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Healthy Boundaries Keep Us Sane

November 10, 2019

What the heck is a boundary, anyway? It reminds me of the somewhat polar term, codependency, a word thrown around so loosely that its meaning has been watered down to become almost meaningless.

Wikipedia defines personal boundaries as “guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave towards them and how they will respond when someone passes those limits.”

In Rising Strong, author and researcher Brene Brown defined boundaries as “simply our lists of what’s okay and what’s not okay.” As clear as Brown’s explanation is, figuring out what’s okay and what’s not is easier said than done. For many of us, it’s easier to put our attention on others’ lack of boundaries than to take responsibility for our own.

In our frustration with an interaction with a coworker or friend, we might say things like, “They crossed a boundary they shouldn’t have,” or, “They don’t have any boundaries at all!”  Well, perhaps that’s true of the other person involved, but have we made it clear what our boundaries are? Or are we expecting them to intuit what we are or are not comfortable with?

In relationships, a boundary reflects where I end, and you begin. Yes, quantum physics tells us we exchange energy when we interact with the people and things around us. But we remain two discrete beings. A divide exists between me having and experiencing my emotions and you having and experiencing yours. Just because I have a certain boundary, that doesn’t mean you will have the same one. Not only do we want to manage our own boundaries, but we also need to respect each other’s differences. When we don’t, being in a relationship can be a nightmare.

We have physical and emotional boundaries. Physical boundaries express as a built-in sense of how much physical space we need between them and us. Emotional boundaries dictate our behavior and the behavior we will accept from others.

At times we all, to one degree or another, suffer from poorly clarified boundaries. It’s just part of the human package. However, sometimes a lack of boundaries can present debilitating outcomes. If we look at them on a continuum from minimal impact to profoundly harmful, most of our boundary issues aren’t terminal. Often, we don’t even recognize them as problems that need our attention, because we’re blaming someone else for our inability or refusal to say no.

Brown says, “When we combine the courage to make clear what works for us and what doesn’t with the compassion to assume people are doing their best, our lives change.”

We are responsible for kindly letting people know when they overstep. Articulating a boundary, asking for what we need, isn’t rude. It’s a requirement for a healthy relationship. We get messed up when we expect other people to take responsibility for our boundaries. That’s a problem because we’re different! And like me, you probably can’t read minds. I have a hard enough time figuring out my boundaries, much less yours.

Here are a few examples of common boundary challenges:

  • When someone says “no” to you, you can’t handle it without believing there’s something wrong with them or with you. That’s a boundary issue. In the first scenario, you’re wanting them to deny themselves, and in the second, you take unwarranted responsibility for their decision to say “no”, and feel guilty for asking.
  • When you say “yes” but want to say “no” and end up resenting the hell out of the person or situation you caved to, that’s a boundary issue. Think of the last time you agreed to something you weren’t keen on—after they walked away, satisfied with your acquiescence, did you feel like you wanted to shoot yourself?
  • When you respond to someone with, “How could you do that to me after all I’ve done for you?” that’s a boundary issue. Seriously, if you even have that thought, it’s a boundary issue.
  • When you can’t sleep because you’ve kindly said “no” to someone, and they’re still upset with you (if you haven’t done something awful to them), that’s a boundary issue.
  • When you rigidly declare that someone else’s feelings aren’t your problem when they tell you your behavior hurt them, that’s a boundary issue. Did this one surprise you? If you have lost the ability to feel compassion for someone else’s discomfort, especially when it’s something that you have contributed to, that’s a rigid and impenetrable boundary, rather than a non-existent or porous boundary like the other examples.

Here are a few ideas on how to say “no” with kindness:

“Thank you, and no.”

“I appreciate your asking me, but no thank you.”

“Thanks for thinking of me; I have too many other commitments.”

“I think I’ll pass on this one, but thanks for asking.”

“Thank you for your time, but I’m not interested in changing religions today.”

“I appreciate your trying again, and I still have too many other commitments.”

“Honey, I’m sorry, but I won’t be able to pick up your cleaning today. Maybe you can stop for it when you drive by the cleaners on your way home.”

“Sweetheart, I can’t help you with that school project since you didn’t mention it earlier and we only have five minutes to get you to school.”

You get the idea. Once you know what your boundaries are, don’t allow wiggle room—no beating around the bush. Offer a “thanks for thinking of me,” and clearly and concisely let them know where you stand.

Overlay some of the above boundary issues on top of your current relationships. Do you see any need for adjustments to allow a little more openness and porosity or a little less penetrability and bleed through?

For example: For the tenth time, an acquaintance invites you to their church group, despite the fact that you have established that your belief system lies in Judaism. Instead of saying “no”, you put them off yet again with a “maybe another time,” when the truth is that it is apparent after ten invitations that it will be a cold day in hell before you will accept. Instead of allowing for the sort of ambiguity that will result in yet another awkward invite, you can politely say, “Thank you, I so appreciate your thinking of me, and I’m just not interested.”

Or, let’s say a partner expects you to take care of the dog that they brought home unexpectedly, so you do. This one’s tough, but you can return responsibility to them. “Honey, I’m sure you can find someone who can walk the dog when you’re not available.”

If you’re up for self-discovery, I recommend Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly, in which she explores her struggles with boundaries and how she learned to handle them.

The biggest challenge with any self-discovery work is that there is no overnight fix. It takes time and patience. Building on small victories requires a mixture of exploration, practice, and perseverance. A large-scale win is achieved when we stop expecting everyone else to read our minds.

When I learned to ask for what I wanted, my life changed dramatically. I still fall back into old behaviors when I am particularly stressed. But I catch myself more quickly and apologize more sincerely than before I understood where you end, and I begin.

Much love,