By Christine Carron
For most writers, writing is done alone. Just you and the page. The writing adventure, however, requires a vast array of relationships. To navigate those relationships effectively—be they passing, enduring, or something in between—requires healthy boundaries. Nedra Glover Tawwab, licensed therapist and author of Set Boundaries, Find Peace, says, "A boundary is something that keeps you safe and comfortable in your relationships.” (source)
Staying safe and comfortable in your relationships on the writing journey is a power skill. One that might take some time to land.
That has been my experience at least. Many years ago, when I was on a retreat with two of my mentors, psychologists Hal and Sidra Stone, I had a particularly intense session with Hal where I expressed my frustration about a boyfriend who didn’t, in my opinion, do enough personal growth work. If he had, I maintained, it would have made my life a whole lot easier.
I was certain Hal would commiserate with me since (hello!) he and Sidra led personal growth retreats. Instead he said, “Christine, at some point you are going to have to take responsibility for what you want and need, and stop expecting others to do that work for you.”
I wish I could tell you I immediately got what Hal was saying. That it was my boundaries that needed the personal growth work, no matter what my boyfriend was up to. I cannot. It took a bit of time for me to fully take that in.
Even so, working with Hal and Sidra for over a decade was a critical part of my journey to reclaim the ability to set and maintain healthy boundaries—which I believe is an ability we are all born with, but that many of us lose along the way. One outcome of my ongoing healthy-boundaries reclamation journey is that I named and defined three different boundary styles, each deeply inspired by Hal and Sidra’s work.
I created these styles so that I could better diagnose what was going on with me when I felt out of sorts in relation to another person. As gone were those halcyon days where I got to blame someone else for all my relational woes.
I share these styles with you today. Perhaps they will be useful to you when you are feeling out of sorts with your critique group, or writing partner, or agent, or editor, or any other person whose path crosses with yours on the writerly adventure.
When you are Blended, you are unable to prioritize your needs and wants. You constantly sense and prioritize others’ needs and wants before yours.
You want (and expect) others to intuit and honor what you need, just as you feel you intuit and honor what they need, and if (i.e., when) that doesn’t happen you end up hurt, resentful, or even enraged.
What Blended looks like in action
In a previous Goodjelly post, I wrote about a situation that exemplified the Blended boundary style. To recap here, I was in a writing workshop and another writer needed a ride home. The instructor told him that I lived in the same town, so the writer asked me in front of everyone if I would drive him home. I didn’t want to but felt put on the spot and like I couldn’t say, “no.”
Especially since, in my mind, the instructor (i.e., authority figure) expected me to.
I didn’t say, “no,” and was in a total resentment tizzy for days, which of course impacted my writing progress. Not my finest hour. And totally Blended. I could not prioritize my own wants and needs in that moment.
When you are Balanced, you are rocking healthy boundaries. You are clear of what you want and need and are able to communicate those wants and needs to others calmly and without charge. You do not use boundaries as punishment or payback. If someone violates one of your boundaries you handle it, and “handling it” may include walking away from relationships where someone consistently ignores or disrespects your boundaries.
In the Balanced boundary style, you might experience a flash of (healthy) anger if someone violates a boundary you have clearly stated, but you do not get stuck in the anger.
Being Balanced does not preclude genuine acts of altruism, generosity, kindness, or deep connection where you prioritize others needs above your own. However, unlike with someone with Blended boundaries, your decision to prioritize others is a choice rather than a compulsion.
What Balanced looks like in action
Once, a first reader provided feedback that felt aggressive to me. I personally don’t like receiving solutions to identified problems. I feel it is my job, as the author, to come up with a solution, and this reader shared strong opinions about how they disagreed with a plot choice I made and how they felt the story should end.
I was upset and knew priority action number one was to give myself space to work through the froth of my emotions. So I sent the reader a note thanking them for the feedback, and telling them I wanted to take time to process their notes and would get back to them.
Once I got my emotions stabilized, I had a decision to make: was I going to have the conversation with the person about the feedback, or not?
I decided that I was, because (a) I trusted this person, and (b) I knew if I didn’t, it would negatively impact our relationship, as I would stay at an emotional distance. I also knew that I hadn’t communicated my feelings about solutions to this person, so they had no idea that was a hot button for me.
The conversation was deeply connecting and powerful. I felt seen and received, and in turn learned and understood more of where the person was coming from in relation to the feedback that bothered me. Our relationship was strengthened.
That type of outcome is what we all hope for when we have a difficult conversation about boundaries and expectations, but it is never guaranteed. When you are in the Balanced boundary style, you can handle successful and not successful outcomes with equal aplomb.
When you are Barbicanned, you are in access lock down. You wall yourself off from connection, as it is the only way you know how to ensure your boundaries are not violated.
Like Blended, Barbicanned is not a style of awareness but one of compulsion. Indeed, the Barbicanned style often swoops in when someone in the Blended style gets pushed past their limit. This total shutdown of access is a last resort attempt to create safety and comfort in relationships.
The problem is you have withdrawn so forcefully and completely that you may have safety and comfort, but what you don’t have anymore is relationship.
What Barbicanned looks like in action
After I drove that other writer home, I was in Barbicanned mode. I avoided that guy in the class, and it was a small workshop so I am sure it was noticeable. I also completely pulled back from that instructor, blaming him for putting me in the position of “having” to drive the other writer home.
Logical? No. My reality at that time? Yep.
Up until that point, I really liked learning from that instructor but never took another class from him again. Who did that hurt? Me.
That is often the case in Barbicanned mode. We think we are hurting the other person or making some grand point, but really we’re hurting ourselves. (And making no grand point at all.)
The writing adventure, replete with rejections, critiques, ego trips, and weird power dynamics, is chock full of situations that poke at our vulnerability. When I feel vulnerable, I am more likely to fall back into what I call the boomerang, a bouncing back and forth between Blended and Barbicanned, where I am scrambling to find safety and comfort and to reclaim equilibrium.
I’m happy to say, though, that those moments of desperation happen less and less. The more we stay in the Balanced boundary style, the more we sidestep boundary issues that crop up when we boomerang between Blended and Barbicanned.
Even when our vulnerability does take a hit, healthy boundaries, i.e., the Balanced boundary style, gives us greater resilience.
We sort ourselves out faster.
Do I think I (or anyone) will ever be in the Balanced boundary style all the time? Absolutely not. It’s important to remind ourselves again and again that having healthy boundaries is about creating comfort and safety in our relationships—not about trying to achieve perfect boundaries at every moment in every situation no matter what.
The truth is that setting and maintaining healthy boundaries is a learning journey filled with as many twists, turns, challenges, and ahas as the one we take to learn our writerly craft. So if you see yourself in these styles, and perhaps are now worrying about how much you boomerang between the Blended and Barbicanned boundary styles, give yourself the gift of grace.
Go for progress over perfection and enjoy the boundary-building adventure. And, oh, what an adventure it will be.