Boundaries, Cross Talk, and the Dhamma
When I think of boundaries I think of walls, I think of fences, I think of Robert Frost…and I think of doors.
This is a blog on boundaries, on the ACoA practice of Cross Talk, and that part of the Eight-fold Path known as Right Speech. And if I had some good photos of stone walls and split rail fences I would have made that connection; but since my best photos are of doors in Old Deerfield I will tie it all together with a door motif.
First, Cross Talk. In ACA meetings one of the central practices is the avoidance of Cross Talk. Before, during and after a meeting we don’t comment on, or refer to what others have said in their shares. We refrain from this because “adult children come from family backgrounds where feelings and perceptions were judged as wrong or defective. We accept without comment what others say because it is true for them”. In other words, and to put it positively, when you go to an ACA meeting you will be free to speak without fear of judgment. And, if you are a people pleaser, as most adult children are, then you will not be tempted to say things in the group in order to solicit praise.
This is counter intuitive, but it looks like this: Come to an ACA meeting where you are affirmed and encouraged by silence. You will learn the extraordinary freedom of not having to play to an audience, of not having to endlessly open your mouth in the presence of a judge, and of being able to discover what is, in fact, your unique truth, and how to speak that truth clearly.
Different groups handle this differently. There is a universal, I think, expectation that if you feel as if you are being judged or “cross-talked” you can ask for the meeting Chair to reread the instructions on Cross Talk. Because so many adult children also attend other Twelve Step groups where Open Identification with the speaker is a critical part of recovery this particular boundary is often a fuzzy one. Nodding, or smiling, or grunting approval, or empathetic sighing; all of these can seem the loving thing to do when someone is pouring their heart out. I know myself too well, though, and know that one of my childhood strategies to keep my emotional head above the waters of dysfunction was to say things that provoked people to affirm me for my cleverness, honesty, or whatever else I conjured up in the moment to gain the good graces of my audience. Thus, I both love the affirming smiles and nods of my Fellow Travelers, but can feel immediately the little boy putting on a show to please and avoid pain.
Cross talk is, therefore, a big deal. It often comes up in ACoA business meetings as an issue. In online conversations with other ACAs it is a central issue. Safety is critical for adult children. Cross talk feels unsafe; and what feels like cross talk to one adult child may not bother another. So we discuss the matter with as much skill and grace as we can muster. Our emotional sobriety depends on it.
Cross talk is, therefore, a serious boundary for adult children. And here I segue to a more general discussion of boundaries…and acknowledge that it feels as if I am in the early stages of learning about boundaries. In reality I have been learning about boundaries since my birth. Now, through the eyes of recovery and therapy, I realize that while I have some good appreciation for and understanding of boundaries I too often treat boundaries as things to manipulate in order to get what I want and/or need.
I have legitimately learned what are healthy boundaries vis a vis my professional life as a pastor and teacher. In my early days in schools and churches I had to learn the hard way about those boundaries. I was a people pleaser, who craved approval. Not good when you are trying to manage a classroom of restless teens or a distraught parishioner in a church office. If you don’t learn these particular lessons early on you will crash and burn professionally. I learned.
Now, retired from the church and from teaching, I find that boundaries are a more deeply personal matter than I had taken time to consider before. In order to address this issue thoughtfully I want to briefly take up the concept of Right Speech from the Eight-fold Path.
Here is the whole Eight-fold Path list: Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration. Note that Right Speech comes after View and Intention. These qualities are not uniquely revered by Buddhism. They feel universal. Please note that the translation of the Pali word samma as “right” does not imply moral correctness. Full, complete, wise, skillful, proper, thorough—these all get at what “right” stands for. And, for the record, one can divide this Noble Path into three sections, “right view and right resolve are related to our development of wisdom; right speech, right action, and right livelihood to ethical conduct; and right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration to meditation”source.
Another popular list, attributed to many different sources, and with a few variations, asks three or four questions of the person on the verge of speaking (of opening the door of their mouth, so to speak).
Is it true?
Is it necessary?
Is it kind? (and some add…)
Will it improve on the silence?
There is a Dharma teacher, Donald Rothberg who is doing some really good work on Wise Speech especially appropriate to civil discourse. The applications are endless as they speak to this core aspect of our humanity. And while I’m at it, let me note that both in Christianity and Judaism the concept of Truth Spoken (The Word, The Logos, The Torah) is defining…and always connected with boundaries, actions and views.
The moment before speaking, then is a boundary. You can palpably feel the door of your mind and heart as you open your mouth. If you pause mindfully in this moment you and see and feel the questions listed above; see and feel the intentions and views behind your soon to be uttered (or not) words; and, see and feel the energy of your spirit that may or may not be driving you to speak.
I am finding that relationships are fraught with boundary issues…advice giving being one the most messed with boundary I know of. Confidences, T.M.I., privacy, propriety, enmeshment and history being a few of the most common areas where one runs up against boundary issues in relationships. One word too many or out of season can terminally torpedo a friendship.
A very subtle sort of boundary work I am learning about (for the first time it seems) is knowing how to let people be responsible for their own feelings. One of my “strategic” patterns has been to carefully watch and “manage” how others are responding to whatever I have strategically chosen to say. This is exhausting, and I am happy to be learning how to let go of this neurotic fancy. Yes, it is fear-based and entirely illusory. In order to let people be responsible for their feelings I sure as heck need to be aware of my own. I will not be able to make meaningful boundaries without knowing clearly “my own truth”.
This is all a work in progress. The display of Old Deerfield doors in this blog illustrate the many different faces and subtleties of doors and boundaries. Healthy conversations and relationships, healthy meetings, and healthy self-understanding are beautiful things. May I grow in my wisdom, skill and intention.