Setting Boundaries with Ourselves: Oars and Life Jackets
Today I wanted to share an analogy that I used inside the Christian Enneagram Club, and I hope you’ll find it helpful! It’s all about how we set boundaries with ourselves, and how that differs from setting boundaries with other people. I want to give you something to think about as you move through your day. Today we aren’t going to be discussing anything Enneagram-type specific; this will apply to you no matter who you are! So let’s get into it!
Types of Boundaries with Ourselves
When we think about boundaries with other people, it can be helpful to imagine something like a gate with a lock. A boundary is something that allows us to possibly give people a way to open up the “gate” if they treat us in a way that we need to be respected as a human. Imagining the gate and lock can be really helpful when we’re thinking about relationships with other people, but it doesn’t really work when we’re talking about boundaries with ourselves.
Now, what do I even mean by boundaries with ourselves? These are limits that we place on ourselves, or expectations that we want to move ourselves forward with, that are either designed to help keep us safe or to help keep us moving in the direction that we want to go.
There are all sorts of boundaries that we place on ourselves that are healthy, and there are all sorts of ones that we place on ourselves that are unhealthy. I want to talk about the healthy ones today, and you can let me know if you want me to put this out further into more of a series where we can talk about each type, or the different ways that we can look at this. Today I just want to share with you a quick analogy, and let you think about how it can affect you and your Enneagram type.
Before we talk about boundaries, I want to set up a scene for you. Imagine that you are in a canoe, and you are going down a river. You have a certain way that you want to go, and you have a certain kind of weather that is happening, so you are either going with the current or against it. You want to get to your destination safely, so there are two things that you need to help get yourself to where you want to go down this river: oars and a life vest. Those are what I picture when I think about the ways that we can get ourselves there safely, and they are also the two kinds of boundaries that I can think of that we set with ourselves to help keep ourselves safe and moving where we’d like to move in life.
Oars are what really keep us moving forward. We use them to propel ourselves in the water, and they can give us momentum, build up speed, or just keep us moving leisurely and calmly where we want to go down this river. The oars provide us a way to steer; they help us work with the current or against it, go towards shore or just straight down the middle of the river, and navigate around obstacles in the water. When we don’t use the oars, that represents rest; the oars are just laying across our knees, and we are enjoying the scenery or taking some needed time to rest up before we use them again.
So oar boundaries are the more action-oriented boundaries that we set with ourselves. Another way to think of these kinds of boundaries is to think of the gutters that you might use at a bowling alley; they keep the ball moving forward without letting it go into the gutter where we don’t want to be! So that’s our first kind of boundary.
The second kind of boundary that I thought of when it comes to setting boundaries with ourselves is life vest boundaries. These are boundaries that we set to keep us safe and afloat, and to give us confidence. As we are doing something in “water” that we can’t necessarily swim to shore in, we can rely on those life vests; and if there is a storm and we get knocked out of the canoe, then we can rest assured that our head will stay above water, because we have set these things in place to keep us afloat, no matter what. These are our self-support boundaries, our “permission to say no” types of boundaries, our “I need to be taking care of and nourishing my body” type of boundaries that really help us stay full, nourished, and safe. They also give us a way to gauge when the turbulence is getting too rough or when we are being pulled down a little bit, because we can feel the tension on our life vest boundaries.
Both Are Important
Both action-oriented/oar boundaries and safety/life-vest boundaries are important, and I think that sometimes, depending on our Enneagram type, we can lean too far one way or the other. Some of us are focused on Life Jackets: “I need this life vest and I need it to be on tight. I need to know that it’s there, and I need to be using it at all times and focusing on whether I have it latched properly, whether it’s working, and whether it will keep me afloat.” If you are doing this, though, you aren’t moving anywhere! And you aren’t able to steer yourself because you are hyper-focused on self-support and on rest or keeping yourself feeling okay. It is so important and we don’t lose sight of these, but it can be hard when we are only focused on those things. Likewise, if you are only focused on your action-oriented boundaries and expectations, on the things that will keep you moving forward, then you could get run down. If you neglect life-vest boundaries, you risk getting really, really tired, and you might realize that something has come “unlatched” and your “buoyancy” is not what it used to be. So it’s important to think about both of these boundaries.
Examples of Boundaries
I’m going to give some examples of what both of these could be, and as I give these, you might think that they could be either one, and that’s totally okay. Sometimes what you view as an action-oriented boundary, like giving yourself permission to do something to take an action, is going to feel to someone else like a life vest boundary, something that they would drown without! So feel free to pick and choose! I’m going to give some examples of what I think, but please take what serves you and leave the rest.
Examples of Oar/Action-Oriented Boundaries
Remember that these are the boundaries that keep us moving, and keep us on track and moving in the direction that we want to go without capsizing or running aground. Some examples of these are:
- Setting limits on your work time or your playtime, whichever one is out of proportion
- Setting a routine for wherever you need it. It can be really good to have routines set up in multiple areas, but there’s probably an area you think of that feels particularly off-track. This could be a morning routine, an evening routine, a healthy movement routine, a meal-planning routine…any sort of regular activity that you want to implement in a certain way that will benefit you.
- Differentiating yourself from the thoughts, feelings, choices, actions, expectations of other people. This doesn’t mean that you don’t differ, acquiesce, accommodate, or give in at times; but you want to differentiate yourself as a different being from other people. (This will be more difficult for certain Enneagram types.) This doesn’t mean that you have to become obstinate or stubborn or blatant in being different; but just recognizing the ways that you are different so that you can make intentional choices can be a really good boundary for yourself. It is saying, “This is who I am. This is the boundary of who I am, and other people don’t get to tell me who I am.”
- Giving yourself permission to set a boundary with somebody else in a relationship that needs it, or to end a relationship or change the dynamics of a relationship that is no longer safe or healthy. This can be really important, because you might need to actually give yourself permission before you can build up the momentum that’s required to follow through with that decision. This is why I put it in this action-oriented category.
- Knowing what you can control and focusing on those things, asking yourself where you are going to focus your mental and emotional energy; and if that is something that you have control over or influence over. If you have to think about a problem that you can’t solve and can’t move forward in, this is almost like taking your canoe and pointing it straight at the other shore, going there, bumping into it, and realizing that that’s not where you want to go! So now you have to turn around and go straight to the other shore. We can get caught in this cycle where we’re using up a lot of energy, but not getting anywhere. So this is an important boundary to set with yourself.
- Sticking to your budget
- Following through on your word
- Putting your phone away at a certain time/setting boundaries with screen time
- Actively creating space and margin in your calendar and in your life.
Maybe some of these aren’t a struggle for you, but I bet out of all the oar boundaries that I’ve talked about, you’ve noticed something that brought up the realization that you may need a boundary there!
Here are some questions to consider about Oar Boundaries:
- Where are you spending too much energy and not having the energy that you need for other things? (Remember, work time and playtime are both so important, and they both take energy.
- Before doing something, ask yourself, “Is this something for me to do, or is this something for me to put down so that I can do something that is actually doable for me?”
Examples of “Life Jacket” Boundaries
Let’s move on to some “life-vest” boundaries. Again, these are things that help keep us safe, afloat, healthy, and ready to take whatever life may toss our way; whatever storm or wind or current may come to take us where we don’t want to go.
So some examples of life vest boundaries:
- Asking for space to process when intentionality is difficult. When you can’t intentionally make a healthy choice for however you want to respond in that moment, then asking for space is a big life vest boundary. Some of you have to give yourself permission to do that, and some of you have to build up the muscle to be able to do that so you will know who you are, but ask for space to process when it’s hard to be intentional in the moment, and notice when your own wellbeing is on the back burner.
- Expecting yourself to accept and respect the boundaries of other people. We don’t have to agree with them, and we don’t have to like them, but people get to set boundaries; and a life vest boundary for us is accepting and respecting those. This is important for multiple reasons: because we want other people to accept and respect the boundaries that we place with them, and because this is a way for us to respect that person’s personhood, to understand them, to empathize with them, and to keep ourselves from crossing a line.
- Developing and keeping a spiritual routine. We talked about routines in our oar boundaries or action-oriented boundaries, but this spiritual routine is so important because this keeps us afloat! These are the disciplines that we set up, the things that we believe are very important to our spiritual growth and that we want to set a boundary around. This will change depending on your phase of life, how your beliefs grow and shift, but understanding that our spirituality is something that does keep us moving through life in a healthy way is very important.
- Noticing how you speak to yourself and how you speak about yourself. Setting a boundary with yourself on how you will speak to yourself and how you will speak to others about yourself can be very important. Along with this comes choosing wisely who you share with about yourself and what you share with them; setting boundaries with yourself about what is safe to share, and what is healthy or helpful to share about yourself. This can change with different people, and there will be different levels of sharing with different people, but it’s something important to think about and set a boundary with yourself so that you feel safe sharing whatever you would like to share.
- Not giving yourself permission to say yes until you know if it’s a yes. There could be many different reasons why it should be a “no” (it could be outside your role, capabilities, or capacity) so you want to have a line to not say yes until you have done whatever you feel is a good level of reflection for yourself.
- Honoring when a relationship line has been crossed and deciding whether you’re going to address it, overlook it or forgive it. This is very, very important, and it is a boundary you set with yourself, not with other people. You have to decide for yourself what you’re going to do if a boundary line has been crossed by someone else
Here are some reflection questions for Life Jacket Boundaries:
- When you aren’t sure if you can respond intentionally, ask yourself: are you going to react with anger? Are you going to shame, spiral and blame yourself for everything? Are you going to completely give in and leave yourself out of the equation and do whatever the other person says without speaking what’s true for you?
- What boundaries do you have in place when it comes to your wellbeing that tell you when you are going off the rails; when you are sinking below your viable, healthy point for your body, mind, or heart? What is going on with you and how can you set up boundaries so that you know when you’re crossing them and going into an unhealthy place for yourself, whether mentally, physically, spiritually, or emotionally?
- How can you honor who you are and whose you are in the things that you think, and the things that you say about you as a person?
I hope that this analogy has been helpful for you. As a recap, action oriented boundaries can really keep us moving forward, give us momentum and also steer us in the way that we want to go. And the life vest boundaries can keep us afloat, give us confidence that we won’t drown if things start to fall apart, and give us the space and the bandwidth to move forward if that’s what we’re doing, or to rest if that’s what we need to do.
Enjoy this post? Have a question? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below or over on Instagram where I hang out the most. If you haven’t yet, grab a copy of The Enneagram for Beginner’s book (affiliate link, thank you for your support!) or you can shop through my favorite books and resources for using the Enneagram in the Amazon Storefront. Want to purchase Enneagram stickers, hats and more? Click through to the Christian Enneagram Shop and check it out.