• Boundaries: Making the World a Better Place One Relationship at a Time

    Good Evening, friends!

    Thanks for being here, I’m glad that you are. If you clicked on this article, I’m willing to guess one of two things about you: 1. You’ve been hearing the word “boundaries”, and want to learn more about it; or 2. You’ve spent a lot of time learning about boundaries and are super interested in the topic. Either way, this is the place for you, and I’d love to hear from you if you’d like to share your thoughts.

    I’m going to cover a couple of different things related to boundaries in this week’s article, but the main point I’d like to you to walk away with is this: boundaries don’t always feel good (in fact, they seldom do), but they can and will make the world a better place if we all can get in the habit of both setting them, and honoring them. 

    What are Boundaries?

    I’ve heard the term boundaries be described in several different ways, and I’m going to speak on two of my favorites. 

    1. Boundaries are rules for what you are willing to participate in. This is my absolute favorite why to think about boundaries, because it puts so much emphasis on personal responsiblity, and it reminds me that I truly have no control over other people’s behavior. I do however, have control over who I interact with, which situations I put myself in, and what encounters I engage in. 

    In this sense of the term, I set boundaries for myself. I can verbalize those boundaries to people who care about me if they would like to know them. For example, I might have a rule for myself that I don’t argue with people who have been drinking. This could very easily be expressed in other ways such as, “don’t argue with me when you’re drunk”, or “We always fight when you drink”, but instead, I set the rule for myself to save me the headache, I don’t argue with anyone who has been drinking. If a loved one has had a few beverages and tries to debate something with me, I can assert that boundary by stating, “I have a rule for myself that I don’t get into debates when there’s alcohol involved”. 

    Another example could be, “I don’t participate in conversations where I don’t feel valued or respected”. I can assert this boundary when a person is speaking down to me, cussing at me, raising their voice to me. I could start by asking them not to do those things. If they don’t change their behaviors, I can then say, “I don’t participate in conversations where I’m not feeling respected”, and I can walk away. 

    In both of these scenarios, the boundary was a rule for us, not for other people. It’s about what we are willing to participate in.

    2. Boundaries are rules for how I am treated. This is very similar to the first way to describe the term, except it’s a little more assertive in my opinion. To me, this one is a bit more empowering and meaningful for those folks who have been survivors of some type of abuse. It means a lot to a survivor to be able to set rules for how they get to be treated.

    This might look more like, “I decide how I’m spoken to, and I need for you use a calmer tone with me”. Or, “I’ve verbalized to you that that kind of play is triggering to me and is not fun, I need for you to not do that to me”. 

    It is important for the person setting these boundaries to recognize that other people’s behavior is still not within their control, but to know that their voice can and often will influence how they are treated. 

    Why Don’t I know how to set boundaries?

    I often get asked this question, and if I’m being honest, I’ve asked myself the very same question before. Setting boundaries is a difficult skill to learn, and it’s something that doesn’t come naturally to many people, but it’s not just about mastering a skill.

    Of course, people need space to practice setting boundaries, saying “no”, setting rules for how they get to be treated, setting rules for what they choose to participate in, etc. People need safe relationships to practice these skills in.

    What I’ve seen in my clinical experience though, and what research shows, is that most folks who struggle with setting boundaries don’t really know what they want. They’ve spent most of their life being “yes people”, or people pleasers, and they’ve not developed a strong sense of self. 

    So if you think learning to set boundaries is something you need to do, my first recommendation for you would be to learn who you are. What makes you happy? What upsets you? What excites you? What hobbies do you enjoy? What do you want out of life? I challenge you to pause before agreeing to things, ask yourself why you are saying yes to the request. Is it because you want to say yes? Is it because you care about the person who is asking? Is it because you don’t want to say no? Even without changing your typical response, these questions will begin to teach you valuable information about yourself.

    What do I do when people don’t respect my boundaries?

    The first thing you need to do is assess the degree to which your boundary has been crossed. You can do this by reflecting on how many times the person has crossed it, how significantly it impacted you and your relationship with that person, and how you’re feeling about yourself and the person after they’ve crossed it. 

    Next, it’s important to acknowledge your feelings that come up when you think about confronting the person. Don’t try to ignore the feelings, don’t judge the feelings as right or wrong, don’t try to supress them. Let the feelings be here. 

    Once you’ve made space for your feelings around the matter, remind yourself what that boundary means to you, (i.e. “I don’t get into debates when alcohol is involved because I’ve had bad experiences in the past, and it makes me feel nervous”, or, “I only engage in conversations where I’m spoken to in a calm tone because I deserve to feel valued and respected”).

    From there, remind yourself why this person is important to you. Ask yourself why their presence in your life matters. Check in with yourself about the significance of the relationship, and what you appreciate about it. 

    Finally, decide on a time that is convenient for both you, and the person you’re needing to talk with. Once this is decided on, and the time has come, share your feelings with them. Begin with what they mean to you (i.e. “our friendship is super important to me, I love that it’s a safe place for me to be myself, and that we’re always laughing together”). Next, share how you’ve been feeling due to crossed boundaries, (i.e. “Recently, something happened that made me uncomfortable that I’m hoping I can share with you”). Next, let them know what it was, (i.e. “you know it’s really important to me to be spoken to in a calm tone, and I know that you often do a really good job at respecting that, but the other night you came across really harshly, and it rubbed me the wrong way”). Sometimes, you can stop here and have a back and forth conversation with the person depending on your relationship and their ability to validate your experiences. If not though, jump straight to the last step, which is, reasserting a boundary, (i.e. “Moving forward, could you please be sure to use a calm and respectful tone when you speak with me?”)

    Why is it important to set boundaries?

    Setting boundaries is vital to being an active participant in your life. 

    I’ll repeat that. 

    Setting boundaries is vital to being an active participant in your life. 

    Think about it. If you aren’t choosing what you participate in and what you don’t, life is just happening to you, you’re not an active participant. If you’re just agreeing to every request that comes to you, you’re not even doing things because you want to do them, and you’re doing things you don’t want to be doing. 

    What kind of life is that?

    And we wonder why we’re so miserable all of the time.

    Imagine if every part of your day was chosen for you. Imagine if someone came into your bedroom and woke you up when they wanted you to wake up, chose the clothes they wanted you to wear, made you eat the breakfast they wanted you to eat, made you shower, use the restroom, brush your teeth, eat breakfast in the order they selected. And so on and so forth.

    You know that you wouldn’t like that. Yet you live so much of your life that way by not setting boundaries. You let other people decide what you will and will not allow into your world. You let other people decide what you will and will not participate in. You might as well be a Sim being controlled by another person. 

    Except you’re not. You have emotions. You build resentments. You get angry when your needs and desires go unmet. And you take that anger and resentment out on your relationships. And the people you’re in a relationship with do the same to you. And every one is walking away not setting rules for how they want to be treated, or for what they will and won’t participate in, and they’re angry and resentful, and they’re taking it out on other people rather than taking ownership of their lives. 

    Set boundaries. Choose to live.