boundaries, but in general it is a healthy thing for the over-bounded.
Boundaries and Heart
Some people confuse having strong boundaries with having a closed heart. However, the two are actually distinct. It is possible to have an open and loving heart and still have strong healthy boundaries. We can allow ourselves to feel compassion when we see another suffering without having to give so much that we become depleted and allow that person to cause us harm. I see this boundary confusion arise with individuals with abusive partners, and friends and family with serious addiction problems. For example, someone may find himself or herself trying to act from a place of compassion and an open heart with their alcoholic partner by staying and trying to help. However, their partner keeps drinking and acting in hurtful ways. Here, someone may need help strengthening their boundaries and seeing that they can still love their partner but they may have to create a strong boundary and state clearly what they need in order to stay in the relationship and what will cause them to leave. This also means that they are willing to face the reality that the relationship may not be healthy for them. You don’t have to close your heart to have strong boundaries. However, for those with a long history of thick and hardened boundaries, the heart tends to become a little numb, as little is getting in to touch it. Again, the clearest sign of healthy boundaries is that they are consciously flexible and serve your highest good in each situation.
Exploring Your Permeability
It can be very fruitful to explore how your own boundaries and level of permeability impact your everyday experience of living. A counselor can be particularly helpful in this process. Everyone is unique and our reasons, both conscious and unconscious, for our boundary style are particular to us. There is no blanket prescription or process that will lead you through this journey. It is truly an exploration. One thing you can do today is simply begin to notice your boundary style. Whatever you find, simply ask, “What needs am I trying to meet with this boundary style, and where would it be healthy and safe to adjust my boundaries?” Explore, if in daily situation you feel cut off and isolated from the world or overwhelmed by it. Also, if you haven’t yet today, try taking a few deep breaths of some delicious fall air and simply allow it in. This can do wonders . . .