Last night, a question about boundaries popped into my inbox. As I’m working from home this afternoon, I thought I would walk down to my local coffee shop and spend some time with the subject. There is so much to share! Today, I have decided to share general information about boundaries, including a loose definition, a series of frequently asked questions, an exercise, a few tips, and links to resources.
So, lets get started:
First question: What are boundaries and why are they important?
In relationships, a boundary is where you end and where I begin. Boundaries are the emotional and physical definitions of what we will and won’t accept. They are our "yes-es" our "no-s." In the words of boundary setting expert Sarri Gillman, "everyone is in the middle of a life story, and your story is being shaped by what you are saying yes to, and what you are saying no to."
Our boundaries may seem "invisible" at times, but they are just as real as any other naturally occurring boundary. They are just as literal and real as the boundary between sea and land. Let's use this as an example. We accept that water is water, and land is land. We wouldn't expect either to change to be more like the other in order for their relationship to be more harmonious. That would be ludicrous, right? The ocean and the beach are certainly affected by one another. They adapt to one another, but they do not change their substance for one another. Humans are the same, except we have these big brains that feel fear and talk us into trying to change our substance. Can you imagine what would be possible for you if you could believe, "I am who I am" as confidently as you accept water for being water?
Next up: “How can I define what I will and will not accept in my relationships?
I’m going to offer you a strategy and an exercise. First, the strategy. Learning to identify and assert your boundaries isn’t something that will happen overnight. Let this be a process. Take your time. When you are faced with a situation where something is being asked of you, or you are being challenged in some way, carve out a spacious moment to pause and ask yourself the question, “Do I want to do this? What do I need right now?” Imagine that you have a compass right in the center of your core - it only has two words "yes" and "no." In response to the question being asked, is the needle pointing to "yes" or "no"? Trust what you see and feel. If someone is pressing you for an answer, tell them that you will get back to them in a moment with your answer.
Next, I'll share an exercise that will help you take inventory of your boundaries and challenge you to adopt boundaries that respect you:
Boundaries Inventory Exercise
Find a piece of paper and a pen, and write down the prompt: “In my life and relationships, I have the right to…” and record some of your beliefs. Take a few minutes to respond to this prompt before you read on.
Pause for a moment. What was that like for you? Is there anything that you wrote down that you respect in theory, but that you do not stand up for in real life?
Let's take this exercise a step further. The following list is made up of examples of personal rights that every person is allowed to have. Read them over and see if you agree that you should have these rights.
- I have the right to have my personal space and privacy respected and not invaded.
- I have the right to behave in accordance with my beliefs and values.
- I have the right to be in tune with my own thoughts and feelings, and share what I think, feel, and need.
- I have the right to express difficult feelings and feel safe while doing so.
- I have the right to decide what I believe, what I like, and have a solid sense of who I am.
- I have the right to be complex and hold conflictual beliefs, preferences, and identities.
- I have the right to be myself.
- I have the right to change my mind.
- I have the right to disagree with another person’s thoughts, even if I choose to respectfully listen.
- I know that other people do not have to agree with me.
- I know that other people will not meet all of my needs.
- If I feel disrespected, I have the right to speak up.
- I have the right to live without being controlled or bullied.
- I have the right to be treated as an equal.
- I have the right to stick up for myself, my values, my choices, and how I choose to navigate life experiences and relationships.
- I have the right to do what I want, when I want.
- I have the right to say no without guilt.
- I have the right to say yes when I want, but not out of obligation or pressure.
- I have the right to choose to limit contact with someone or end a relationship if it feels stressful, unsupportive, manipulative, competitive, or draining in some way.
- Only I am responsible for my own happiness.
- I am not responsible for another person’s happiness.
- I have a right to be in relationship with those who value me, who are loving, caring, supportive, encouraging, and who give me feedback about my positive traits.
- I am not responsible for other people’s happiness, negative emotions, or perceptions. If I have done something that has hurt another person, I have a right to examine my actions. If I decide that I have not been considerate, thoughtful, or kind, then I have a right to apologize without perseverating in shame. Once I apologize, I have a right to let go.
- I have the right to be forgiven.
- I have the right to make mistakes.
- I have the right to be an imperfect human, and give myself permission to do the best I can with what I know and have.
- I have a right to respect other people’s boundaries.
As you read through this list, do any of the items surprise you?
Take a moment to reflect on items that you agree with in theory, but fear putting into practice in your relationships: Find an item that you are scared to put into practice. Lets get curious! Ask yourself these questions: Why are you afraid of this right? What are you concerned might happen if you were to assert this right as a boundary in one of your relationships? Conflict? Hurting someone? Judgment? Rejection? How and when did you learn to trust that your fears will come true? How and when did you learn that you do not have a right to practice these items on the list? Most of us have learned what we should and should not accept during our upbringing. How did you learn to reject this right growing up in your family? Was it taught overtly, meaning, stated directly to you? Was it taught covertly, meaning, your family modeled rejecting this right but may not have necessarily spoken it.
Next, if there are any items on this list that you aspire to live by, would like to set, but fear setting, write them down on a note card (include a statement of why you want to set this boundary) and keep it in your wallet. One common boundary that people struggle with, is: “I have a right to say no without feeling guilt, fear, or shame.” Using this as an example scenario, you might write: “I have a right to say no, and not give in to feelings of guilt, shame, self-blame, or fear. My why: when I don’t say no, or when I say yes when I really want to say no, then I end up feeling drained and resenting the person or situation that I have said yes to. Somehow, things become more stressful and complicated than if I had mustered the courage to say “no” in the first place. I challenge myself to feel the discomfort of saying “no” instead of the discomfort of internally stewing because I didn’t stand up for myself.”
To take this exercise another step further, ask yourself whether you want to hone your perception of your loved one’s rights and boundaries? If you do, re-read the list of rights, but instead of thinking “I have the right…” Think, “My family member, husband, wife, friend, colleague, teacher, child has the right…”
What does it feel like to explore your rights and the rights of those with whom you wish to remain in relationship?
Spend as much or as little time with these questions as you would like. Turn to this exercise whenever you would like to explore your awareness of what right you accept, and what you reject.
Next question: How do I know when to set a boundary? And, how do I do that?
Signs that you have not been setting boundaries, but need to:
- you feel afraid of setting boundaries, or believe that you do not have the right to do so.
- you feel anger and resentment, and you do not believe that you have the right to address the person with whom you are angry.
- you are conflict avoidant.
- you identify as a people pleaser.
- you feel like a victim.
- you tend to ruminate about or fixate on what other people think about you.
The following list is made up of scenarios in which it would be appropriate set a boundary:
- Someone touches you in a way you do not like when you have not given them permission to do so.
- Someone has lied to you or has misled you.
- You feel taken advantage of.
- Your personal space or privacy are not being respected.
- You feel discomfort or anger as a result of what someone said or did.
- You are being blamed for something that is not your responsibility.
- You feel that another person is pushing their ideas, actions, or feelings onto you.
- You feel disrespected, insulted, or hurt.
- You feel bullied, abused, or someone is being aggressive.
- You see that someone is trying to compete with you.
- You simply feel the need to share how you want and do not want to be treated.
How? Setting boundaries is the simple (but not easy) practice of saying "yes" and "no." If you are new to boundary setting, don't expect yourself to be graceful. Just try to get the words out, or give yourself permission to walk away. Over time, you will find the verbiage that feels right to you and as a result you will feel more comfortable in the moment. We can say "yes" and "no" directly by being assertive with our words, such as saying, "I don't feel comfortable in this friendship, I need some space." Or, less directly, with our behavior, such as simply walking away or not calling someone back. Sometimes, when we are dealing with someone who is unreasonable, we can only use our behavior to establish our boundary.
When we assert our boundaries, we are teaching another person how we expect to be treated and how we plan to show up in the relationship in the future. When we set these boundaries, we are also setting consequences for what will happen if our boundaries are not respected.
Navigating boundaries in personal and professional relationships is challenging because we want to be connected to others, but most people have at least a handful of conflicting opinions, preferences, needs, and values. When we interact with someone who is different from us, the challenge becomes setting a boundary in a way that respects ourselves and the person we are relating to. Sometimes, we do not even know the exact boundary we want to set. In that case, it is totally okay to wait for more information. It is also totally okay to say, “I’m not feeling comfortable with XYZ, can we sit for a moment and talk about finding a compromise that works for us both?”
Stick with it! A respectful, loving relationship will never leave you in a place where you have to compromising your boundaries again, and again, and again. Longstanding relationships will require us to compromise and adjust at times, but this process should always involve clear communication, acknowledgment of boundary-crossing, and agreements. If you find yourself in a relationship in which the other person is unwilling to examine their boundary-crossing behavior, you would be wise to take a step back and consider how this relationship serves you.
Final question! What if I set a boundary, and the other person claims I am hurting them, judges me, rejects or sees me as being bad?
The truth is, some people will reject and judge you for setting boundaries. People may even gossip about you, tell others that you've done something to hurt them, or call you names. Other than speak up and set another boundary, there is nothing you can do to control this, but another person's behavior should never be a reason to betray your boundaries. There is a misconception that disrespecting your boundaries or “being a people pleaser” will lead to happy relationships. Doing so only leads to a pattern of anxiety, resentment, and lack of confidence as a result of separating your behavior from your values.
It is up to us to take stock and determine whether we want to continue to invest in a relationship with someone who struggles with respecting boundaries. Sometimes, we have people in our lives who we love, but who do not respond well to boundaries. I once read a book about boundaries in which the author compares people to dog breeds in order to make a point about boundary setting. Some dogs have been well trained by their humans and thus know how to respect other people’s boundaries. Puppies have not had this experience. They need to be told "sit" again, and again. When we find ourselves with a puppy person, we have a choice to either let them jump all over us, or to set boundaries with them again and again. This can become exhausting. Remember, it is your choice to determine whether the relationship is significant enough that you are willing tin invest the energy it takes to persistently name your boundaries!
Setting boundaries is a process that involves mistakes and uncertainty. Sometimes, it is true that we are being too rigid in our boundaries. You'll know this may be happening if you feel disconnected from others or struggle to adapt to other people's needs. The words “always” or “never” often indicate boundaries that are too rigid. Other times, our boundaries are too lax, in which case we may feel vulnerable and taken advantage of. When we have struck a pace with setting healthy boundaries, we feel like we are taking care of ourselves. We feel confident, relaxed, and energized.
Overall, This is perhaps the most important piece: If you struggle with boundary setting, welcome to the human race. There is nothing wrong with you! None of us are perfect. You have permission to have a boundary-setting process! The people who love you and care about you will respect and trust you more when you are clear about your boundaries. And, they will forgive the mistakes you make along the way. They will forgive you for having too-rigid boundaries at times, especially if you are wiling to apologize. And, they will respect your decision to tighten your boundaries if and when you need to do so. Learning your boundaries, mustering the courage to set them despite potential feelings of fear and shame, and committing to self-respect will always help you establish harmonious relationships with yourself and with the people who truly love you.
Lets end with tips on being a successful boundary setter:
Don’t assume people know your boundaries.
Inform yourself. Familiarize yourself with your list of rights. Read about boundary violations.
Pay attention to your “inner yes” and your “inner no.” Trust yourself.
Know why you are setting your boundaries. Journal about why setting a particular boundary is important to you.
Be clear and respectful when you communicate your boundaries to others. Use a "confrontation sandwich" approach. This sounds like "support-confront-support." An example is, "I know that you were just trying to protect yourself, but I still feel angry that you lied to me. I believe that you care about our friendship and understand that you did this because you were afraid. But I need time to sort through my thoughts and feelings. I'll call you next week." Hear it? Support-confront-support. This is how kindness and self-respect come together.
Know that there is no perfect balance between establishing boundaries and adapting to other people's needs. Experiment and reflect!
Don’t try to change people.
Challenge your assumptions about what other people think, expect, and need. Understand that they way you view a scenario may be very different from the way another person views something.
Know that you are not a victim - if you feel like a victim, then you probably need to empower yourself to set a boundary!
Improve your self-care. “You can’t pour from an empty cup.”
Sending you all love and care on the boundary-setting front! Examining your boundaries and experimenting with setting boundaries that you may be afraid of setting is a worthy and honorable path to be walking!