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The Art of Boundaries
Drawing on a sports metaphor, we speak of setting and observing boundaries in relationships. Behaviour that we deem acceptable, is "within bounds" in our relationships, and what we consider unacceptable is 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 behaviours 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.
Here are some examples of clear, practical boundaries that could help keep relationships in good working order:
· I need my kids to tell me when they're going to be home late.
· I feel disrespected when you don't listen or you interrupt me when I'm speaking.
· I expect you to pay back the money you borrowed.
· It is not okay with me for my roommates to go in my room without my permission.
· I expect my friends to not repeat personal information that I share with them.
· Don't call me at work unless it is an emergency.
· I am not okay with you commenting on my body, weight, or appearance.
· I know that I said I could do that favour for you, but I am not able to.
Why setting boundaries is so hard
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, father, wife, husband, 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 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."
The cost of too-loose or nonexistent 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, 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 annoying me, but I can't say that, so instead I am mad at you 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.
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