Boundaries

Defined

When we form relationships with others, whether at work, at home or within a social setting, we set limits on interactions in order to maintain our sense of self and comfort level (UCB, 2016). These rules help us stop others from influencing how we think about, feel about, and see ourselves and our other relationships (Katherine, 1991).

The act of setting boundaries empowers us to protect our self esteem and self respect, while also providing clear rules of engagement for those around us. The act of setting boundaries is critical to our ability to create and enjoy healthy relationships (Katherine, 1991).

Boundaries are not meant to influence or control the behavior of others (Katherine, 1991). It is not reasonable to take responsibility for, or enter a relationship with the expectation we will change, the behavior of others (Bancroft, 2008). 

Instead, boundaries allow each of us to decide what behavior we will and will not tolerate from those around us. Boundaries give us permission to act to preserve our physical and emotional distance from someone who is acting in a way that makes us feel uncomfortable or unsafe (Katherine,1991).

Emotional boundaries are designed to preserve the self, which is a unique combination of personal truths, values, ideas, feelings, desires and perspectives that make us who we are. Physical boundaries allow us to protect ourselves from unwanted or intruding forces, which, if allowed to reach us, may violate our dignity or negatively influence our belief that we can keep ourselves safe (Katherine, 1991).  

The act of setting boundaries allows us to assess our physical and emotional needs, and communicate those needs to others. Those who wish to show us respect will welcome the opportunity to learn more about our values and comfort. Those who don’t respect our boundaries make their intentions clear, allowing us to identify those who mean to do us harm. By defining our boundaries clearly, we show others how they can treat us by leading through example. Others learn how to treat us by watching how we treat ourselves (Katherine, 1991). 

With healthy boundary setting, we reduce our negative experiences by minimizing the amount of time we spend with those who do not respect our values and comfort. This preserves our emotional and physical energy, making more space for positive interactions with those who are respectful and safe (Katherine, 1991). 

How to Create Boundaries

If we find ourselves getting angry, building resentment, becoming frustrated, complaining, reaching the point of exhaustion, feeling overburdened, or avoiding certain people or tasks altogether - our body is telling us that we need to set a boundary (Katherine, 1991).

We honor ourselves by listening to our needs and working to restructure our environment and relationships to align with those needs. Even if we are new to setting boundaries, we deserve the space and time it takes to create them (Katherine, 1991).

When asked for anything, avoid saying yes reflexively. Take at least 10 seconds to consider what is being asked. Ask if it can be done without taxing time, energy or resources. If the answer is no, and the burden of the request is too high for our comfort level, we say ‘no’, and stand by the decision (Katherine, 1991). 

We are not responsible for how the person we said ‘no’ to reacts to our boundary (Katherine, 1991). ‘No’ is a reasonable response, and a complete sentence (AAWS, 2001). We can practice saying ‘no’ while making eye contact with ourselves in the mirror until we have worked past any initial discomfort.

Our physical boundaries include our personal space, our noise tolerance, our privacy and our acceptance of sexual requests. We can take time out from socializing to determine how much interpersonal space we prefer with family, friends and acquaintances. If someone is too close to us, we give ourselves permission to move our body to a distance that is more comfortable. If someone touches us in a way we are not comfortable with, we can physically lift and remove their hand from our body and give it back to them (Katherine, 1991). 

It can be worthwhile to take some time to revisit moments in our life where we have honored the boundaries of others. We can remind ourselves that we are deserving of the same love and understanding that we show those around us. Asking for the same kindness we give others is healthy, reasonable and productive. 

Consider the following affirmations when practicing new boundaries:

  • “I am a whole and complete person, capable of asking for what I need from others”
  • “I am capable of respecting the boundaries of others, and ask for the same in return”
  • “My boundaries keep me safe, and help me connect with those who love me”

Enforcing a Boundary

It is important to acknowledge that some people are not capable of honoring boundaries. This may be due to their emotional immaturity, their history of abuse, or more insidious reasons like a desire to control, manipulate or belittle others (Katherine, 1991). Setting boundaries with these types of people is an act of self-preservation.

Someone we're close to may have become comfortable with their ability to influence and control our sense of self, our time and our energy. So comfortable in fact, that they feel entitled to that influence and control. People like this may have a hard time accepting new boundaries that limit their access to us. 

When engaging someone like this, reduce information sharing to what is critically important only. Called an information diet, we work to limit their access to information they can use to influence us. 

We can prepare for pushback against our boundaries by drafting a verbal response ahead of time. Here we plan on certain others making us feel guilty or selfish and draft one or two neutral responses. We use clear, firm, calm, respectful language, and as few words as possible to reduce confusion (Katherine, 1991).

Don't justify, argue, defend or explain the boundary. A reasonable boundary does not need to be discussed or negotiated. When pressed, repeat the pre-planned responses. Repeating ourselves reduces the emotional burden of the conflict, reaffirms the boundary we've set, and makes an argument less appealing to the other party. Enforce the boundary by acting on it. If the boundary requires more space, then make more space. 

Never apologize when setting a boundary. This sends the message that we are unsure of our boundary, confused in some way, or desire something other than our boundary but are unable to communicate it (Katherine, 1991). Apologizing when we have nothing to be sorry for undermines our own sense of self, and invalidates our needs.  

RoadBlocks to Boundaries

Many of us who are new to boundaries as adults were unable to form them as children due to the influence of adults who were unsafe, or had unhealthy boundaries themselves (Katherine, 1991). This lack of experience with boundaries means we may need to practice identifying our needs, verbalizing them, and reinforcing our boundaries when they are pushed.

Feelings of guilt, selfishness, embarrassment, or anxiety may arise during the process of setting boundaries. We may fear confrontation, rejection, abandonment or abuse. If during the process of creating boundaries, these emotions come up, consider connecting with tools like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) (Katherine, 1991). Visit the CBT page by clicking here.

Politeness has an important role to play in our interactions with others, however, it is critically important to realize that there are some people with whom politeness will not work (Katherine, 1991). When we encounter someone who is not responding to our politeness with politeness, we must give ourselves permission to use language that they will understand.

We should be clear, brief, firm and calm in order to make our boundary as effective as possible. If we cannot get such a person to hear or understand us, we then remove ourselves from the situation as soon as possible. We do not need to become uncomfortable for the sake of someone who is disrespecting us.

There will be times in life where we are not able to avoid interacting with people who do not respect us. They may make fun of us, mock us, ridicule us, show us contempt, become sarcastic, belittle us, pass harsh and unfair judgements, abuse us, abandon us, threaten us or simply refuse to communicate (Katherine, 1991).

Their behavior toward us is a reflection of them, not us. We do not need to allow others to define who we are, nor alter our relationship with ourselves. Their perspective is not our truth. We are well served by recognizing that if another person is truly unable to respect our boundaries, we are not obligated to live our life without dignity and respect.