The topic of boundaries routinely comes up in my conversations with clients, friends, and family. The concept is so personal and layered. Are boundaries only for mean people? Privileged people? The rigid? Do they exist only in tense relationships? What are boundaries and how do I go about setting them?
Boundaries are the dividing line between where one individual ends and the other begins. Setting boundaries is an act of self care, of having standards, of teaching others about your needs. Last time I checked, needs were pretty important. Boundaries can also be seen as a way to ensure that you are protecting your peace...and we know peace is a precious thing. I recognize that this concept may be new to many--boundaries and their meanings differ from household to household, especially in relation to culture, socioeconomic status, and other intersectional considerations (more on that later).
For those, like myself, that have grown up in collectivist cultures, boundaries can mean muddy waters. For example, from an early age my status quo in life assumed that people were doing the best they could; I’ve always been inclined to see the good in people. I believed that there was, more often than not, perfectly logical reasoning behind why people did the things they did, even if I did not agree with them. I thought that just because I didn’t know the depth of their stories, it didn’t mean that it was my place to judge. As we see in film, an audience may understand a villain’s point of view if the story were told from their perspective. Frankly, I still don’t believe in “good,” or “bad,” people. People are complex and we are simply not black and white beings. For these reasons and more, boundary setting at first felt a bit contradictory for me. Why would I need to set boundaries if everyone, most of all my loved ones, was well-intentioned?
Admittedly, this natural stance of mine has lead to some grief over the years. I may have been judged as foolish, naive, or have been taken advantage of in earlier relationships. For a period of time I believed in the condescending energy around being told that I was “too sensitive,” and for me it translated to being inherently broken-- a sucker by default. At this point in my life, post-therapy school and along with the support of validating communities, I’ve learned to shift the narrative and see that both my empathy and sensitivity are actually superpowers. These qualities break through real barriers in my work as a therapist. Even still, I learned that not everyone deserved access to this superpower, and that I could no longer leave it up to those seemingly well-meaning people to have my back--especially if I didn’t have my own.
In learning to create space for myself, I repeatedly learned that the job of setting boundaries is never quite over. There is not a day where you suddenly say, “I did it! I set a boundary and now I’m done because I’ve beat this level and that’s that.” Teaching others how to treat you is your job, it’s your life’s work, and you may benefit from understanding that people will repeatedly approach your boundaries with the intention to cross them simply because they are operating out of their own best interest (and not even in a selfish way).
Examples of boundary setting
Not picking up the phone when emotionally exhausted.
Asking for space.
Letting your needs and preferences be known rather than deferring to those of others.
Disengaging after you have made your needs clear and continue feeling invalidated.
Attending a function because you want to rather than because you think you should.
Not responding to (non-emergency) work email/calls before or after work hours.
If setting boundaries is new for you, know that it might feel scary. You may be so used to people-pleasing that this unfamiliar skill may feel just-plain-icky AND you suddenly find yourself worried about how the receiver may feel about you in the aftermath. The trouble is, having a lack of boundaries might be reinforced after you’ve tried to set them and are met with negative reactions. In the face of new boundaries, your friends and family may be so accommodated to your original way of being that they begin to wonder whether this abrupt change means they are losing you entirely. That response is okay too, and natural in the face of such a change.
The good news is, like any new skill, it gets better with practice (it’s a wild concept, I know). Setting boundaries can eventually lead to feelings of empowerment and self-confidence. You may trust yourself more when you take notice of all the things you do to support your health and well-being. In fact, it may become so much fun that you realize, like any new skill, you may be overshooting. It is important to recognize the potential here: some individuals may suddenly feel a newfound power as they begin using their new assertiveness tools and move towards rigidity. One could say that when you still have your training wheels on, you may be trigger-happy with boundaries as you learn the appropriateness of the skill over time.
I’ve heard people say things like, “I thought boundaries were a white people thing...we didn’t even have doors in the house growing up.” This statement is exactly why I like to remind folks that there is no one way to set boundaries. Boundaries may seem like a luxury in some cases. In other situations, most notably among collectivist cultures, individuals may believe that certain boundaries are not realistic for their family-centered values. That is okay--there is no one-size-suits-all recipe. It can be beneficial to try on various concepts and take note of how they fit for you and your context. And when in doubt, it may help to think of this sentiment by Penny Reid: “Don’t set yourself on fire trying to keep others warm.”
And to answer the burning questions that I’m sure you are still pondering: No, boundaries are certainly not only for mean people, people with privilege, rigid people, nor are they exclusive to strained relationships.
More on Boundaries:
These handouts provide more in-depth psychoeducation around boundary types and styles:https://www.therapistaid.com/worksheets/boundaries-psychoeducation-printout.pdf
A Sample Personal Bill of Rights (keep in mind cultural context is different for everyone): https://i.pinimg.com/originals/30/8e/84/308e84cbabecc91fc96f60d0535a2aee.jpg