They’re a Two-Way Street
You teach people how to treat you by what you allow,
what you stop, and what you reinforce.
Has a loved one ever asked you for a significant favor or commitment, something you absolutely dreaded, but you agreed to do it to avoid hurting their feelings? Or, maybe you worried that if you said “no”, they wouldn’t love you as much? Many of us have done this, from time to time. But do you also remember how you behaved as a result of this undesired favor or commitment? Were you loving and generous, reminding yourself that the other person had probably done many nice things for you over the years? Or, were you instead resentful toward them, half-hearted or just plain old grumpy regarding the activity, wishing the whole thing would be over with as quickly as possible?
That’s the problem with ignored boundaries. When you ignore your own or set boundaries that are too loose for your own comfort zone, you end up engaging in activities that come with a built-in negative perception. This isn’t to say you should never help out a partner, family member or friend. But if you regularly say “yes” to things you don’t want in your life, how much are you really helping them? How much are you helping yourself?
Types of Boundaries
Boundaries work in two directions: they permit (or prohibit) others from getting closer to you, and they determine how close you can get to someone else. The above scenario represents just one type of boundary. Boundaries fall into four basic categories: physical (personal space), cognitive or thought (belief systems, opinions), emotional (including expression of feelings, lack of expression or lack of control) and spiritual (not related to religion but to what feels good and life-supporting to you).
If you set overly rigid boundaries, you shut people out, whether or not it’s your intention. When you fail to set boundaries, or when they’re too loosely defined, you send others an inadvertent message that you’re someone who’s ready and willing to be taken advantage of, only to turn around and resent the other person for doing exactly what you gave them permission to do.
Don’t Tread on Me
According to psychotherapist Mary Sanger of Insights Collaborative Therapy Group in Dallas, “It’s your job to determine how closely you let others in, and also your job to contain yourself so that you don’t intrude on someone else’s boundaries.” The tricky part, Sanger says, is that boundaries are different for everyone. “For example, while one person may be very comfortable with hugs from a stranger, someone else may recoil at the very thought.”
So, something as “simple” as hugging someone whom you already know doesn’t like being hugged is, in fact, intruding on his or her boundary. Saying “yes” to a friend when you know you should say “no” is intruding on your own boundary. And no matter how you rationalize away your behavior, neither of these scenarios shows respect for the other person’s thoughts or feeling, or for your own.
Boundary Setting 101
If you weren’t raised in a home where boundaries were identified and respected, you may still find yourself, as an adult, struggling with them. Perhaps you were even taught that it’s selfish to say “no” or, that “no” required a lengthy explanation attached to it. To learn to set boundaries, you’re going to need some new tools in your toolbox.
Believing that your needs, preferences and opinions are just as important as everyone else’s is the first step is boundary setting. Make a list of five things you enjoy doing, five things you don’t enjoy doing, five values that are highly important to you (e.g., family, friends, career, free time, physical activity, nature, etc.) and five types of behavior that you will not tolerate in yourself or others. You now have a good starting point for how and where to set boundaries that are meaningful to you. For example, if you love spending time with family but get very annoyed when family members arrive late to planned activities, there’s a boundary you can set. You may not be able to control their punctuality, but you can communicate to them in a firm but polite way how you feel about it, and ask them to cooperate.
Look around you. Is there a friend, teacher, clergy member or someone else whose boundary style you admire? How do they listen to others? How they honor themselves when doing so? How do they decline an undesired request made of them? How do they handle rejection? Make mental notes of what you like (or don’t) in others’ boundary setting so that you can model your behavior after theirs during the learning process.
Should Boundaries Be Firm, or Flexible?
The answer is, Yes. They should be both. When you first try out new boundaries, this may be especially challenging. Boundaries are sort of like a new pair of leather shoes; you have to “break them in” before they’re really comfortable. And boundaries, like good shoes, also require that you take good care of them, never neglecting them. The good news is, with practice, regularly used boundaries will serve you well for a lifetime. You no longer have to take things personally or worry so much about other people’s feelings or opinions. You are responsible for yours, and they are responsible for theirs. When healthy boundaries are in place, they do much of the work for you.
Handling Boundary Missteps
It will happen: Either you’ll step over someone else’s boundary or they’ll step over yours. But as you practice honoring your own and others’ boundaries, you’ll begin to see missteps for what they are: mistakes or blunders that can be owned and/or corrected. Not everyone will embrace your boundaries, and you may not understand someone else’s; both of these things are okay. Sometimes boundary missteps are even intentional. Addressing them as they occur helps prevent feelings from building up inside you.
One of the ways to handle boundary missteps is with what is called, “When you/I feel/I’m asking” statements.” For example, “When you are late, I feel unimportant to you, so I’m asking you either to be on time or at least let me know when to expect you.” Being honest about your feelings and communicating them to others are essential components of boundary setting. If you’re unsure of whether a boundary has been violated, check in with your feelings. If you feel angry or resentful, it’s a pretty good sign that you need to speak up.
Try looking at boundaries not as rigid walls but as lovely fences—with gates. You have the ability to decide what does (and doesn’t) get past that gate. Yes, we use gates to protect ourselves, but we also use them to invite others in when we’re ready, and in that scenario, we can truly and authentically enjoy their company.
For more information on Mary Sanger and Insights Collaborative Therapy Group, click here. For more information on boundary setting, see Ready to Talk: A Companion Guide to Psychotherapy by Mary Sanger, LMFT, LPC, LCDC.