Boundaries are love.
Bear with me here. I know we don’t always feel this way. After all, it doesn’t always feel great when people set boundaries with us. You probably don’t consciously want your friends and loved ones to say “no, you can’t do that.” But if you’ve ever found yourself up late at night wondering if you offended someone or overstepped, you know what happens when boundaries aren’t communicated well.
I like to think of boundaries like the rules of a good board game: things are just more fun when the rules make sense. If everyone on board understands the rules, you can relax into the experience and get as silly or competitive as you like- but still be friends at the end of the evening. If the rules are fuzzy or unclear, though, or people “choose” to interpret them to their own benefit, you might have a really miserable time arguing about them. If you are super clear with the rules, you might mutually decide to flex them a little bit for some “house rules.” This, too, can be really fun.
That’s how relationships should be. If you know where the lines are and how not to cross them, you can relax. You can experiment with different behaviors, knowing they’re not against some secret rules. You can be messy- which in my book, is definitely a prerequisite to intimacy.
Of course, it isn’t always that simple. It’s hard to know what kinds of boundaries you really need, how to tell people that without being super awkward, and what to do when people trample over them anyway. You may have thrown up your hands and said “fuck it” in one or more boundary-necessary situations. Stick around- we’ll talk about how to ID them, how to set them, and how to maintain them so your relationships can get way more comfy.
Boundaries: What are they?
We all know the literal definition- a line that separates two things. We have ways we don’t want to be treated, and we can ask people to respect those boundaries. In interpersonal relationships, we can think about two kinds of boundaries: physical and non-physical.
We all know the proverbial line in the sand- don’t move past this point! Physical boundaries can be about your body, like not wanting people to come within a few feet of you, or not wanting someone to touch you. We all have physical boundaries to maintain a sense of physical safety.
You also probably have physical boundaries with your home and belongings. For example, if a stranger came to the door and you answered it, it would be really uncool for them to barge right in. And you probably don’t want your partner to mess with your clothes or your journal.
These boundaries delineate ways you’d like to be treated in relationships or socially. Many people aren’t OK with their partner raising their voice at them- that would be a boundary. You may not be comfortable with people asking about a medical condition or difficult relationship. You may not like a person you’re dating texting you about their feelings. Many people find relationship boundaries a lot harder to set, because they’re not as universal or easy to visualize.
You’ll also have to negotiate boundaries in your relationship to yourself- like not becoming agitated when others do, or not snapping into “caretaking mode” simply because a loved one is unhappy.
Determining Your Boundaries is an ongoing process
Good news! You don’t need to sit down today and know exactly what your boundaries are in all realms of life. For most people, figuring out their boundaries takes time. It often takes someone crossing a boundary to realize you had it in the first place.
I stress this because clients often put so much pressure on themselves to already have a perfect map of their boundaries- and many feel that such clarity is a prerequisite for conversations about them. While I do recommend being consistent about your boundaries and not changing them dramatically week-to-week, most worthwhile relationships should be able to withstand a request like this:
“I’m not sure if I am comfortable doing X with you. I’d like to experiment with not doing it for several weeks and we can check back in about it.”
Good boundaries are also flexible. On a crowded Muni/BART train, you might be somewhat OK with people brushing against you, but that is probably not going to be the case in a more spacious park.
A Few Simple Rules for Communicating Your Boundaries
Many of us don’t communicate our boundaries- and often hope that nobody goes near them. Many of us have been socialized to be accommodating, or are afraid of being rejected or hurt when we draw a line. Even worse, we might have early memories of our stated boundaries being ignored or laughed at. Communicating them can be a leap of faith.
To start, the saying “‘No.’ is a complete sentence” is spot-on here. Boundaries don’t require explanation. If I don’t want to be talked to on public transit, I don’t want to be talked to. If you’re not comfortable doing something with your partner, you are not required to provide an explanation.
If you do decide to explain, be respectful but firm. Your preferences and rules are just that- yours. You do not need permission to set them and they don’t need to make sense to the other person. These choices do impact others, so it is a good idea to acknowledge that impact and consider how to minimize it. And of course, be respectful of other’s communicated needs whenever possible.
Some people will always push your boundaries
Clear communication isn’t exactly a foolproof plan for physical and emotional safety. Almost everyone knows someone who repeatedly “pushes” boundaries- not outright crossing them, but making you nervous that they might. And lots of people know someone who loves to trample right over them.
I view boundary-setting as an internal process that we practice in external relationships. That means that, no matter the reaction the other person has, setting a boundary is always a win. Yes, really. If I say “please don’t cross this line” and you go ahead and cross that line, I’ve still done something healthy. I’ve affirmed for myself that my needs are important to me, even if they aren’t important to you. I have a better context for understanding my feelings. And I’ve practiced good communication and relationship building, which will over time improve the quality of my relationships.
Want to go deeper?
Boundary-setting is a concept I talk about all the time in therapy- and of course more complex than a single article can address. Make an appointment with me and we’ll figure out how to create more clarity and ease in your relationships.