Boundaries, huh, good god, what are they good for? Absolutely everything

I remember the first time someone communicated a boundary to me in a healthy way. It was delivered with compassion, understanding, and an affirmation from my girl friend, who I was venting to about some problem through text message. “Hey, I am in a meeting at work right now and can’t really engage this fully. I will text you about this later, promise. Give me a couple of hours… and feel free to vent in the meantime; I’ll catch up. But I am listening!” She even inserted a heart emoji. Do you know how I responded? “OH! I’m sorry, of course! Thank you for letting me know!”

She came back about five hours later, when she was capable of holding space for me, fully engaged and ready to offer input on whatever issue I had going on at the time. She communicated a boundary that protected us both, which stemmed from her need to focus on work without dismissing my need for human connection and advice. Our relationship became stronger through her kind and clearly stated boundary.

What are boundaries?

Boundaries are what we as social creatures need to put in place with people in our lives to protect ourselves… and other people. They enable us to hold space for others, and most importantly, space for ourselves. Boundaries are things you are not willing to sacrifice (your needs, your desires, AND your limits). Boundaries can be physical, sexual, emotional, material (time, money)….and they should be put in place with every single person in our lives. Our significant others, our parents, our siblings, our friends, our children, our coworkers, and even ourselves….boundaries should be in place with everyone to ensure there is no codependency or overstepping between any two parties. Boundaries provide safety and security for both parties to respect each other and allow the relationship to grow more deeply without fostering resentment.

Our responsibility to ourselves

Personal boundaries are ours to discover and to communicate to others in our lives. If you look back at a time in your life when you were angry or resentful towards someone, you can probably reflect on the situation and see that you had a boundary that was crossed. Maybe you didn’t want to stay up late talking to a friend but they kept going and going and going…you didn’t want to seem like a bad friend so you disrespected your own boundary and didn’t tell them you needed to sleep. The next day, when your head started nodding in the mid morning meeting, you felt resentment towards your friend for keeping you up late. Or maybe your coworker kept pushing off their work onto you and you didn’t tell them you had a full plate already…so when it came down to your own deadline, you were stressed out and rushed and hated your coworker for being lazy and giving you all of the work. Is it your friend/coworker’s fault for your exhaustion/stress?

*Scrrrrkkt* No, it is your responsibility to identify your boundaries and communicate them. In both cases, you didn’t state a boundary to protect yourself. You suffered in the short term, your relationship with the other person suffered, and you disrespected yourself in the long term. You cannot expect other people to read your mind to know when a boundary has been crossed. Respectful communication is key to ensuring others know your boundaries.

Our responsibility to others

Think about how you react when someone enforces a boundary on their relationship with you. Do you get angry? Do you feel entitled to their time or their attention or their physical affection? Or do you understand that their boundaries are their own and that they are trying to keep their relationship with you through asserting healthy boundaries? If you find yourself receiving a boundary, remember that boundaries are not closed doors but fences…they allow relationships to continue.

And realize that if someone’s boundaries are ensuring that you are not getting what YOU NEED from the relationship, you are free to walk away from the relationship (this is *any* relationship: romantic, platonic, familial, societal, etc). Some people like to guilt themselves into staying in a relationship that disrespects their boundaries because “well, we get along really well” or “she is really sweet.” But I promise you, every time you disrespect your boundaries, you are fostering unhealthy communication and horrible personal interaction. You can find someone whose boundaries will not suffocate your needs, and vice versa.

How do you find your boundaries?

Listen to your gut. You can tell when someone crosses a boundary of yours, even if you’ve never stated the boundary to yourself. You might feel sick to your stomach, or feel that you’re being taken advantage of, or feel guilted into doing or saying something. You might resent someone for taking too much of your time or for not being there for you completely….listen to your body and your heart. Your body knows when a boundary has been crossed.

How do you communicate your boundaries?

Once you have firmly identified that you have a boundary, communicate it (with words) to the person who is crossing it. Some examples of boundaries include:

I won’t be staying up past 10. 

I don’t want you to touch me.

I will not forge your signature.

I will only lend you $20. 

You do not have to explain yourself, although some relationships have delicate nuances and I am a firm believer in communicating the “why” in boundaries to ensure the boundary is better understood by the person receiving the boundary. Explaining the reasoning for the boundary allows kindness and humanity to extend from the giver of the boundary to the receiver. Some examples of explained boundaries, which give compassion to the other person (and perhaps a leg up on confidence as to why you are asserting this boundary) include:

I won’t be staying up past 10. I have a huge day tomorrow.

I don’t want you to touch me. The kids touched me all day.

I will not forge your signature. If I am caught, I’ll go to jail.

I will only lend you $20. I am saving for a red Ryder BB gun.

Remember, boundaries do NOT have to be explained but it is nice to explain your mindset so the other person understands you better. Explanations offer an opportunity for conversation and for people to turn towards each other (which is foundational for relationships of every kind).

Boundaries and parenting

Parents, it is your responsibility to ensure your child has boundaries put in place for them at a young age because they are unable to protect themselves. Things like bedtimes, not making them hug and kiss relatives, and watching for when they are uncomfortable with strangers and stopping the interaction are all very important to enforce until the child can manage their own boundaries in a healthy way. Teaching them about boundaries (their own and others’) will help ensure they can have healthy relationships as adults.

I was teaching my five year old son about boundaries a few weeks ago…and he seemed on board. “Boundaries keep ourselves and others happy and safe and allow us to coexist. We must respect each other’s boundaries so we can be happy together.” About an hour later, I told him to do his chores. He grumbled and whined as he pouted up the stairs, “Momma, you aren’t respecting my boundaries!” It was hard for me to hide my laughter.

Boundaries in the future

The more you discover your boundaries and voice them to the people in your life, the easier it is to stand by and protect your internal self in the future. Hearing my friend give me a kind boundary with an explanation gave me the confidence to stand up for myself later when I felt overwhelmed and like my boundaries were getting crossed. My boundaries are getting firmer and more clear, although sometimes I still struggle to enforce them with certain people. I look forward to the growth and communication that comes from boundaries in all of my relationships…and I hope this post helps you do the same.