By Erica Hornthal, LCPC, BC-DMT
Boundaries can be difficult for a lot of us with bendy bodies. Why is that? What is the significance? What is a boundary anyway and should we have them?
We recently posed this question to Erica Hornthal, a licensed clinical professional counselor and board-certified dance/movement therapist, and she replied with this amazing guest blog post that we are thrilled to share with
-Linda Bluestein, MD
BOUNDARY. Take a moment and notice how that word is received in your body. How does it feel? Where does it live? Perhaps you notice a void, a resistance, or even a block. Boundaries are somewhat of a trendy topic these days, especially with regard to mental health. But what many people fail to understand is that how we move relates to how we set, hold, or negate our boundaries.
Let’s begin with a brief definition. I define boundaries as physical and emotional limits that when met fulfill a personal need and when unmet perpetuate emotional harm and in some instances physical danger. Boundaries are a way to uphold self-respect, integrity, and self-worth and I believe it is less about saying “no” to others and more about saying “yes” to your own needs. Boundaries, or a lack of boundaries, often come from conditioning or modeling from the people around us. We can just as easily learn rigid, very firm boundaries as much as we can learn how to people please. Our ability or inability to enforce and maintain boundaries is a product of our learned experiences, environment, even our history of traumas.
Let’s look at some examples. A verbal boundary can come in the form of asking to be referred to by a certain name, saying “no” or “stop,” or even telling someone when their actions have caused you discomfort, anguish, or pain. Physical boundaries can look like putting space between you and another person, declining a social invitation, or limiting the amount of time you spend in a certain environment or with a certain person.
But what happens when our physical abilities override our internal boundaries? When our own body can push beyond physical limits and not only tolerate but make accommodations for them, that is when it is vital to address and engage the body in order to set healthier boundaries.
Body Aware, 2022, Chapter 4 excerpt
Growing up I often associated saying no to others as mean. I feared that people wouldn’t like me. It was more important that people think of me as kind and nice than it was for me to listen to my own needs.
While I have found it difficult to set and even hold boundaries with certain people in my life, using my body to explore this construct has been life-changing. When I began to integrate a body aware lens into noticing and creating boundaries, I was able to see that the boundary was not for others but for me. Not only can we look at the boundaries of our physical being but we can also use sensations that arise in the body when faced with situations that challenge our limits. I have often said to my clients that dance/movement therapy is about learning to compromise without compromising the Self. This to me refers to recognizing your own limits and boundaries so that you have the ability to know who you are and what you need without sacrificing those for the benefit of others.
You might be familiar with the phrases “bend over backwards” and “pushover.” These quite literally speak to how we embody a lack of boundaries. It suggests that we not only get pushed around, but that it can feel compromising and uncomfortable. I was seeing a woman in her mid-thirties who was overwhelmed, to say the least. She mentioned that her back gave her a lot of problems and it was often sore. While this wasn’t the primary reason she came to therapy, it was important for me to know so that as we moved together I knew what parts of her body might be extra sensitive. Since her back was particularly sore this day, I invited her to pay attention to it and listen to what it needed.
She began in Child’s Pose, perched on her shins with her chest resting on her upper thighs, gently stretching her arms out in front of her, lowering her head to the floor and breathing into her back. Without prompting she started to talk about when she was a kid, dancing and doing backbends. I asked her if she still did those, to which she said no. But then she began to talk about why she doesn’t do them. “I don’t dance anymore, she said. “I don’t really have time for myself since I had a family.” She went on to explain that she did everything for them and whether she wanted to or not it was the role that was assumed. “I’ve always been one to bend over backwards.” This stopped me in my tracks. I asked her, “Do you think your sore back has anything to do accommodating others?” She paused, her eyes widened, and she said, “I never thought about it in that way, but ever since I can remember I have overextended myself. Physically I push beyond my limits, I have always been hyper-flexible, and I never know where to stop.”
This example may be resonating for many of you and it may be there first time you even connected that how you move your body contributes to how you set or maintain emotional boundaries. I think what is most important to know about boundaries is that we can always change the way we relate to them and it’s never too late to learn how to set healthy ones, especially through the body. Because when we change the way we move, we change the way we live!
Here are some ways to begin exploring boundaries and limits in the body to support setting limits healthy limits in the mind.
1) Draw attention to the parts of your body that are not only hyper-mobile but tight or inflexible as well. Think small, like your toes, fingers, ears…parts of the body that you may not see as flexible still have movement.
2) Practice setting limits by stopping your need or ability to over-stretch. Stopping right before the point of hyperextension may be difficult, but a great way to intentionally protect your body and recognize your own embodied boundaries.
3) Pay attention to the boundaries of your kinesphere, the space around you. Can you safely explore that space without overextending yourself? Notice your internal boundaries like your skin and bones. Become aware of your internal landscape.
4) Slow down your movement. So often we hyper or over-extend our bodies in a hurried, rushed, or mindless way. Taking the time to pause, listen, and notice what the body needs as it moves is a wonderful way to challenge our autopilot.
5) Find compassion. Be gentle with your body and mind as you explore this new and unfamiliar way of moving.
Setting limits, whether it is in the mind or body, is not an easy process. It takes time, attention, awareness, and practice. Noticing how our bodies support or perpetuate the boundaries in our minds is a major step in the right direction to setting healthy limits to support your mental and physical health.
About the author:
Erica Hornthal, a licensed clinical professional counselor and board-certified dance/movement therapist, is the CEO and founder of Chicago Dance Therapy. Since graduating with her MA in Dance/Movement Therapy and Counseling, Erica has worked with thousands of patients from age three to 107. Known as the “Therapist Who Moves You,” Erica has truly changed the way people see movement with regard to mental health; moving people toward unlimited potential, greater awareness, and purpose by tapping into their innate body wisdom. In addition to her passion for working with cognitive and movement disorders, neurologic conditions, anxiety, depression, and trauma, Erica is an advocate for the field of dance/movement therapy. Erica created the Dance Therapy Advocates Summit in 2020 in order to spread awareness, and inspire and connect individuals and practitioners from all over the world. Erica is the author of the book Body Aware: Rediscover Your Mind-Body Connection, Stop Feeling Stuck, and Improve Your Mental Health with Simple Movement Practices.