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Boundaries: What they are and why they matter

Ah yes, the elusive B-word…boundaries that is. I hear this word thrown around often – and about just as often I hide a faint cringe at the context. Don’t get me wrong, I love boundaries. I consider myself to be a very boundaried individual and the use of boundaries is a part of the integrity I find to be essential to how I choose to live my life. The word itself though is often so misused and misunderstood I think the real purpose and practice of boundaries gets diluted. So what the heck is a boundary and how do I set and maintain one?

Simply put, a boundary is a guideline for appropriate and acceptable treatment I expect from the people in my life. The word itself describes limits around a given area, object, or ideal and is thus illustrative of the limits I have around relationships in my life. It’s not so much a hard rule or law that people must follow, nor should boundaries be construed as truly ‘right’ – other people do not have to agree with or like my boundaries, rather, my boundaries allow others to get a sense of who I am and whether they can be in a relationship with me. I teach others how to treat me through the use of clear and direct communication and through the implementation and maintenance of boundaries. There may be people who would like relationships with me (friends, family, coworkers, etc.) who don’t appreciate my boundaries, but they are indeed there to make sure that the relationships I build are conducive to my mental health and needs. As such, my boundaries give me important information about others, just as much as they give others important information about me. It is ultimately my decision if I’d like to have relationships with people who don’t respect my boundaries (spoiler alert: I rarely want to have relationships with people who don’t respect my boundaries).

So how do I set one? What do they look like? I’ll give you an example. I have a family member who over the years has expressed ongoing criticism of practically every area of my life that was not up to their standards. While everyone is allowed an opinion, I found the ongoing expression of these opinions to be grating, and ultimately they affected my self-esteem, identity, and belief in myself. It became clear to me that I needed to set a boundary around criticism and unsolicited advice. When I next found myself in a conversation with this person that became overly critical I stated, “I really enjoy talking to you, and I would like to continue to do – but I can’t if you’re going to continue to criticize me”. When they inevitably did continue to criticize me, I ended the conversation. I did this with this person many times. If I was on the phone, I hung up. If we were in person, I walked away. I made it clear repeatedly and consistently that I would no longer allow our relationship to be centralized around criticism and my perceived failures or shortcomings. As a result, eventually, this family member learned not to be so critical.

There are several important elements to an effective boundary. A boundary needs a consequence, without one it is merely a suggestion. When I work with clients on this concept I hold up an index card to represent a boundary. On its own, if I let go of the index card it will fall, but if I place another object behind it like a coffee cup (read: consequence) it can stand without any intervention. When setting a boundary I am clear about what I need and what will happen if the boundary isn’t respected. It is important to note that this consequence ought to be consistent with the severity of the boundary. It would be manipulative and a bit cruel to say for example, “if you continue to leave the toilet seat up I will divorce you”. Another important element of boundary setting is consistency. 99% of the time people react poorly the first time we set a boundary. That’s human nature and it doesn’t make the other person bad. When someone is used to getting their way a lot and suddenly is told no they may feel rejected or threatened and thus respond badly. This also doesn’t mean we’ve done anything wrong. Take the child who wants a cookie before dinner, they often become upset when told no, but they’re being told no for their health and wellness. Further, if the child is told no to the cookie before dinner consistently – eventually they will stop asking for the cookie before dinner. So too do I need to be consistent with my boundaries and consequences. If someone crosses my boundary once and nothing happens they will learn that my boundaries are flimsy and more akin to suggestions.

Are there exceptions? Of course. While I do not accept overt unsolicited criticism and advice from family members or friends – I have sometimes accepted it at work. That’s unfortunately the nature of the beast working in this country. Now, many times if I have felt criticism was unwarranted I have clearly communicated that to the powers that be, but every once in a while I would allow my coworker or supervisor to cross that boundary because a.) I had no personal relationship with them outside of work and b.) I didn’t really care what they thought of me.

Ultimately, your boundaries are your own. How you set them, what they are, that’s up to you. Boundaries are an important part of healthy relationships and the prevention of codependency or enmeshment in our relationships. There are plenty of great resources available to assist in the development of boundaries and I’m always happy to discuss them. Be kind to yourself, be true to your boundaries, and always feel free to reach out if I can help along the way!

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