Boundaries Are Sponges

by Mental Health

“Give me some space.” The request starts small, can quickly escalate, burdened as it is with the emotional weight of feeling trapped, harried, and closed in. At any given time in our lives, many of us have uttered the phrase, or wanted to, or heard it from another. Often, though not always, the accompanying response was filled with its own share of hurt feelings, remorse for projected wrong-doing, and concern over what it meant for the relationship in question. The desire within the request and the emotional responses tied to it are all predicated on the belief that walls are coming up, boundaries are being established. These lines of demarcation delineate between “I” and “you,” and socially between “us” and them,” though in both cases are considered uncrossable, certainly they are felt as such. Feelings of being cut off, cast out, and set aside, hit like a knife to the flesh.

Speaking of flesh, our bodies provide our initial foray into the setting of boundaries. One of the initial developmental stages is a recognition between infant and caregiver, one in which we begin to think of the world and everything in it as being “out there,” and our self as being “within” the skin. While this is a needed separation for biologically relating to other objects, we’d certainly have a hard time talking with others or even tying our shoes if we didn’t have a means of differentiating, these initial experiences of establishing boundaries can result in unnecessary hurt and misunderstanding later in life. They give a false impression about what is entailed in living our lives.

The false impression is one of impregnability. Walls as high as the sky and thick as steel, only letting things in that we want, only being affected by what we choose to let affect us. Then we get surprised when people continue to be able to hurt us when we still react to memories inspired by sights and smells when we find ourselves engaging in behavior that always in the past helped us move forward but is no longer as powerful. Keeping the demons at bay, we come to find that our walls are not as solid as we hoped and then, still believing they should be, castigate ourselves upon the altar of false belief concerning our autonomy.

Rather than walls, boundaries can be considered more like sponges. If it’s initially easier, consider your own skin. There are actually individual cells that pick up heat, cold, and pressure. The cells are microscopic so we can’t tell the difference, but with a small enough pin, we could poke and feel only heat and not pressure or vice versa. In addition, the strength of the experience is based on longevity and intensity. We can get used to higher temperatures if gradually increased rather than blasted upon us, in much the same way as pressure works. Our skin also absorbs water, though after a time gets a prune-like appearance once saturated. Hence a sponge. There’s only so much that a sponge, like the skin, can take in before it hits a point of saturation. At which point, something must change.

Notice here the phrase “take in,” it’s very deliberate. Just as a sponge will become heavier when soaking up water, so any clear differentiation between the sponge and the water is lost. Where does one start and the other begin? In the felt experience of everyday life, the lingering effect of the pain lasts far longer than the object of its causation. For that matter, in sharp trauma, the removal of the object having pierced the skin must be removed carefully else could cause even more damage. There is no movie magic to rely on here. We can no more separate ourselves completely from the world than we can declare any particular situation will have only the effect we desire. We take in, reach a point of saturation, then something happens, whether that be an action on our part or a shift from the other.

Not to paint only a picture of suffering, the same holds true of pleasurable experiences. Even the most sociable of people will eventually become overwhelmed by too many people. Bingeing on sweets eventually leads to stomach pain. More benignly, we can hear something a hundred times and only truly take it in once or see ourselves for the first time and notice a change. Everything from sex to exercise has a point of saturation. We take in only so much before something has to change. Training helps, hence why star athletes can do more than the average person and how drug use, of any kind, has issues of tolerance attached to it. Some people have an innate higher tolerance than others, though unfortunately, it’s impossible to know ahead of time. A roll of the sponge-dice as it were. As it is with drugs and other experiences, so it is with relationships and their emotional carry-ons. We may be in awe of how someone could come out of a particular experience and go on with their lives, never knowing that that the very same person could go through something you did and never recover.

Knowing our boundaries are like sponges helps us consider the situations we engage in, in a new light. Gone is the hubris of not being affected, gone is the grounds for mentally berating yourself when still reacting to a co-worker, former lover, family member, or anyone else who inspired a hurt or pleasure. We are all, every one of us, living in an inter-connected and therefore interwoven world, where there are no clear lines between “I” and “you,” “us” and “them.” Our sponge-like boundaries may not feel as safe as the walls did, but the walls never existed anyway. The greatest expression of our humanity exists not in our separation, but in how we move and breathe within the world of permeable selves.

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