"Setting boundaries is a way of caring for myself. It doesn't make me mean, selfish, or uncaring because I don't do things your way. I care about me too." —Christine Morgan
Simply caring for ourselves is challenging enough in today's world, but self-care in the context of relationships adds many layers of complexity. I have good news for you. There's a special skill that will help you navigate that complexity. It will build your own self-respect and others' respect for you. It will give you guideposts in your relationships and help prevent resentment and craziness. This blog is all about boundaries: setting them, protecting them, and respecting others' boundaries, too.
Self-care means taking personal responsibility. Here's our chance to rise to a challenge—one that we (and only we) can do something about. So let's flex our boundary-setting muscles and get started.
The concept of boundaries is a biggie. Drawing on a sports metaphor, we speak of setting and observing boundaries in relationships. Behavior that we deem acceptable, is "within bounds" in our relationships, and what we consider unacceptable and totally out of bounds. We need to know what we will tolerate and what we won't with our friends, family and romantic partners, physically, psychologically, and mentally. Boundaries allow us to differentiate ourselves from each other. They communicate identity—I am me, and my needs, desires and expectations differ from yours, and I am willing to voice them."
Our boundaries might be rigid, loose, somewhere in between, or even non-existent. A complete lack of boundaries may indicate that we don't have a strong identity or are enmeshed with someone else. That narrative goes like this: "It doesn't matter what I want, I only what you want."
Boundaries are not just about what behaviors we accept, they are also about how much we are open or closed to others. If we grew up in a family where there were no boundaries—no private space, no ability to say no, no doors shut, nothing respected as private property, or worst of all, physical and sexual abuse—we may have developed overly strict or rigid boundaries to protect ourselves. But if we're so closed off that we're like a locked vault, then we're too guarded and defensive to make connections with people. If, on the other hand, we're a totally open book with no secrets, limits, or personal space, then we'll feel depleted, drained, and lacking in a solid sense of self. Rigid boundaries are definitely appropriate in certain categories: abuse, for example, is never okay, ever. In other categories, however, some flexibility around boundaries is necessary and totally healthy. In short, super-firm boundaries can be as unhealthy as loosey-goosey boundaries. Again, it depends on context. Principle 5: Self-care requires attention and responsiveness.
What might it sound like to declare a boundary? Here are some examples of clear, practical boundaries that could help keep relationships in good working order:
You might believe that love is never having to set boundaries, but that's wrong. You might believe that love requires us to deny our own needs, but that is also wrong. You might have learned that endless giving is what being a mother, wife, friend is all about, and you may feel guilty at the mere notion of setting a boundary. Self-care challenges that idea. Self-care says that we have an absolute requirement to not let ourselves be stepped on.
You might feel it's not worth the risk, because of the anger or conflict that could arise from setting a boundary. But in my practice and personal experience, this is absolutely not true. As Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend wrote in Boundaries, "The person who is angry at you for setting boundaries is the one with the problem... Maintaining your boundaries is good for other people; it will help them learn what their families of origin did not teach them: to respect other people."
Reflecting on my own life, I am super good about my boundaries in some areas. Give me a gold star in my work life. I take Sundays off, I won't take calls after 9 p.m., I keep sessions to 50 minutes, and I charge for sessions not canceled 24 hours in advance. In my personal life, too, there are some boundaries that I am firm and absolute about. I will only be in relationships with people who are supportive, honest, and respectful. I absolutely will not tolerate physical abuse. My friends are respectful of my boundaries about when I am available to chat and know that my Sundays are spent with my significant others.
But that being said, boundaries have been a challenge for me throughout my life. I often have an automatic reaction to avoid conflict. As a result, I will sometimes know exactly what my boundary is but not dare to verbalize it. And yet, if someone "ignores" that unexpressed boundary—totally blamelessly—I feel screamingly violated, yet I don't object; nobody but me knows about it because I'd never set the boundary out loud. I experience the anger and resentment of a boundary violation, but I never set it to begin with. The problem, in this case, is mine.
Or perhaps I've set a boundary, but it's been crossed. When someone metaphorically tracks their dirty boots over my "No you don't" zone, I feel shocked. I know I am not okay with what has just happened, but I fear that confronting the person will lead to a fight. And I believe that I don't know how to fight without getting hurt. I feel creepy and awful that a boundary has been crossed and even worse that—unlike the umpires at Wimbledon, who so loudly call "out!" —I didn't confront it. I have a bad feeling in my stomach. That somatic sensation says to me I am going to be in big trouble if I say, "No! Not okay! Out of bounds!" so I stuff the feeling and suffer in silence.
In reflecting on my own boundaries and why I don't set them and stick to them, it comes down to a sense of lack of entitlement. As soon as something goes into my out-of-bounds zone—even a clearly declared one—my nervous system tells me that there is little to nothing that I can do about it. I don't feel entitled to defend that boundary. I fear that the other person will be angry, maybe irrationally so. I feel hopeless; I take no action.
I am not alone in this syndrome. I hear about boundary guilt a lot in my work, especially from women. The myths that that most often stop us from setting or protecting our boundaries are these:
I know people who are afraid of antiques, moths, hair products, salad bars, and even egg yolks. All of those, I suppose, have their own logic. But a fear of anger seems, to my mind, wise—wiser even than a fear of public speaking or heights. And those of us with a history of trauma have to work especially hard to overcome fear of anger. Setting boundaries can be a trigger for those who grew up in homes where they weren't allowed, or were chaotic and ever-changing. So we might not set boundaries as a way to avoid an expectation from the past. The thinking goes like this—"If I set boundaries, dad got mad at me, and so I believe all people will get mad at me." That, my friend, is a cognitive distortion—an expectation that what happened in the past is going to happen again. The difference between then and now is that you aren't a kid, and if someone doesn't respect your boundaries you get to do very adult things like say, "Get lost." You can leave, enlist help, call the cops if needed. If someone doesn't respect you and your boundaries you can choose self-respect, self-care, and move on.
I shared with my wise boundary-setting guru of a friend, Pammy, that I had some boundaries I needed to set, but I also told her that I wasn't able to set them, that I was afraid of how the persons in question would respond. They would surely attack me, yell, scream, and tell me I am stupid and ugly. Irrational? Yes. Does that irrational fear stop me and silence me? Absolutely.
Upon hearing my irrational inner dialogue, Pammy said, "I have an assignment for you. I want you to report to me any and all instances when you set a boundary and the other person gets angry at you. But in the moment when it happens, I want you to become aware of your anger that comes up and let it out, not in a crazy rage-filled way—but in a way that gives voice to that anger. If your boundaries aren't being respected then say with your body, your energy, or your words to someone to back off. I want you to report back to me."
I nervously agreed, and just a week later I had an opportunity to practice. I was meeting with a woman who became completely disrespectful and confrontational. I knew for sure that I was not okay with how she was treating me. I self-talked my way through it and said, This person already sees me as difficult and problematic, so what have I got to lose? There's no reason not to stand up for myself. Now, for the record, let me tell you, I was scared. My legs were shaking. I was uncomfortable. I was sure I was going to get in "big trouble" (when that phrase occurs to me, it's code that I've time traveled back to being a little girl). I wanted to suppress my anger, but I remembered the assignment that Pam gave me. So I did it. I confronted the woman who was tap dancing over my boundaries. I got clear, adopted a strong voice, and said, "You are being disrespectful. I am not okay with this."
Amazingly, the woman backed down, although I still felt a bit of that shaky "big trouble" feeling, worried that she might see me as "not nice." But mostly I felt relieved that the boundary had been set and that there was some new hope of resolution and change. I self-soothed and told myself this would pass and that I deserved to set the boundary. And I thought about what Pammy said: "If there is somebody who is going to be hurt in a situation where I have a boundary, it is not going to be me." While to the boundary-less that might sound harsh, those who are starting to see the cost to self and relationships can see the wisdom of my friend's words.
After I did the scary boundary-setting and lived to tell the tale, I did it again the same week in another situation. And it gets easier. I still feel a bit awkward at the moment I speak up to set or defend a boundary, especially if I fear anger or being seen as not nice. But it feels so good to have the boundary set, that I am now willing to go through the awkward moments to get to the good part: changed behavior and clearer air. Certainly, some people have not been thrilled with my boundaries—plenty of people wanted me to stay being nice, and some were so upset with my newfound power that the relationship broke off. I had been so afraid of that reality, but the truth is that I don't want to be in relationships that require me not to have boundaries.
We may be paying a price for the boundaries we fail to set. According to Boundaries authors Cloud and Townsend, if you have an interaction with someone that leaves you feeling sad, angry, depressed, critical, withdrawn, perfectionistic, and argumentative, it might indicate that a boundary has been crossed. This not only hurts you, but it also hurts your relationships. When boundaries are crossed, either knowingly or unknowingly, resentment happens, and when enough resentment builds up over time, we can stop feeling love, safety, and all the other warm ooey-gooey good feelings that come with healthy relationships. These negative feelings can lead to a thick crust of resentment, which can lead to withdrawal, emotional disconnect, and relationship breakdown.
When people aren't directly addressing boundary violations, it is common to get angry about something much less significant. Fights that seem to be about something trivial—"I can't believe you forgot to buy the milk!" —are merely stand-ins for bigger issues, such as, "I can't count on you to do what you say and say what you mean, and all this distrust is really pissing me off, but I can't say that, so instead I am mad at your forgetting the milk and also at the weird noises you make when you eat…" when the real issue was that I am hurt that you disregard my feelings and ignore my requests for intimacy.
Crystal Andrus, author of The Emotional Edge, says, "When you feel yourself becoming angry, resentful or exhausted, pay attention to where you haven't set a healthy boundary."