The Kindness of Boundaries and Skin

I grew up in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Which means I grew up at nearly 7,000 ft. elevation. Most of my days were spent outside in the sun riding horses or bikes, watching my brothers play soccer, or sledding. Snow or sun (we don’t have much rain in Colorado unlike Seattle) I was outside. The sun and the warmth of the sun on my skin is one of the things I miss most after having lived in Seattle for over 7 years now. My skin has been marked by the Colorado sun. I have freckles and premature wrinkles due to years of exposure and not enough protection. My skin tells the story of what it was to grow up on the eastern plains. Some of the elements of the sun I was unable to protect myself from, and other times it was out of stubborn defiance that I did not put barriers between myself and the scorching heat.

I often think of our bodies as allegories for life. If we listen closely to the messages of our bodies we can learn a great deal about how to live. What I have learned from my body, more particularly my skin, is boundaries. My skin is what enables me to interact with the world outside of myself, but it is also the thing that keeps me safe, protected, individuated. Our skin- just like our boundaries- can seem overly porous and loose. It can also lack breathability, like scar tissue that has no movement. But healthy skin, just like healthy boundaries, can stretch and move, but also holds its shape. It conforms to growth and change. Boundaries, just like skin, need areas that are more firm or more soft. Our skin on our bodies is not all created equal. The more exposure skin has to the outside world the harder it can become while the skin that we reserve for ourselves and a chosen few remains soft and supple. Our bodies tell the story of our experiences, and often our boundaries do, too.

If we grew up exposed to the elements of a family or a culture that did not encourage autonomy or individuation we may struggle to have boundaries. We may have loose-fitting boundaries that don’t keep us protected from relationships or situations in which we need to have a healthy barrier. I am white, and therefore my skin does not perpetually expose me to the elements of racism in our world, rather I have privilege because of my skin color. I have not had to develop the same awareness and protection to the elements of racism as people of color have had to, but it is my responsibility to educate myself and learn about the protection and boundaries that people who do not look like me have had to develop. We need the diversity of various skin tones, ethnicities, and cultures to be able to get a fuller, truer image of humanity. My skin and my culture give me one lens through which I see the boundaries, and there is a lot of variety regarding how specific cultures view boundaries. We must approach these conversations about skin and boundaries with humility and respect, especially when we are working with cultures that are different than our own. There is no one size or one culture fits all. Boundaries are nuanced and diverse. Our skin, our boundaries, and our world invite us to see and honor diversity. We have young, old, light, dark, wrinkled, flabby, taught, scarred, new, translucent, and many other variations of skin.

Mental health can take on a similar monochromatic paradigm. I see this in Instagram posts and blogs about creating healthy boundaries for new years resolutions, and although I would encourage that, I think boundaries can be another burden that we put on already burdened people. Rather, I would like to approach boundaries the same way that I would like to approach skin. “Can you tell me about that scar?” “How long has it been like this?” “How has this developed in order to keep you, or your ancestors safe and adapted to the elements?” The more kindness and curiosity we approach people with the less dogma and “ism’s” we can get trapped in.

I can get angry for my lack of boundaries. I get mad when I see an email I don’t have the capacity to respond to, but then my fury leads directly back to myself for checking my emails when I “shouldn’t have.” But this isn’t helpful, and it doesn’t keep me from checking my emails. Rather, what I find more helpful is when I begin to ask “Why is it familiar for me to extend myself more than is kind?” “What have I learned about the value of my time? My own space? My mental health?” I have freckles on my skin for spending most of my life in the hot Colorado sun. I have porous boundaries because I spent most of my life learning that other people’s needs were more important than my own. Getting angry at myself does not change what I have learned, or how I have been impacted by my experiences. Curiosity leads me to remember to protect my skin from the elements.

Maybe our boundaries have been weathered so much that we need extra reinforcements to keep them in place. Some elements we can protect ourselves from, but others are a sad reality of what it is to live in a broken world. We don’t need to be apologetic for our skin or the boundaries we have set to protect ourselves. Just as we need days out of the sun after an intense burn, perhaps we need time away from relationships that have hurt us. My therapist once told me “having boundaries will always feel cruel to people who do not have them.” This truth has helped me time and time again as I have felt self and other driven guilt about boundaries. I am learning to have more kindness for myself. I am learning that moisturizer, and airplane mode, are both things that my body needs. I am learning that covering up to protect from the elements and unplugging from the needs of others are both necessary for my physical as well as my mental health. I am learning that I don’t need to be apologetic for my limitations. My skin is a reminder for me to be in my skin. I don’t need to be anywhere or anyone else.

To fully embody our own flesh is to allow ourselves to be invited into the kindness of boundaries.

Kindness for ourselves then invites us to have kindness for others. I see this as what it means to love others AS we love ourselves. We cannot love others from a disembodied place. We love others in our skin, in our flesh, in our boundaries. If we step out of our boundaries we are in the realm of obligation and demand rather than the realm of love. Me cutting myself to bleed for someone else does not help them recover. Me being in my skin to be able to offer them a bandaid may just help their own skin begin to heal.