Energetic boundaries 101: four intuitive steps to guide highly sensitive children and millennials
People have two needs. Attachment. Authenticity. When authenticity threatens attachment, attachment trumps authenticity.
- Gabor Mate, MD, author of When the Body Says "No"
Most of us weren't taught what energetic boundaries are and even fewer of us were taught as children how to set them to protect our true nature. An energetic boundary is like an invisible layer of skin around our soul and emotional body that helps us to define where we begin and end in relation to another. This self-awareness helps us to monitor our energy level, recognize when our authentic self is being violated, and discern what kind of relational dynamics and physical boundaries best serve our well-being and mental health.
The longest ever research study on relational health
A one of kind research study on health and happiness confirms just how crucial respectful boundaries and relationships are to our well-being. Psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and Zen priest, Robert Waldinger, is the fourth director currently in charge of the 75 year Harvard Study of Adult Development, which has tracked two groups of 724 participants since 1938: men who attended Harvard College and boys from the most disadvantaged community in Boston.
Across the board, the study's findings were as "old as the hills". Neither fame nor fortune—that 50-80% of recently surveyed modern-day millennials (Generation Y, born 1980's-2000) identified as their most important life goal—produced fulfillment, longevity, and health in either one of these groups in mid-life or later life. For all participants, warm, close, and good relationships with family and friends consistently did.
In his TED talk, Waldinger cautions and reassures us that these happiness-inducing relationships didn't come easy. They required ongoing work and skillful cultivation. "Relationships are messy and they're complicated, and the hard work of tending to family and friends, it's not sexy or glamorous. It's also lifelong. It never ends."
Brene Brown's findings
What he didn't say, but what I'm speculating, is that the messiness and hard work in relationships has a whole lot to do with learning to set and maintain energetic and physical boundaries. Brene Brown, pioneering social scientist and author of Daring Greatly, claims that, "the most compassionate people that I've interviewed . . . happened to be the most boundaried. They happened to be the people who had very, very clear boundaries about what they were willing to do, what they were not willing to do, what they were willing to take on, and what they were not willing to take on."
Millennials in Context
Does that mean that those surveyed millennials with priorities of fame and wealth will have an even harder time with energetic boundaries and relationships than older generations, especially with virtual "friendships" playing an increasingly more prominent role in their lives?
I work primarily with highly sensitive millennials, and believe that their psychological and spiritual landscapes are much more complex and context-driven than most people give them credit for.
The other extreme
Even though, or perhaps because, my clientele's mindset most often falls on the other end of this polarized spectrum—they tend to strongly resist peer and societal pressures to become rich and famous—their insights may illuminate what the rest of their generation is probably struggling with, either at home, at school, at work, and among peers.
While members of the generation before them may not have thought of wealth and fame as their most important goals in life, many succumbed to social pressures and cultural institutions that greatly rewarded hard, stressful work and compulsive productivity over connection to their authentic self and the true heart and soul of others, including their children's.
No matter how industrious these parents were or how good of a job they had, the pink elephant in many living rooms seemed to be a sense of permanently living at the edge on a financial and emotional ledge. Because of that, there was often not enough mental or emotional breathing room to do anything else but abide to the rules and cultural conditioning of their parents who did their best in running their tight ship.
The majority of my clients sensed the toll of living in an industrialized, capitalist society much more than their parents, who often were swallowed up by external demands. They felt and intimately understood their parents' fear of being ruthlessly laid off or competed out of a job within a society that had both a scarcity of safety nets and social buffers and an abundant smorgasboard of shame and blame for anyone who couldn't hack it within this system.
In many households, daily stress around living with this kind of uncertainty accumulated like a thick dark cloud that never lifted or crashed down into fat, cleansing rain drops. The only brief moments of peace came after a thundering and lightning storm.
Socially conscious and attuned
Familiar coming-of-age challenges, identity questions, issues with -isms, and developmental hurdles of many millennials are further exploited and distorted by 'not-good-enough' mainstream media messages, and/or magnified by their parents' limitations, that ranged from being emotionally unavailable to being scathingly critical and abusive, especially when their children cried for help by acting out and by pushing against the unexamined "normal."
In their disconnected, hurt states, many millennial children became more susceptible to adopting their parents' skewed message that total financial independence is the only thing that would offer them the wiggle room and buffer to explore their deepest, most vulnerable, and unfulfilled longings. In that sense, they may not be all that different than inner city kids pursuing grand NBA basketball dreams.
Dreams of escaping the trap
It doesn't matter what their actual chances to achieve these goals are. Dreams of becoming rich and famous, aka independently wealthy, are just a means to an end, the only way out of suffering. They provide a clear path and respectable struggle with steadfast rungs on a totem pole. Within this structure, they know the rules to obtain social approval. While they are pursuing these popular notions of success, they are often subconsciously motivated by a desire to pay their parents back either with money or by giving them the chance to vicariously live through their dreams.
Connecting to the authentic self
How did some millennials escape this fate? Their parents may have been more aware of these social imbalances, and may have gone the extra mile to connect to their own and their children's authentic self. But there is another way we break free from social conditioning. Gabor Mate claims that approval seeking, complacent pleasing, and self-compromise—where authenticity is traded for attachment—are the main predictors of a wide variety of mental and physical ailments and illnesses within the thousands of patients he has treated and studied over the past decades.
Millennial rebels have stubbornly tuned into their authentic and creative selves regardless of parental or peer disapproval, emotional manipulation, rejection, painful misunderstanding, and harsh judgment of their efforts. We tend to think of rebels without a cause as defiant, antisocial, irrational, rude, loud or bossy. Today's millennial rebels are highly sensitive, intuitive, and spirited. They recognize that they are hurting and insist on better answers for their health unlike some of their siblings and peers.
Signs of violated energetic boundaries
While often perceived and stereotyped as spoiled, lazy, entitled, distracted, and uncommitted, this group of young millennials are most likely clumsy and impulsive when setting boundaries. They are very attuned to their energetic needs and boundary violations, but don't know how to gracefully set them. They are often overwhelmed by their intense and unresolved feelings of anger, sadness, hurt, and fear of ending up like their parents or other adults in mainstream society. Because they often lack experience, practice, patience, and finesse in communicating their needs, they are easily misunderstood by members of the older generations.
Supervisors teachers, colleagues, and advisors can get triggered by the "haphazard" and "ludicrous" requests of millennials, who act like they are constantly running into not-good-enough dead-ends. What rookie dares to ask—often in between the lines and job hopping, and before paying any dues—for a complete overhaul and newly aligned systems and institutions? This audacity is not a privilege but a birthright to them. Like not needing a political science degree and years of experience in the office in order to criticize a presidential candidate or president.
Canaries in the coalmines
When I scratch under the surface, I see caring, compassionate, contemplative symptomatic carriers of modern society's neglected dis-eases and epidemics, who are struggling to make systemic changes for the better of all. They're like canaries in the coalmines, attempting to warn us of danger. The best way to empower them as children is to give them the benefit of the doubt that their "limit testing" and "acting out" may be valid. When they are pushing our buttons, they may be poking at shadow aspects of ourselves and our complacent collusion with modern society. And believe it or not, they begin to do this as babies.
Here are 4 steps to explore and validate their reality, strengthen their boundaries, and prepare them for the deeper work that they are attempting to do:
1) Be Authentic: Acknowledge Energetic Imbalances
Cultivate self-awareness around your own issues and upbringing, and what it means to be more loyal to wholeness and your authenticity than to intergenerational and societal wounding patterns. This will make it easier to rolemodel limit-setting around your own or your partners' energetic imbalances, and vice versa, in front of your children.
Yes, you read that right. The prevailing messages in most parenting books and articles are to discipline children as a united front if you are co-parenting, and not give them an opening to split and triangulate you. But what if they are acting up (and they often are), because they are tuning into your stuck energy, unresolved wounds, and buried conflicts? This two-against-one tactic is a sure way to break down a child's healthy rebellious spirit that's ruffling our tightly run ship.
And this is sadly the reason how we were coerced to accept the battered batons passed down to us. This is not any old two-against-one unfair fight. This battle often starts as a two-adults-against-one-two-year-old unfair fight, and continues on until their late adolescence. Pretty sad, huh? No wonder most of us hardly stood a chance.
We can make it easier for our children by giving ourselves and each other "time-outs" when we intuitively sense that our energy is not anchored in the present moment. This helps them to identify and trust their own visceral perceptions and feelings, even if they don't have the words and concepts yet to describe what that feels like. We also don't need to fully understand why we are spinning away from our loving present-moment self frame-by-frame in order to take a time out and regroup. We just need to stop perpetuating what isn't working, and feel in our bodies when that is happening. Conceptual awareness and language will follow.
Of course, our children are not perfectly attuned social gauges. They quickly cycle into their own imbalanced states depending on their physical circumstances, but you'd be surprised how much they are able to pick up at very young ages. Pay attention to the way they react to others in your social circles. They may viscerally shut down or feel uncomfortable around certain people, even as infants, which may help you to trust your own and their intuitive reactions more if you are able to tune into the reasons why a particular person may be energetically off-putting.
2). Recognize their Sensitivity: Separate Merged Energy
The first set of authority figures beside you that your children will interact with are caregivers and teachers. There is a very good chance that these adults will not be as open to exploring their shadow parts as you are. We can't protect our children from all the unaware and insensitive people in society, but we can ease them into potentially harmful contexts as gently and with as many skills as possible.
Some teachers will feel more pressured than others to run their classrooms like the tightly run ship I spoke of earlier. If you have any control in avoiding stressful environments when your children are young, make it a priority. Don't fret too much if you can't keep them in a glass case, because they'll end up rebelling against your overprotective sheltering. The imbalances that seep through will provide the traction and grind they need to fully practice and develop their social skills.
Social groups start to form in grade school and will mirror what's favored and rewarded by dominant society and teachers. Sensitive and attuned children will start to make inferences based on where they fit on the social ladder without being fully conscious of it, often placing themselves into a second-class category. If you have paid close attention to your children and know their baseline state, you'll notice when they are more tuned into external pressures than themselves. Because many lose that clarity and trust in themselves as their peer groups gain importance, it becomes even more important and beneficial when you let them know when they seem upset, sad, afraid, and/or unhappy to you.
They are most likely harboring unpopular reactions or marginalized perspectives about social situations, and blame themselves for being bad, abnormal, ugly, unpopular, quiet, selfish, feisty, angry, different, or what not. Here's when conceptual understanding—even something as simple as, yes, children your age often say mean and immature things; teachers can be wrong; adults can get overstressed, put too much pressure on kids, and yell instead of calmly setting firm limits—can be very validating and show them that authenticity and attachment can coexist. This acceptance may only exist in your home, but you still have a lot of influence and are laying an important foundation.
Later, you will be validating the reality of social and cultural inequities, privilege, -isms, cliques, immaturity, meanness, popularity and exclusion rules, and the like, almost daily in junior high and high school. If the relational infrastructure that you've laid is grooved enough, your words have a greater chance of sinking in.
3). Validate Feelings: Use Energetic Gauges
When children feel validated that their feelings are natural responses to certain situations, these feelings often just run their course and lose their charge. However, certain situations, classes, teachers, and friends may persistently trigger them, just like certain things may persistently trigger us. Your child may feel oppressed, as if perpetually carrying a weight around, and trapped by their external circumstances. You may also feel powerless, because the issues are not serious enough for you to step in. For instance, your child is not being bullied, but is bothered that the "popular" crowd is being rewarded with higher status for acting superior and exclusive. Or a teacher speaks in a tone or pitch that has a sharp edge. Or what they're seeing on social media seems fake and puts pressure on them to be fake too.
This may become more of an issue during preadolescence and adolescence when hormones and physical changes exacerbate everything that they are already going through. They may withdraw, give you the silent treatment, act oppositional, and seem like they are on an emotional rollercoaster, because of everything and everyone, including you.
Keeping the lines of communication open is ideal, but most likely it will feel like everything you have worked on this far just went down some mysterious drain. You offer an opening. You get zilch back. Or eye rolls or no eye contact, because they're glued to some screen. Actively give your child permission to go through this reactive, rebellious phase and encourage them to "talk back" in their head or journal about everything, even you.
Their observations may be totally off, exaggerated, stereotypical, inappropriate, and black and white, but they are nevertheless important to express. It helps them to develop a relationship with themselves and gives them an opportunity to explore and become familiar with their inner world. Giving them space and permission for self-expression energetically fills them up, reaffirms their authentic self, and prepares them from the inside out for more finessed conflict resolution skills and communication.
4. Honor Aligned Needs: Set Energetic Boundaries
We need to have a visceral and grounded sense of our wholeness to understand how it's different than our wounded self and wounded voice. At this age, preadolescents and adolescents are actively exploring their identity and are able to claim what they think, feel, and need with I-statements. This is a very empowering and important foundational step to develop a sense of self. When they are able to hold sacred space for their inner experience and feelings without judgment, they become more immune to external judgments and perceived threats.
The next step for them is discovering that not every thought and every feeling is aligned with their whole and best self. Just like it's not a good idea to believe everything we think, it's not a good idea to trust everything we feel. Thoughts, feelings, dreams, and life goals, as we saw above, can get distorted and misaligned as a result of the many pressures and social imbalances around us.
What are some signs and guidelines that could help them distinguish between aligned vs blind actions, thoughts, and feelings? Help to ignite and nourish their third eye. Their intuitive gifts are usually aching to be seen and refined. Triggers more often than not are activating charged, unresolved feelings, perceptions, and thoughts that are habitually repressed, avoided, and not properly cleared and resolved.
The tendency is to shut down the triggered feelings, and avoid the trigger. However, they are there to help us become more aware of hidden treasures. Curious exploration and openness around the triggered feelings most effectively reveals the healing needs of the wound and what's needed to reintegrate split parts into the whole. These deeper needs are often early signs of your child's purpose and calling, and often grow into a passion to address similar issues in adulthood.
The good news? Even though many of us didn't learn about energetic boundaries as children, we can retrace our steps and retroactively heal ourselves and reset them. Our psyche and soul stores every energetic imbalance and violation in the cells and bones of our bodies. All that we need to do is retrace this labyrinth of dis-ease and symptoms until we're back in the heart of our wholeness and true self.
Are you aware of and actively maintaining your energetic boundaries? How did you learn about them? What points in this article resonate the most with you? Will they change your outlook or actions in life?
Side note: Some highly sensitive children are dealing with many more energetic imbalances—harmful radiation from electromagnetic fields (EMF's), processed food, ancestral and societal shadow parts, past-life memories, entities, premonitions, environmental crises, and other psychic phenomena—at early ages before learning these important foundational skills. Remove these as much from their environment as possible. If you are unable to validate and support them in regard to the mysterious parts in a way that soothes and grounds them (by helping them feel safe with you and in their bodies so no other energies find holes and pockets to occupy), get professional help from someone with expertise.
Too many in my practice with powerful gifts and sensitivities (and actually remarkably strong boundaries and self-awareness compared to their peers but still flooded due to challenges) have ended up in psychiatric hospitals and/or got misdiagnosed and medicated for severe mental disorders due to limited or a complete lack of understanding of subtle realities and spiritual emergencies. It's possible to navigate these difficult scenarios with more finesse and the person affected may even come out on the other end feel empowered and more intimately connected with their authentic self and callings.