A boundary is a line between us as individuals and the rest of the world. Inside of this boundary lies everything related to ourselves, things that are relevant to us and that are under our control. Outside of it is everything else.
In our social interactions, our boundaries define what we are comfortable with, based on our values and conceptions of what is important and what isn’t. Having healthy boundaries is a key component of good relationships and friendships.
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It is common for people to have poor boundaries due to the cultural messages or upbringing that they have experienced. We are repeatedly told to avoid saying “no” in our lives, to quietly accept any mistreatment from others so as to not bother anyone else. However, poor boundaries result in low self-esteem, a sense of being out of control of your life, and resentment towards others. It also leads to us being subjected to exploitative behavior from those who are all too happy to use our poor boundaries to their advantage.
The Line in the Sand
Boundaries are one of those things we all take for granted; we never really think about them until they stop working properly. It’s easy to see where the limits of our physical body are, but where are your psychological, emotional, and even spiritual limits? Do you have a clear idea of where you end and the rest of the world begins? It’s common to assume that others will automatically respect the boundaries set between us and them, or that others will simply tell us if we cross their boundaries.
However, creating and maintaining boundaries is a skill, one that most of us haven’t expressly been taught. We tend to assume that loose boundaries are good and make us likeable to others, yet we may experience years of poor relationships with others before we even realize that our boundaries are the source of our problems. Similarly, it’s easy to mistake overly strict boundaries as a marker of self-respect, but they, too, harm our ability to form healthy bonds with others.
In this book, we’ll be looking closely at what a boundary actually is, the different kinds of boundaries that exist, and exactly how to turn unhealthy boundaries into self-serving, nonnegotiable standards. Because it can be so tricky to even recognize a poorly-set boundary, we’ll be looking at all the classic signs that one’s boundaries could use some work. In addition, we’ll also look at the signs and symptoms of insufficient boundaries that are less common.
By digging in deep to uncover the unconscious beliefs that inspire and motivate our everyday behavior, we can begin to unravel the habits that keep us stuck in disrespectful, exhausting, or even abusive dynamics. From there, we can start to build identities that align with the lives we actually want for ourselves. On the surface, boundaries don’t seem like such a big deal; however, the closer you look, the more you’ll see that mastering the art of perfectly balanced boundaries is at the core of optimum mental, physical, and spiritual health.
The following story is completely fictional, but similar situations have taken place numerous times across the globe. It may have even happened to you—see if you can recognize yourself in it:
A single woman is actively dating and trying out lots of new ways to meet new people. One day, her mother’s friend sets her up with a young man who everyone believes she will get along well with. The woman feels awkward and unsure about this, but goes along with it to please her (admittedly nosy) mother. “Just give him a chance,” people around her say, and despite feeling uninterested, the woman agrees to the date.
The man turns up at the restaurant at the agreed-upon time and the woman takes an immediate dislike to him. She finds him unattractive, boring, and the complete opposite of the sort of person she is looking for. But despite her discomfort and desire to end the date right then and there, she realizes that she can’t bear to look rude or unkind, so she pushes herself to smile and be nice.
She inwardly admonishes herself for being picky, judgmental, and superficial. At the end of the date, she’s exhausted and can’t wait to get away, but the man suggests that they go get ice cream together. Her heart sinks. He seems so insistent on this outing. Feeling guilty and cornered, she agrees. She says nothing when he touches her arm, and again says nothing when he later tries to hold her hand.
After ice cream, the woman quickly finds herself agreeing to a second date to avoid appearing mean or ungrateful. All the while, what she really wants to say is, “Thanks for your time, but I’m not interested.” Won’t her mother be disappointed and imply that there’s something wrong with her for never being satisfied with anyone?
Won’t the man be hurt and feel rejected if she turns him down? Because the woman believes she is heavily responsible for the feelings of everyone else in this scenario, she keeps saying “yes” when she really means “NO.”
Date four rolls around and this time, the man invites her over to his place. She doesn’t really want to go, but doesn’t want to seem prudish, unadventurous, or boring, so she goes anyway.
She holds her tongue when the man says something that she knows is factually incorrect; she accepts drinks when she’d rather not have any; she laughs at jokes she doesn’t find funny—after all, she wouldn’t want to make him feel uncomfortable, would she?
To conclude, the woman soon feels so used that she eventually snaps rudely at the man, then completely avoids him and refuses to answer his calls. He gets angry and wonders why she “led him on.” Everyone else involved is incredibly confused—weren’t they getting along great? The woman herself has difficulty understanding what happened. He was a nice guy, and she was trying so hard to do the right thing.
So, why did it end so badly?
Let’s first consider another example. A woman finds it difficult to progress in her career. She’s likeable and good at what she does, but somehow is always overlooked for promotions. One day during a meeting, she notices that her name is misspelled on documents, but keeps quiet—she doesn’t want to cause any trouble. Her younger, less-qualified colleague then blatantly suggests her idea to their colleagues, presenting it as his own. She’s angry about it, but feels sorry for him and decides to let it slide. She knows just how difficult it can be to make a name for oneself! She decides she doesn’t really mind and reassures herself that she can always come up with more ideas.
Later in the meeting, she is asked to take on a task that is not listed in her job description. The task would take significant time and energy that she doesn’t have. Unfortunately, she doesn’t feel courageous enough or entitled to say “no,” and accepts this extra work immediately. On the way home that evening, long after she’s supposed to be finished with work, she answers emails on the train and sees an email alerting her that she had been signed up to cater an event at the office that upcoming weekend.
Not only had she not been informed about—or even invited to—this event, it was automatically assumed that she would organize it, simply because she had agreed to do something similar last year. At the end of the year, the woman is asked to train the younger, idea-stealing colleague because they intend to promote him and give him extra responsibilities. Angry and upset, she confronts her boss to ask why she was never once considered for the position. His answers stuns her: “You didn’t ask.”
This woman is a conscientious, hardworking employee who possesses all of the skills and experience needed to succeed in her field. In fact, her department finds her indispensable and leans on her heavily. She knows she’s good at what she does, and yet… why does she feel so worthless? Why does she never seem to advance?
Drawing the Line
These women (and men, of course) may have problems with assertiveness or self-esteem, but the bigger issue they have in common is simple: poor boundaries. The first woman knows instantly that she is not interested and doesn’t want to continue with her date, but she never feels able to assert this boundary, to confidently say “no” to what she doesn’t want, without feeling like a bad person. She decides instead to allow other people to intrude—psychologically, emotionally, even physically—when she would rather have them keep a respectful distance. While she thinks that doing so makes her a “nice” person, the irony is that when she snaps at her date, he is confused and wonders, Why didn’t she just say she wasn’t interested in the first place?
The second woman has a similar problem, although in addition to not being able to say “no,” she also seems unable to say yes to what she does want. She dutifully martyrs herself by undertaking extra work she is too busy to do, is happy to go without thanks or acknowledgment, and never prioritizes herself, her needs, or her wants. Rather than asking others for help, she takes on extra work for them. Rather than speaking up when she’s been hurt, insulted, looked over, or actively violated, she keeps quiet and swallows her anger and disappointment. The result, sadly, is not that people see the many ways she bends over backwards and finally agree that she’s worth treating well; instead, they take her for granted even more.
Because she has never stated and defended her boundaries, her colleagues assume that her silence is a tacit agreement to the treatment she gets. If she doesn’t care about her needs, limitations, and boundaries, why should they?
In this book, we’re going to be looking at what boundaries are, what function they serve, and how difficult life can be when we fail to maintain healthy and appropriate boundaries. It’s arguable that women are trained in our society to have weak or non-existent boundaries. However, a part of reclaiming your own space in the world is about taking responsibility and ownership for setting (and respecting!) boundaries—and this applies to both men and women!
A boundary is a line we draw between ourselves and the rest of the world.
Inside of it is who we are, what we want, the meaning we create for ourselves, and more. Outside of it are other people, external events beyond our control, and a reality that is not strictly “our business.” Humans are social beings and we’re always engaging with others, always negotiating relationships, always sharing and exchanging energies with each other. But through all of this, a healthy person has a crystal clear understanding of who they are and the nonnegotiable limits of their being.
A boundary is often assumed to be about keeping something or someone out, but it is much more than this. A boundary acts not only to draw a line around what is not you, but also to reinforce and affirm what is you. Having strong boundaries doesn’t mean you are inflexible, selfish, mean, or uninterested in engaging with others. Rather, knowing and holding boundaries is a beautiful way to celebrate who you are, what you stand for, and all of the things you want to focus on and prioritize in life. A life with established boundaries is one of self-respect—the respect to give yourself what you need and to remove yourself from the things that hurt or degrade you.
Boundaries are about taking mature, proactive responsibility for yourself—never blaming others for your own reality, but at the same time never letting others blame you for theirs. With boundaries, we are in control. We show love to ourselves and to others, because we implicitly communicate that we are valuable. Our time, bodies, emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and actions are valuable. They are worth something—worth being defended and taken care of.
Every time we say “no” to something harmful in the world, we are effectively saying “yes” to ourselves and our own well=being. Every time we say “no” to an intrusive or needy person, we are saying “yes” to them learning their own life lessons without us rescuing them, and “yes” to our own right to autonomous well-being.
A person with intact and healthy boundaries will feel safe, calm, and respected. A person with poor boundaries will feel violated by the world and others, unappreciated, disrespected, overly obliged, guilty, resentful, and insecure. Sadly, sovereignty and self-worth are characteristics that, in our world, need to be fought for. We can strengthen this autonomy, however, by loving ourselves enough to maintain our boundaries.