Boundaries: How to set them and what to keep in mind

We all have boundaries to protect our physical or emotional well being. While some are implied, others need to be verbalized for others to understand them. It is an important step in our self care.

Let’s look at a very clear example of a boundary. You live in a house or apartment. Your boundary is the door. You expect people to respect that your door is closed and that means they don’t just come barging in, no matter who they are. Now there are people that you might have given explicit permission to ignore that boundary and they are free to walk in. But if someone of the street that you don’t know just opens the door and wanders into your house at 10pm at night, you know that your boundary has been violated. Now you can react in a number of different ways: get angry, get scared, hide, scream, call the police, shoot the intruder.

As mentioned before, this was a very clear boundary. It is a boundary that is part of the social contract that we make when we decide to become part of society. It is an implied boundary and we don’t need to wander around, telling everybody we see that we expect them to respect our closed door. However, in other areas of our live it isn’t always that clear or that easy.

Sometimes we need to clearly state our boundaries because other people might not recognize them. When you are on your phone with a friend and they keep berating you about something, it might violate your boundary. To take care of your needs, you might say: “Hey, I feel hurt and angry right now and I would like you to stop berating me and if you keep going, I will hand up.” You clearly stated your boundary.

What are boundaries and what aren’t? And what is the difference between boundaries and ultimatums?
  • Boundaries are part of your self-care. You set them for yourself, partially to let other people know what will happen and partially to be clear with yourself.ultimatum
  • Boundaries state clearly at which point a violation will occur (the door) and what you will do if that happens (I will call the police).
  • If your intention is to take care of yourself and your needs, you create a boundary. If your intention is to control the thinking, feeling and behavior of others, it is an ultimatum.
  • Boundaries, while firm, are able to be renegotiated. As a self-care tool they are not fixed and always leave room for communication and connection. Ultimatums on the other hand are designed to be absolute and any violation will result in a breakdown of connection.
How do we set boundaries?

There are generally 2 ways to set boundaries. The first one, and the one I most often see employed is the retro-active way. Our boundaries got violated and we don’t feel good in that space. Now we know where the line is and we actually draw it in the sand. And then there is the pre-active way: We know or think that when a certain line is crossed, we will experience something that we don’t want to. So we create a boundary. (Yes, I used weird words because reactive and proactive have a cultural charge and I want to be clear that one approach is not better than the other. Both have merits and drawbacks.)

When we set a boundary, we basically outline an “if… then…” chain. We verbalize the boundary, what we see as a violation and what the consequence of the violation will be. And this is one of the most important things, boundaries without consequences aren’t boundaries. However, consequences don’t necessarily have to be bad things. “If we have a conversation and you say that you don’t understand my statement I will rephrase what I said and approach it from a different angle so you can receive me.” That is a boundary. It is for my self-care because I want to be received in conversation, it follows the if-then structure and the violation condition is clearly outlined. It is a boundary we can set for ourselves.

The other really important piece is that you have to be willing to follow through with whatever consequence you set. If you don’t do this, you invite continuous boundary violation. You have to be consistent and firm with your consequence. The more you are, the less your boundaries will get violated. And this applies across the board. Holding firm on one boundary, will make it much less likely for your other ones to be violated because people know you mean business as they say.


Things to keep in mind

There are always some things to keep in mind when setting or running into boundaries:

  • The more boundaries we create, the less we can play and enjoy ourselves and find people to play with. We all play the “Game of Life”. Consider boundaries the rules of your game. The more you create, the more complicated the game becomes and the less likely it is that people want to play with you. But this applies the other way round too
  • If you have no boundaries, you can’t play safely, enjoy yourself and people will not know how to interact with you. Without any rules a game can quickly become boring or painful.
  • Boundaries are often open for negotiation. While walking into a house unannounced is a violation, ringing the doorbell and asking if you can come in is a negotiation. But do so before you cross the boundary.
  • Boundaries are flexible. They aren’t rigid precedents. Don’t expect a boundary you ran into once to always be in the same place. Remember, they are created for a person’s self care. That means they will move when the self care need shift, which can be on a daily basis.
  • Consequences can move just as much as the boundaries. Starting just a little bit outside your comfort zone is a great place for growth.
  • There are times when boundaries have been communicated and they sit there somewhat rigidly and crusty while the actual line has moved. Be willing to renegotiate those not matter if you set them or if you run into them.

Wow, I could keep going because there are so many more things I could write about when it comes to boundaries. I stop here and you can let me know if you have questions or thoughts or think I missed something. Or if you believe I got something completely wrong.

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