Boundaries are everywhere lately.
From yoga class dharma talks to dating articles. “Just set a boundary,” seems to be the pat answer everyone gives to challenges from overbearing mother-in-laws to trauma recovery. And let’s be honest: that’s a wide range.
The new hip accessory for self-aware people seems to be “Boundary setting.”
But I’ve also noticed folks bemoaning “I am so bad at setting boundaries.” or “He totally did not respect my boundary.” (We’ll always find a way to criticize ourselves, won’t we?)
I think many people don’t actually understand what boundaries are, based on these conversations. And I hear some common misunderstandings over and over.
So to clear up some common misunderstandings:
Contrary to popular belief, boundaries are not a way to tell someone else how to behave.
I know, I’m sorry. That sucks.
Because I know how many people are behaving badly around you, and I know how much their bad behavior gets all over you.
I know. Because me, too.
But I also know — the hard way — that trying to change someone else’s behavior, thoughts, feelings, or beliefs is a recipe for misery.
The Serenity Prayer was written for a really good reason: As a reminder to control the things you can. And 90% of the time, the only thing you can control is yourself.
And, I’m sorry, again — because that is not what any of us want to hear. When someone is being verbally abusive, or sucks at being a roommate, or calls us in the middle of the night — it is SO CLEAR that THEY’RE the one who should change.
People should not be abusive.
People should be respectful roommates who don’t leave dishes in the sink long enough to grow tiny fungal colonies.
People should KNOW that sane, reasonable people are asleep at 12:45am because the alarm goes off at 5:45am, THANK YOU VERY MUCH.
But people behave badly.
People say unkind things. People have different sleep schedules than you do. And sometimes, people are just gross.
Note: I am NOT suggesting you accept unacceptable behavior. I’m not even going to talk about finding peace of mind when someone behaves badly in your general direction.
But I DO want to talk about what you CAN do — and hopefully, that will feel like a relief.
Hopefully it will feel empowering. Freeing. Hopefully you’ll get a little peace.
Here’s what you can do: Set a Boundary.
A boundary is NOT a rule about how someone else should behave.
A boundary IS a guideline about how you will behave.
These are decisions you make, in advance, after thoughtful self-reflection, about how YOU respond to behavior you find unacceptable.
So for example…
A boundary is NOT: “FFS stop calling me after 10pm!”
A boundary IS: “I put my phone on Silent from 10pm – 6am, because that’s when I’m sleeping and sleep is important to my mental health.”
A boundary is NOT: “YOU MUST CLEAN THE DISHES OR I WILL PUT THEM IN YOUR BED FOR YOU TO SLEEP IN THEM LIKE THE PIG YOU ARE!”
A boundary IS: “I can’t live with a roommate who doesn’t have the same level of cleanliness I do. If you can’t clean your dishes within 48 hours, I’m going to have to find somewhere else to live.”
A boundary is NOT: “You can NEVER call me that again.”
A boundary IS: “The next time you use that word with me, I will hang up the phone. I will leave the room. I do not have conversations with people who use abusive language — no matter how much I love them.”
Boundaries are NOT: Rules for other people.
Boundaries ARE: Guidelines for yourself.
Boundaries put the power back in your hands. Because they give you the responsibility for your own experience. They no longer leave you as a victim to someone else’s bad behavior.
Boundaries let you shape your reality, and your life, and the people you put in it. Boundaries give you choices.
And freedom is just the ability to choose.
Here’s the bad news:
Boundaries do not protect you from feeling the feelings.
You will be terrified to express some things to certain people. The more important the boundary is to you, and the more important the person is to you, the harder it will be. It’s like an inversely exponential relationship.
So your voice shakes when you communicate your boundaries? Your face gets hot? Your mouth gets dry?
That’s okay. It just means this is really important to you. Your body is underlining just how important.
You might get angry when someone violates a boundary you have shared with them.
You might fear that you’ll losing the love of your life, and that you’re just too sensitive and if you could just get over it you would be happy. You don’t have to get over it. And the love of your life also loves how sensitive you are.
The real work? Feel the feelings.
Your feelings are sacred. Your feelings are a gateway to your deeper self. Cherish them. Hold them, even if you sometimes wish they were a little quieter or cleaner.
Feelings don’t mean that your boundaries are “wrong.” Feelings just mean you’re human.