Problems With Boundaries and Saying No
“The crucial psychological fact is that all of us, female as well as male, fear the will of woman . . . Female will is embedded in female power, which is under present conditions, the earliest and profoundest prototype of power.” (Dinnerstein, The Mermaid and the Minotaur, p. 166 – cited in Bly & Woodman, The Maiden King, p. 51)
I am not going to try and explain this quote directly, but would rather approach it in talking about what might appear to be something unrelated. Hopefully, the thread can be followed back to the quote and provide in the process, my understanding of what Dorothy Dinnerstein was talking about.
Following from yesterday’s post, there is the issue of Magical Other which is traced back to the desire to want to return to a pre-birth condition which can only be understood as some sort of Garden of Eden. In the garden, there are no issues of separation, of abandonment, of contradiction – all is as one. Somehow, an act propels what is to become a person with a soul, from a state of oneness to a state of separateness. Being born is a bit of a traumatic affair for both mother and child, but I want to focus on just the child for now, the infant. This newborn child is essentially helpless. Left to his or her own devices, the newborn soon dies. There must be a person with power to create the conditions for survival, nurturance and growth. And, in the typical scenario throughout human history, it is the mother.
For a child, all things come from mother. I need to repeat that to myself, all things come from the mother. Of course, this is objective reality from an infant’s point of view – mother gives and mother takes away, and as such is to be loved and to be feared; but beyond everything, mother is all powerful.
It is only as months and as years pass that a child learns to put boundaries in place in order to claim some of mother’s power for him or herself. That learning is assisted by the parent teaching the child about boundaries by also building boundaries that begin the process of separation – weaning the child, teaching rules, teaching the words yes and no! Now, this is where things began to break down for me, the failure to build and maintain boundaries. Given life circumstances, my mother’s needs were too great and her breaching of frail boundaries out of control left me almost hopelessly lost. And, as an adult, it often creates confusion and conflict in relationship with others. But, to be fair, it also resulted in me becoming very empathetic. I could feel the pain of others and reach out to help, I was one easy to trust, to confide in. But one of the biggest impacts on my later childhood and all of my adulthood was the intense difficulty I experienced in trying to say the word no, especially to the feminine.
I watched my own children grow up. It seemed as though the word “No” was programmed into them as they had no difficulty in saying what they thought and claiming their space. I was the father and because of my failure to develop a sense of boundaries, I had a problem saying “No” in return. At work, I had the same issue, the problem of saying no and standing up for myself and what I believed in. I knew what I wanted, what I valued, yet I caved in and obeyed authority.
How well has that worked for me? Well, I could say it has been a disaster, but it hasn’t if I am to be honest. I was a good teacher and my students generally liked and respected me. I was and am a good father and grandfather. I am a good counsellor for those who find themselves lost. I am a good friend who listens well, smiles and is willing to give them the lead in activities shared together bolstering their self-worth. But, and there is also a but, it leaves those closest to me adrift in relationship to me.
Where is the strength, the foundation in family where the father struggles with the word no? Where does “Papa” begin and end? Where does a spouse find strength and certainty in an uncertain world? I become the authority only in absence of the real authority, the mother. I gave up authority, it wasn’t taken from me. And that, was and is the biggest obstacle to relationship. I left a vacuum and that vacuum needed filling. It is time for me to learn the word no, to build boundaries in order to create balance in relationship, to find balance within myself.
And learning this, there isn’t anyone to blame, there is only an awareness of the way it was, the way it is. For me, it became imperative to become aware of this and to take responsibility for my self. Setting boundaries is not abandoning, is not a statement of “I don’t love you” or “I won’t be here for you.” In saying this, I am talking not only to my wife and my children, I am almost screaming these words at myself. I am a slow learner.