A friend of mine and I have had a number of conversations about boundaries this year. The word slipped from my mouth as we talked and she’s brought it up regularly ever since. The reason she has is that, at least as she’s expressed it to me, she found it fascinating that I had said that I found it a regular challenge to respect boundaries when dealing with both relationships with others and with myself. In her estimation, I’ve always been successful at setting and respecting boundaries. Given I stumble more often than I'd like to admit I’d say that's a definite overstatement, but I will agree that it gets easier the more I work on it.
The reality is that setting boundaries isn’t a “set it and forget it” type of activity. It requires a regular (re)evaluation of both what matters to us as individuals and of how successful we are at ensuring we communicate and protect them. However, this maintenance effort is well worth it.
The Importance of Setting Boundaries
As the saying goes, good fences make good neighbours. Fences mark a clear delineation between one private property and another and between private property and public property. They reduce the potential aggravation associated with having to deal with someone’s dog or dog doo, people cutting across your yard and keep children safely away from the street or back alley. They can also offer some much-needed privacy, a luxury that is much appreciated in the urban jungle.
We grow up learning about boundaries. Physical boundaries are the easiest to learn. We can see them, touch them, *gasp* climb over them and tear them down—as Berlin residents were delighted to do to their wall in 1989. But physical boundaries are not the most important boundaries we need to learn about. We discover psychological boundaries as well. By being exposed to these through human interaction, we learn how we can and should relate to others, at least from their point of view. A big part of growing up is doing stupid things and learning why the recipient of the action or statement doesn’t deem it appropriate, or appreciated. I cringe when I think back at some of the lessons I learned the hard way. C’est la vie.
The Fluid Nature of Boundaries
We navigate through childhood and learn about boundaries from those who are older and wiser, and we also start learning about them by interacting with our peers. We receive periodic instruction when the boundaries we set are deemed too selfish, mean, loose, or weak.
At some point though, we need to start setting them for ourselves—welcome adolescence! Here’s the thing though: boundaries are nebulous at best. They ebb and flow depending on our circumstances, who we interact with and how we evolve as human beings.
Change a person’s circumstances and I'll show you a person who renegotiates what she will and will not accept. Our sense of self is nothing if not plastic. It’s a survival mechanism of sorts and that’s why boundaries are, and forever will be, a work in progress.
Setting (and Resetting) Boundaries
Boundaries are what define how individuals interact in a relationship. These relationships include relationships with people, organizations and even animals (yes, Fido responds to your boundaries).
We teach people how to treat us, not the other way around. We teach them these lessons every time we accept or refuse statements & decisions they make, emotions they display, and actions they take. We respond to these both rationally and irrationally. Rational evaluation means we evaluate what the other individual has put forward and decide how we’ll respond. Irrational evaluation usually means we have an emotional response, either in the immediate or after stewing over it for some time.
Purposefully setting boundaries when and where possible can help us address interactions with rational versus irrational responses because we’ve been able to determine in advance what we will and won’t put up with or what we will and won’t invite. It doesn’t make saying “NO” necessarily easier, but it makes speak up more automatic and firm. It also makes saying “YES” easier because we know what we’re up for, though there’s no reason we shouldn’t take the time we need to make a decision.
Being clear on what we’ll accept ahead of time can also lessen our sense of obligation, guilt, regret and/or resentment toward ourselves and another party. These emotions can eat us alive if we let them and they’re often associated with the feeling that we don’t have control over our decisions. These emotions are associated with “I have to’s”, not “I want to’s” or “I’ve decided to’s”.
Coercive or manipulative behaviour, whether we’re the ones inflicting it or not, is never a workable solution over the long term.
Boundaries Make The World A Better Place
When we set and respect our boundaries by consistently applying them, and resetting them to adjust to changing circumstances, we live according to our values. We refuse to be puppets that others use for their purposes. We pursue what we believe will make us the best version of ourselves. We’re giving of our time and resources in the best way we know we can. We’re giving of our personal strengths in ways that fulfill us and that produce for others as well. We feel invigorated, hopeful and purposeful.
Respecting our boundaries and the boundaries of others is a winning situation for all involved over the long term. Everyone feels better, valued. Relationships are better and more respectful. People are more genuine and loving. Resources go further because they’re spent, invested and given with intent.
It’s a win/win/win: setting and respecting boundaries has a positive effect on the people involved and the resulting ripple effect the interaction creates benefits everyone in its wake.
The next time we’re faced with a challenge to what we know isn’t part of what we’re comfortable accepting or should be requesting of others, I hope we can keep in mind how powerful respecting boundaries can be. For everyone.
Image credit/copyright, in order of appearance: anankkml/freedigitalphotos.net
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