We dedicate this to Harriet DeHaven Cuddihy, whose old world elegance and impeccably irreverent humor, deep curiosity and optimism made her one of my true idols. Words cannot say how much we will miss her.
As a woman who was raised in a society where it is implied that women should be agreeable and amenable, where speaking up for yourself can label you “difficult,” I personally have found it difficult to do that very thing. Why is it important to have personal boundaries and make sure they are not crossed? More importantly, how can we keep them while coming off strong and not strident?
It’s not about boundaries, it’s about integrity. And integrity is the fruit of being deeply rooted in oneself. Like a great old oak tree swaying in a gale, being deeply rooted allows you to give-and-take with the winds of fate that buffet your branches. I’ve never been a great fan of strong personal boundaries because they’re too brittle, too surface. They snap off in the breeze and are the usual reason that strength can’t express itself in terms other than stridency. But the alternative to strong personal boundaries is not co-dependency or being walked all over for the sake of some superficial harmony. There’s another way, a better way: strong TRANSpersonal boundaries. This means being so deeply rooted in your essence and your inner honesty that falsehood is not an option. People with that kind of flexible inner strength generally don’t get messed with and can assert their integrity in a situation without the need for confrontation or shows of power.
“I’ve never been a great fan of strong personal boundaries because they’re too brittle, too surface. They snap off in the breeze and are the usual reason that strength can’t express itself in terms other than stridency.”
This is quite a different lesson from what our culture teaches us! We ALL come onto this planet 100% perfect in our essential being. But during the course of our “education” (aka, acculturation), and under the sway of our growing personalities and desire to get into the game of life, most of us gradually lose touch with who we really are inside and develop external egoic facades which are tremendously dependent on external confirmation and tremendously threatened by either invasion or rejection. That’s the reason for the dilemma in the first place; a person who had never lost touch with the vastness of their innermost self would probably not get into this jam to begin with! And trying to shore up egoic defenses in the name of “strong personal boundaries” is unfortunately going in the wrong direction if you’re interested in inner evolution and in the fullness of joy, coherence, and oneness that the great mystics and great romantics all talk about as the real meaning of life. I wouldn’t worry about being labeled “difficult;” I’d worry more about passing through life without ever having tasted who I really am, and how my inner core expresses itself.
“I wouldn’t worry about being labeled “difficult;” I’d worry more about passing through life without ever having tasted who I really am, and how my inner core expresses itself.”
As a practical starting point, most people turn to meditation to begin this inner exploration, and to repair the damage that life in our excessively ego-oriented culture has done to us. As they used to say in the Inner Work group I belonged to, “You can’t move a plank you’re standing on.” As long as your personality is the only self you know, you’ll cling to it like a life raft! But meditation, time alone, and reserving some part of each day (or at least each week) to do what you really love (no defenses, no questions), are all part of coming to know that radiant stranger who really and truly lives inside you; the one who, without ever being “difficult,” can be beautifully direct and graceful about living her life.
It’s an important question, particularly for women. Thanks for asking it.
Cynthia Bourgeault is an Episcopal priest, writer and retreat leader. She is founding director of the Aspen Wisdom School in Colorado and principal visiting teacher for the Contemplative Society in Victoria, BC, Canada.