When I first heard about setting boundaries, I had no concept of what it meant. I was a curious kitty, and tried to dig up what a boundary means. Frankly, in doing my research, I didn't like what I read or how it made me feel. I realized I had been allowing my own boundaries to be crossed for years. I felt violated. I felt a sense of guilt, as though my allowing the breaking of boundaries was my fault, and I didn't deserve to feel sad or violated. I felt resentful. I also felt dumb for not knowing what a boundary was. Shouldn’t I have learned this somewhere? The process of boundaries seemed too hard to understand and implement. I was too timid to tell other people what I needed. I wasn’t bold, which I thought was a requirement in order to set a boundary.
Not sure exactly how much time passed, but eventually I stumbled on Dr. Brene Brown. She is a shame and vulnerability researcher, who also teaches (among other lessons) how important it is in our lives to set proper boundaries. She has a way of providing content in a “kick in the pants” manner at times (if you have read “Braving the Wilderness”, then you know what I mean!), but studying her work has changed my life.
I began to understand what a boundary consisted of and how to set them. I realized they are vital to my authenticity and to being happy and healthy.
A physical boundary is typically a fenced area, or a section cordoned off for something specific. In the sports world, we know that the game arena has its own boundaries. We respect physical boundaries, generally, because they are set up clearly in front of our face. There may be orange cones, signs, caution tape or lines of some sort depicting where “out of bounds” is. Best practice is to avoid crossing physical boundaries when asked to.
Verbal boundaries are no different. How does it feel to you when you say no to someone and they still proceed? You may experience anger, frustration, confusion, sadness or shock. You set a boundary by telling someone “no”, or something specific you are needing. When they don’t listen, and proceed to act opposite in what you asked them to do, then that person crossed your boundary.
You set a clear expectation of what you needed in that moment, and the person chose not to honor your wishes. This is not okay behavior. Those who disrespect your boundaries disrespect you. We all deserve to feel respected in our lives, whether that is in an intimate relationship, a work situation or by our family members and friends.
When you set a boundary, the other person doesn’t have to agree to it or with your reasoning for needing it. You aren’t striking a deal with them. You are telling them what you need in order to feel safe and happy. Do not avoid setting boundaries just to keep others comfortable.
So what does a fandangled boundary sound like anyways?
When you say no, that is a boundary. That needs no further explanation. When you agree to something with a caveat, then that is also a boundary.
Examples of setting a boundary with a caveat:
“Sure, I can come to that party, but I won’t be comfortable wearing a dress.
“Yes, I would be happy to help you move, but I have another commitment at 3:00 and can’t help past that point.”
“Yes we can go out to eat on our date, but I am not ready to go to your house afterward."
Random examples of boundaries in life situations:
With a family member: Maybe my mother always comments on my weight. I ask her to please stop doing that because it hurts my feelings, and she agrees. At the next family dinner, she blurts out something about how maybe I shouldn't eat that piece of cake. She has crossed a boundary I set with her.
In a work situation, you inform a client or customer: “Please arrive at the office before 4:00 p.m. I will not be available past that time.” This boundary tells the person clearly what is expected of them and that you will not wait around for them.
As a parent: “I have asked you several times to do the dishes. This is the last time I will ask before I take away your Xbox (phone, tablet, TV) privileges for 2 days (whatever time frame).” This holds them accountable for their actions. You are subtly reminding them that they have made a mistake by not completing what you asked them to do; however, you aren’t degrading them or shaming them for said mistake. Kids need boundaries and rules. Yeah, they are really great at pushing all boundaries that we set for them, but literally, that is them learning. If kids understand boundaries in your household at a young age, then they will grow to respect others’ boundaries and be able to set their own and advocate for themselves throughout their lives.
In an intimate relationship:“There is no reason for you to raise your voice in this situation. Please speak calmly to me so we can communicate better.”
“It hurts my feelings when you comment about my acne. Can you please stop bringing it up?”
“I didn’t feel validated when I told you how I felt. Can you help me process my feelings?”
There are so many examples of what healthy boundaries look like in an intimate relationship. They are vital for both parties, to ensure you are each getting what you need in the relationship. There is naturally a lot of give and take in relationships; however, you don’t sacrifice your happiness or safety in order to please your partner. Be sure they know what you need.
Okay..but how do you actually set a boundary?
You don't have to declare to the heavens that you have or are going to set a boundary. You don’t have to write it down or etch it in stone. A boundary is for your benefit. You should not trade in your boundaries for the comfort of others. You need no explanation or justification for setting boundaries. They are individually unique for you. You can also change your mind about having set one, which is okay too.
You must be willing to be vulnerable when you are setting a boundary. Being vulnerable can feel scary and cause apprehension, yet remaining complacent and not trying is not an option either. Be brave and fierce!
One of the most important boundaries we set revolves around consent. Allowing consent for others to touch us, engage with us, kiss us or be intimate with us. Consent can be given and taken back (each time, a boundary is set.) Just because consent is given once or twice or fifteen times also doesn't mean there is no expiration date on it. We never assume anyone’s consent is given if you have made no effort to verify that. In any situation of feeling murky over whether consent has been given or not, just ask.
When a boundary is needed, you will know, because you will feel apprehensive about something. To avoid feeling anxious or apprehensive, set a boundary. Protect yourself. Ask for what you need. Demand respect. Experience will have taught you something that you don’t want to repeat, so establish in that moment what must happen so that you don't experience the same heartache again.
For ease, here is a "formula" I came up:
“(I feel statement)” + “(concern)” + “(what you need to happen)” = setting a boundary
You will want to express your feelings without placing blame. The person may have been to blame in the past, but the point here is to set your intentions without making that person feel guilty or bad.
Using “I feel…” statements limit blame being placed elsewhere (including on yourself!). i.e.:
“I am concerned about…” “I worry over…” “I am fearful…”
Follow up this statement with your concern. E.g.:
“I am nervous about the upcoming deadline…”
Then, you state what you are needing or wanting. E.g.:
“…I need it to either be extended, or I will need some extra help from a co-worker.”
At this point, the person will either agree or disagree with you. In agreement, nothing else is necessary. Congrats, you set a boundary! You expressed your feelings and concern, then reached out for help to ensure sure you didn’t become stressed or overwhelmed. You advocated for yourself, and that is great work! Should they disagree with you, then congrats! You still set a boundary! Just because they disagree with you, or don’t follow what you asked, does not diminish the fact that you still set one. Your concern was shared and you stated what you needed. There may still be room for discussion after they disagree; however, if not, then reiterate your concern, and try to limit your accountability at that point.
“Okay, I understand; however, I need to reiterate how I don’t think I can meet the current deadline. Should I not meet the deadline, please understand I tried my best.”
Limiting accountability places some of the responsibility with them.
In the example above, after their disagreement, you are professionally telling them it will not be fully your fault if the deadline is not met. That person had a choice to intervene and help you complete it on time and chose not to. At that point, you have limited your full accountability for meeting the deadline on time.
Once you begin practicing boundaries, you will find that you are happier because you are creating an environment where you are being respected. Not only by others, but you are respecting yourself.
Will the process be pain free? Maybe, maybe not. But I can promise you will learn a lot about someone after setting a boundary. If they respect it, then they have earned trust and your mutual respect. If they don’t respect it, then you learn they are at least capable of being disrespectful and you should be cautious.
Let’s be realistic too, because everyone makes mistakes. You can choose to allow that person more chances with your future boundaries. You can choose to trust them or not. You don’t have to condemn them forever based off one broken boundary, but you also are not obligated to provide them endless chances, despite their relationship to you. I do wish to emphasize here, that you must at least take note of who breaks the boundaries you set. Tuck it away for the time being. If the process repeats endlessly, then I am going to say that person can’t be trusted. If it never happens again, then you may be happy to have provided that person another chance. All scenarios will vary here and will require your personal judgment and willingness.
Boundaries don't have to be a scary B-word. When anything is unknown, it can feel scary and cause feelings of apprehension. To eliminate that, learn what it means and understand it. That takes the unknown factor away. Once you understand why a boundary is necessary, you will move from feeling apprehensive to appreciative of them. Give the process a chance.