I’ve got boundaries on my mind. It’s a topic I’ve contemplated for decades, but I feel like through a confluence of circumstances, I am finally stepping into my own truth and power around boundaries. I’m not saying I’ve got it all figured out, but I am saying that I’ve come a long ways down this path from where I used to be – and a great deal of that has to do with having learned to hold myself sacred and love myself unconditionally. I’ve been working on those two things diligently.
Here’s the thing: when I hold myself (my life, my heart, my body, my sexuality, my time, my skills and talents, my training and experience, etc.) sacred, and when I am committed to loving myself unconditionally, then healthy boundaries become not only easier, but more clearly necessary and assertively expressed and defended.
Now, my expression of my boundaries is not necessarily “perfect” or “ideal.” I had an experience the other day where I may have been able to handle a situation better if I’d had time to think about it. In the moment, I was not afforded the luxury of time, so I just spoke my boundary imperfectly – and that’s okay. The essential thing is that I didn’t allow someone else to steamroll over me. I didn’t allow something that I found unacceptable to continue. I expressed that this wasn’t the time or place for what this person wanted to talk about. I set a clear boundary around what was acceptable to me. I was polite, but not people-pleasing or overly concerned about protecting the other person’s feelings (which had totally been my M.O. previously).
This happened in front of a group of over 30 people. I did express a few minutes later, openly, that perhaps I hadn’t handled establishing the boundary I needed as well or thoughtfully as I could have. However, the point to take away – is that the essential thing is to express our boundary, particularly when someone is crossing it, no matter how well or poorly we do so. Our first obligation is to protect ourselves and our own interests. Other people get to take care of their own emotions and behaviors around whatever is being expressed. I can be as kind and considerate as possible, but it is most important that I express whatever boundary I need in the moment, that I stand up for myself and my needs and rights.
So, what are boundaries and why do we need them?
Simply put, a boundary is “a line that marks the limits of an area” (Google). In an interpersonal sense, boundaries are the lines we create that mark the limits of the various areas in our lives – what we are willing/not willing to allow into our lives, relationships, and experiences. Boundaries are expectations of how we want to be treated, and enforcing our boundaries includes how we handle it when someone crosses our lines. We can have boundaries in virtually every area of our lives – work, personal, sexual, family, friends, strangers, clients, community members, etc.
We need boundaries for a variety of reasons, particularly so that we can protect our own lives and interests. Other reasons include having a healthy separation between ourselves and other people. As the old saying goes, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Boundaries allow us to establish our own sense of self and to feel safe within our own domain – and to determine how we choose to interact with others. Boundaries help to ensure that we are not taken advantage of, or violated, or abused. Boundaries help to make it clear what we are willing to accept in our lives – and what we are not, so that people can know what is expected of them in their interactions with us. Boundaries help to create intimacy – because they allow the safe container of being able to express our needs, wants, desires, and limits – when we know that the other person respects/will respect our boundaries. Boundaries also help social and business interactions to run more smoothly.
So, a quick look at a few different types of boundaries. We may have work boundaries such as that we will only do work that we are paid for, we have certain salary requirements, we will not work “off the clock” or hours outside of our contract, or perform tasks that are outside of what we’ve agreed to do. These boundaries prevent employers or clients from taking advantage of us. We may have a boundary regarding not dating anyone that we work with – because we don’t want to risk having awkward feelings in the workplace resulting from a failed relationship attempt, for example. See, we get to decide how we want our lives to be. We get to be at choice about the experiences that we want to create for ourselves – and we get to choose what “rules”, “lines,” or boundaries we want to have. That is our right. We also get to choose how important various boundaries are to us – and how we will handle each situation if our boundaries are violated. More on that later.
Other boundaries could include how we allow our family and friends to treat us. We may have boundaries around other people expressing their opinions about how we should be living, what we should be eating, who we should be dating (or not), how we should be acting in our relationships. In fact, we may put a moratorium on “shoulds” and have a boundary along the lines of, “Respect me and my space and choices – and don’t tell me how to live or give me unsolicited advice if you want to spend time with me or be in my life.” There’s the line. Some people have had to clearly state boundaries with their families at holidays, “Don’t make comments or suggestions about what I eat or drink. Don’t say anything about my weight if you want me to show up. My weight is not up for discussion – and if it is brought up, I will leave.” You can be as clear and direct and firm in your boundaries as you like.
Here’s the thing: you get to choose how you’re willing to be treated. You get to draw the lines. You get to say, “Here’s how far you can go with me” or “Here’s what you can expect from me” or “Here’s what I am willing to agree to.” And then you get to expect for your boundaries to be respected and honored! You get to expect the people in your life to treat you the way you’ve made it clear that you want to be treated – or to expect a change in the relationship. Now, some boundaries are more important than others – and there are some people to whom you may choose to give a little bit of leeway – but when it comes to important boundaries, I think that we need to deeply consider how much we are going to value and respect our own selves and lives, even if it means letting go of some relationships. Maybe letting go is what is needed to wake someone up – and you might choose to give them one last chance if they seem to have learned their lesson. But really, one last chance, otherwise they won’t believe you are serious about your boundaries – and they’ll come to believe that you’ll always forgive them and take them back. I think it’s a mistake to ever let anyone believe that.
Communicating our boundaries – not as hard as we often make it out to be.
Think about it. Why do we find it so hard to communicate our boundaries? I think that for a lot of us, people-pleasing is our default setting. Many of us don’t hold ourselves sacred and don’t truly feel the right to even have boundaries. Some of us don’t feel like we are important enough or deserve to have boundaries – or we worry that we’ll be “more trouble than we’re worth” if we have strong and clear boundaries around how we’re treated or what we’re willing to do/not willing to do. We may be afraid of losing jobs, relationships, approval, and/or respect if we speak up for ourselves and our own needs. We may be afraid of being seen as selfish or “high maintenance” or some other undesirable label. We are often afraid of disappointing or displeasing someone else – but what about how we disappoint ourselves? Is that okay? I don’t think that’s okay! I am the last person that I want to disappoint! I want to put myself first. Yes, with consideration for others, but managing my own life is my job.
I’m not waiting around for someone else to read my mind about what I want, desire, and need – and hoping they choose to give it to me. I’m also not going to silently endure mistreatment – or even being treated in ways that I simply don’t like – because I’m afraid to say no (for whatever reason). NO!
I only know this because I’ve spent so much of my life doing those exact things. I’ve endured years of being disappointed in marriages because I wasn’t clearly stating what I wanted, needed, desired, and expected. I wasn’t setting clear boundaries. I wasn’t saying, “No, that doesn’t work for me.” Rather, I was busy trying to protect his feelings, trying to make his life happy so that he would think I was the best wife in the world, trying to prop up his ego when he was disappointing me. I was protecting him, not myself – and actually, not the relationship either. Relationships don’t survive when we sacrifice ourselves and allow our needs to go unmet, or our (spoken or unspoken) boundaries to be violated.
On the rare occasions that I’ve worked for other people (I’ve been self-employed most of my life), I’ve accepted being grossly underpaid. I’ve accepted working off the clock for free rather than being paid the overtime they should have been paying me for the excellent job I was doing. I’ve accepted supervisors treating me with less than respect, talking to me like I was below them rather than like an equal human being. That is unacceptable to me. Looking back, I wonder why I wasn’t speaking up for myself and setting clear boundaries – and walking away from any relationship, job, or situation that wasn’t working out for me and my life. Why did I stay? Why did I put up with the things I put up with? Why didn’t I even speak up for myself? Why didn’t I hold myself sacred and have my own back? (Answer: I just hadn’t learned to do that yet. As Maya Angelou said, “When you know better, you do better.” I’m doing better now. I am on a campaign of fierce self-love and holding clear and firm boundaries.)
What are the things that are holding you back from speaking your truths? Asking for what you want? Clearly and openly stating your boundaries?
What if you weren’t trying to seek approval from others?
What if you weren’t trying to protect someone else’s feelings?
What if you weren’t trying to manage someone else’s opinions/feelings/impressions of you?
What if you weren’t people-pleasing or over-giving?
What if you felt so protective of yourself (your time, your energy, your heart, your skills and talents, etc.) that it was easy to say “no” and to set parameters around what you were willing to do/accept – and not willing to do/accept? And to enforce and defend those parameters?
Same thing sexually and/or in relationships – what if you were so protective of your heart, your body, your sexuality, and your life – that it was easy to say “no” (and “yes”) and to set parameters around what you were willing to do/experience – and to enforce and defend those limits? And how would it feel if it were also easy to ask for what you do want – and respect and honor other people’s boundaries around whether they are willing to give you that or not?
What if you allowed yourself to stop caring so much about what other people think – and to deeply care about what you think and feel? (while respecting others’ boundaries, of course).
People ask, but wouldn’t that make you selfish and inconsiderate of others? No. It would make you honest, authentic, and a clear communicator – rather than fake, passive-aggressive, resentful, depressed, and all of the other ways we handle self-betrayal and an inability to clearly ask for what we want/need/desire, and effectively communicate our own boundaries.
Stop looking for outside approval! It’s an inside job! Your approval is the only approval you need! Yes, it feels nice to have confirmation/approval/validation from other people – but don’t ever rely on that or become dependent on that. Learn to trust your own counsel. Yes, be open to new ideas – but you don’t have to accept them – you get to consider and choose your own truth, your own path!
Don’t be concerned about being “right” – be concerned about being true to yourself, protecting yourself and your interests, and honoring YOU and your needs. We all make mistakes and are human. We also have our own unique perspectives, values, and desires for how things go in our lives. We can give ourselves and each other grace regarding this reality. And … we can pay attention to whether someone is making unintentional mistakes or whether they are consistently (and possibly intentionally) violating our boundaries. Also, boundary violations don’t necessarily mean that the other person is doing something “wrong” or “bad” – just that they are creating an experience for you that you don’t want or choose to have in your life. You do get to be at choice and to express your preferences – and if there is incompatibility with another person, you get to decide how you want to handle that.
Defending our boundaries.
Our boundaries are only as good as our ability to communicate them, defend them, and enforce them, aren’t they?
Before I continue with this thought, I want to offer you this reminder: we don’t have to like everyone. Not everyone has to like us. We don’t have to try to please everyone (or anyone) and we don’t have to take care of other people’s feelings. That’s their job. We are all in charge of taking care of our own feelings and lives. Yes, there may be many times when we want to consider the impact of our words and choices on other people – and we still need to be sure that even in doing so that we are honoring ourselves, our own needs, and our own boundaries.
I know that for most of my life, I have not clearly communicated my boundaries to other people. I have been too shy, too afraid, too worried about hurting someone’s feelings, or too unclear about my own worth to have clearly stated what I wanted, what I didn’t want, and what was important to me. I suffered through many situations simply because I didn’t say what was true for me or what I needed.
For example, I was a caregiver for my Mom the last four years of her life. She became increasingly disabled and needed more and more help. It wasn’t until the end when it became too much for me to handle that we hired another caregiver to help me take care of her. The thing was, long before that point, I was overwhelmed and I not only wasn’t asking for help, I wasn’t setting any boundaries. Mom wanted to get up early, so I “had” to get up early every morning, make her my first priority, and do all of the things that she wanted me to do before I started my own day. That was incredibly depressing for me – to never feel like I got to spend any mornings the way I enjoyed spending my mornings – like my life was just this series of obligations and totally out of my control. It didn’t occur to me back then to negotiate terms that would have made that situation more livable for me. I could have suggested hiring another caregiver sooner. We could have talked about letting me sleep in a little bit some mornings – and how we could work that out so that her needs were met, while allowing me a little freedom. We could have asked my siblings to participate more in her care. There were so many things we could have done differently that would have made the burden easier on me – but I never asked.
So, step one is to realize what you want your boundaries to be – and communicate them to the necessary people as needed. Pay attention to your own needs, desires, wants, feelings, etc. And realize that all of those things may change from moment to moment, so keep checking in with yourself – and keep communicating how you’re feeling and what you would like or how you would like things to be. I believe that a big component of this, once again, is to love yourself and hold yourself sacred. Many of us would totally stand up for someone else we love – but fail over and over again to stand up for ourselves. We need to develop that same passion and fierceness in standing up for ourselves.
Once we’ve clearly communicated our boundaries, the next step is to honor them. By that, I mean that we pay attention to our own boundaries – and defend them as needed. If I’ve made it perfectly clear to someone that I don’t want to be called before a certain time of the morning – and they keep calling me before that time, then I have to choose how I handle that. In the beginning, I may gently remind them of my boundary. After a couple of reminders, I may get more firm and say, “Hey, I’ve asked you to not call me before 8:00 am, but you’ve continued calling me before then. If you do it again, unless it’s an emergency, then I’m going to block your number.” That may be more extreme than you want to be – you get to choose how to handle it. My point is that there are consequences when I’ve clearly asked for my boundary to be respected and someone keeps ignoring/violating that boundary. I don’t need/want someone in my life who isn’t going to honor boundaries that I’ve clearly expressed.
Depending on what the boundary is, you might choose to have increasing consequences. Often, parents do this fairly easily: “If you do that again, we’re not going to get pizza Friday night. Keep doing it and you’re going to lose your phone and computer too – and push it again and that will be for the entire weekend.” It seems like parents feel like they have the power to set limits … and I wonder why so often, we don’t feel like we have the power to set limits in our own lives. That’s something that we could contemplate – a whole other rabbit hole I don’t want to dive into right now – but definitely power dynamics seem to play a role in this.
So, what are the consequences going to be if/when people violate your boundaries? I mean, it’s worth considering whether your boundaries are reasonable and fair. If you come to the conclusion that they are, then what are reasonable, fair, and enforceable consequences if/when those boundaries are violated? When someone doesn’t accept your “no” – what are you going to do? How far will you let them push you?
Here’s what I notice: if I speak up for myself immediately, without hesitation, I don’t have time to get angry. I haven’t sat in resentment about how this person is violating my boundaries, so I’m already not as emotional as I would be if I waited to say something. So, I try to say something right away – even if I haven’t thought of the “perfect” thing to say – or haven’t had time to think it through completely – or even if I haven’t clearly expressed a boundary previously and find myself needing to do so now. I just need to say something, no matter how inadequate or unrefined that may be. It can be helpful to have some phrases handy that you don’t even have to think about, such as:
“This isn’t working for me. We need to figure out a different arrangement.”
“That isn’t going to work for me. Let’s talk about how we can adjust it so that it works for both/all of us.”
“I’ve been clear about ________, and this isn’t okay with me. How are we going to fix it?”
“This isn’t what we agreed to, and this isn’t okay with me.”
“I don’t like that. Could we try this?”
What other phrases can you think of that you could use to express that you are not okay with the boundary violation in progress? Collect some applicable phrases for yourself so that you are ready to speak up for yourself as needed – without the sort of anger and frustration that so often erupts from feelings of helplessness and despair because we don’t know how to – or are unable to – speak up for ourselves. People who can calmly and clearly state their needs and boundaries don’t often tend to (or need to) get angry. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with anger either. Anger can be a strong signal that someone has violated your boundaries. Some situations deserve anger.
Finally (for now – this is just scratching the surface of this topic), you get to choose how serious each of your boundaries is for you – and what the consequences are if someone doesn’t respect them. There can be smaller consequences, such as, “If you don’t plan ahead and give me at least two days notice, then my answer will be no.” Or, “If you are more than 15 minutes late without giving me the courtesy of contacting me, I will leave.” Those consequences can escalate however you want them to. For example: “If you are late again without contacting me, I will not make any future plans with you.” Some people don’t care if someone is on time or not. For some people, it is very important to them. We get to decide. If it feels to us like an important part of respect and consideration for our time, then we probably don’t want to have someone in our life who repeatedly disrespects us and our time by repeatedly being late without even bothering to check in. If we decide that the person is worth the aggravation, then we can adjust our boundary for them, accept them as they are, and bring a book to entertain us while we wait. I can’t say that, though, without thinking that we teach people how to treat us by what we tolerate. Think carefully about what you are willing to tolerate – and ask yourself if that serves you and your life.