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It seems as if the answer to nearly every interpersonal conflict, relationship concern or mental health recovery plan is setting better boundaries.
But what does that mean exactly?
“Every single thing in nature, everything, everything, even at a cellular level has boundaries,” said Deborah Ashway, a clinical mental health counselor based in New Bern, North Carolina. “And that’s there for our protection.”
Humans are a communal species, so it is important that we have a system in place for communicating our needs, wants, priorities and limits to one another to keep relationships running smoothly, said Kami Orange, a boundary coach based in southern Utah. Fortunately, most societies have a system, she added, and it’s called boundaries.
“Boundaries are a practice in problem solving and compassion for others, but especially compassion for the self,” she said.
People learn how to set boundaries through their interactions with those around them, so if you didn’t have someone who modeled well how to implement and enforce boundaries — or encouraged you not to — it would make sense that would be something you struggled with, Orange added.
What is a boundary?
Physical boundaries can be barriers such as walls, moats and fences. For the purposes of human relationships, “a boundary is a statement of what you expect, what you need or what you want in a given situation,” said Nedra Glover Tawwab, a therapist based in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Boundaries can be verbalized, or they can be expressed through your actions, added Tawwab, author of “Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself.”
Boundaries can ease interactions between yourself and the world around you, and they can protect your emotions, physical space, feelings, mental health, belief systems or anything else you have to offer, said Dr. Chloe Carmichael, a New York-based clinical psychologist and author of “Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety.”
You may have often heard the term “boundaries” used when it comes to a blowout fight or a toxic ex, but they are also useful with people you love and care about, Orange said.
“It’s not just about conflict and keeping bad people out. It’s also about keeping the relationships you value in,” she said.
That can mean setting boundaries with your partner about your needs when it comes to personal space, or preserving your relationship with a parent you are close with by setting boundaries on what you expect around your children.
If you have ever had a conflict stew with someone you love until it blew up and the relationship ended, you know how expressing boundaries before a blowup can help save a connection with someone, Orange said.
“You could have had that friend for years and enjoyed the benefits of that relationship if you said, ‘Hey, I would really appreciate it if X, Y and Z,’” she added.
Identifying your boundaries
Before you can set a boundary, you need to know what your boundaries are. And boundaries aren’t prescriptive. What may work for someone else may not work for you, Tawwab said.
A good place to start is taking inventory of your needs, limits and priorities, Orange said.
She also likes to have her clients look at what they are avoiding, because that may often point to a place where boundaries need to be set.
If you are not picking up the phone when one family member or friend calls, is that because you know they may infringe upon you or violate your values in some way? Maybe then the best thing you can do for your relationship with them is make your boundaries clear, Orange said.
Let’s take an example of your hypothetical parents. If you were to find yourself hesitating before going to visit, maybe you would examine why that is and realize you feel your parenting is criticized.
Maybe that’s a good place to start establishing good boundaries.
Setting a boundary
As hard as it may be for nice people to do, setting a good boundary requires saying clearly what the problem is and what you need, Orange said.
“A good boundary is clear and concise,” Tawwab said. “I think very often we say a lot of words, but we’re still not very clear about what we want.”
Instead of stating a problem like, “You always pick on me about my kids,” it is important to state what you need, Tawwab said. An invitation to do something in the future would help, she added.
What might good boundary-setting look like? You could try something along the lines of “I love you being so involved in my kids’ lives, but it makes it harder to keep their attention when you undercut my parenting decisions. In the future, can you refrain from criticizing me publicly and bring up any concerns to me privately?”
Boundaries can also be choices you make, Carmichael said. That can mean staying at a hotel when you visit relatives so you can excuse yourself when you need to or avoiding the more criticized events like dinnertime.
However, be aware that you can have the clearest boundary in the world, and that doesn’t mean those around you will respect them, Carmichael said.
You are setting boundaries to protect your needs, not to control someone else’s behavior, she said. If they choose not to honor your boundary, that is not something you need to manage, Tawwab added.
Instead, it can be helpful to have a game plan for how you will adjust your behavior in that event, Orange said.
Enforcing your own boundaries
Telling your parents to leave the parenting to you might not do the trick. You might have to take more steps to protect yourself.
Your boundaries are important, and it is OK to take steps to safeguard them.
If you have established the boundary and it has been violated, Orange recommends saying it again with more intensity.
But if the transgression doesn’t stop there, it’s up to you to decide what action you are willing to take in response, Tawwab said. Do you excuse yourself to the other room? Do you go home early? Do you stick around during visits between your child and those relatives?
In some cases, boundary violations may be enough to end or put distance in a relationship, but that is completely dependent on the individual and what you are willing to do, Ashway said.
This is where boundaries can move. Maybe the consequences you would impose for one person are not the same as what you would be willing to enforce in another, Tawwab said.
“My mom could set my house on fire, and I would say ‘How dare you? I’m mad. Call me tomorrow,’” Tawwab said. If other people in her family did the same, she might not talk to them ever again, she said.
There is no right or wrong response to someone crossing your boundary as long as you are willing to enforce it, she added.
What doesn’t work is threatening a consequence you aren’t willing to enforce, Tawwab said.
Inaction is like threatening to take your kid’s phone away when you really don’t intend to. If you state possible consequences you can’t live with and then inevitably don’t follow through, other’s may not take your boundaries as seriously in the future, she added.
Responding to someone else’s boundaries
What about when someone asks you to respect their boundary? Maybe your parents have a boundary around how your children behave in their house.
“I see boundaries as a good thing,” Orange said. “And so, when people set boundaries with me, my first response is always ‘thank you.’”
Even if you feel some awkwardness or maybe hurt that someone told you they didn’t like what you were doing, it is important to see it as helpful information, she said.
Next, Orange likes to ask clarifying questions to understand the extent of the boundary and the situations in which it applies, she said.
Then you have to decide whether their boundary works for you. That’s because while you should respect other people’s boundaries, you don’t always have to live under them, she said.
“If somebody is asking you to do something that’s uncomfortable for you, you have the option to evaluate if you want to live in this discomfort, or do you want to say, ‘I really love you and I really like having you in my life, but this is not a boundary that I’m willing to live with,’” Tawwab said.
Boundaries are not about control, and the term should not be used to manipulate, control or transgress upon others, Ashway said.
A good way to check in on whether proper boundaries were set is to see how you feel after the conversation, Orange said.
“When I have a relationship conversation where we’re like, ‘Hey, how do we find a way that works for both of us to maintain this relationship?’ We walk away feeling happy and loved,” she said.