Boundaries: Maintaining, Sustaining
Last week, we gleefully ran through the tricky and often confusing world of setting boundaries… the unusual and unknown space where you’re asked to suspend all people pleasing habits and instead learn about… yourself.
Novel. I know.
In this post, we’re going to be tackling some of the harder known areas of maintaining your boundaries; essentially, what to do after you’ve found where you’d like to place them, uttered your shaky words and now going about your life as a human with boundaries.
From the off, boundaries are difficult. They require you to learn about yourself, to put yourself out there and set a standard of behaviour; that is hard. Within all of this, we're setting ourselves up for possible rejection. Ouch.
A boundary can be easier to put in place when you know for sure the other person will be respectful, appreciate you expressing yourself and genuinely cares to learn more about how you like to be treated, they're easier to take care of when they don't need much management…
Alas, a boundary is excruciating when this isn’t the case. In fact, when someone doesn’t listen to or respect your boundary, it can leave you feeling:
Confused; you may question or doubt yourself
Frustrated; left wondering if you communicated well enough
Invalidated; questioning if you’re worth the treatment or standards you’re asking for
Alongside this, many are not used to having relationships, of any form, that they feel emotionally safe in which makes learning boundaries especially hard. If you are used to pleasing others, carrying a sense of duty or guilt, feeling and doing positive things for yourself can feel unfamiliar on many levels. (Helllooo being human)
So, when starting your exploration of boundaries, it's easy to feel like you're "doing it wrong" or you want someone else to do it for you. Boundaries are hard. Full-stop. And they require ongoing attention and effort to maintain.
The following explores 3 wonderful areas of boundary setting to chew on as you learn your way. This is by no means exhaustive, and it could even be too much. As with everything, this is here to help you develop YOUR autonomy, I'm just writing away; take what resonates and leave what doesn't.
I'm not your therapist. I'm not perfect and these aren't "flawless" points, but they can give you a shit tonne more than the alternative of nothing. Your boundaries themselves are forever evolving with you, and so learning a number of areas around them can help you feel a touch more rooted than you may otherwise.
Guide yourself into feeling more secure in boundaries as a practise, rather than feeling one particular boundary is the be all and end all.
YOUR BOUNDARIES ARE YOUR RESPONSIBILITY
In my work, boundaries are one of the most common areas of focus. Whether from clients, or in my DM’s, a common feedback I hear is “I set X boundary, but they didn’t respect it, so I guess that doesn’t work”.
This test and assess process is a normal part of human function, we give something a go, see how it fairs and then depending on the results we get, decide whether we’ll do it again. NB: there’s mega caveats to this btw.
The issue of setting boundaries and only enforcing them based on the results they cultivate is that, quite frankly, you’re probably looking at the wrong results.
If a boundary is only a success depending on the other persons response to it, it may be that you’re focused on either pleasing them or trying to engineer a particular outcome.
Your partner has a habit of getting black out drunk when they drink, without fail. This isn’t something you enjoy or appreciate in your relationship, so you set the boundary that when you’re together, you only feel comfortable doing things that don’t involve drink.
You hang out, but they still drink then pass out and by the morning you’re left wondering why your boundary didn’t work. Except, that it has; only this time, it’s shown where they’ve crossed it.
A boundary isn’t there to control another persons behaviour, it’s to clearly highlight the space between you. When a boundary has been crossed, you have full clarity that they act in a way that doesn’t respect your boundary. The discomfort you now feel is a result of having your boundary crossed, ergo, the boundary works, it’s just now that something further is required.
When you assume responsibility of a boundary, you’re also in charge of upholding the action to ensure it, this could be a consequence, further conversation or addressing the issue. For brevity, we’ll umbrella these under consequence.
When setting boundaries, it is important to let someone know the consequences where appropriate, however not all boundaries need a heads up on this. In closer relationships, romantic or platonic, this can be especially important I.e.
“I don’t feel comfortable when you drink, and if this happens again, I will have to take some time to consider the future of our relationship”
This way, when a boundary is crossed, you have given pre-warning of the consequence, this can also help to move away from feeling manipulated or negotiating into a “yeah but I didn’t know you were serious” space.
While a whimsical idea of boundaries could see them being great, simple expressions that are freely and readily adhered to, this just isn’t the case. One of the most challenging aspects of boundaries is the responsibility you have to uphold them and take action accordingly.
Some further examples may be:
Letting your boss know you will not be available between 9pm-7am, if they pressure you, a further action to uphold your boundary could be to speak with HR or even look for alternative employment.
Going on a date, being asked a personal question and then after declining to answer or expressing that you feel it’s inappropriate, they still insist, a consequence could be that you simply get up and leave (an example of a consequence that doesn’t need prior warning).
Putting consequences into action can sometimes feel nerve wracking, however it is also where further confidence in boundaries is built.
You must take your boundary seriously, or no one will. Your boundaries are your responsibility to enforce, not someone else's. Reinforce them.
You will learn a lot about yourself and those around you when you set boundaries, especially how they respond to them and how you feel in that place.
2. A BOUNDARY IS A NOTIFICATION, NOT A REQUEST
When it comes to boundary setting, one common hurdle can be waiting for the other person to be alright with it, essentially trying to be too kind with it.
Much of our culture focuses on teaching “kindness and virtue”, meaning that essentially good behaviour = good egg, bad behaviour = bad egg. While this is a much larger conversation for another day (I cannot emphasise this enough) we’re gonna quickly summarise by saying: people don’t fit into binary boxes of good and bad. Humans are complex.
However, many are raised to believe that in order to live in the good camp and be worthy of life or love, you should be excessively accommodating, over-archingly kind and essentially Mother Teresa self sacrificial to be worthy of the “good” person title. This can include the soul crippling people pleasing habits that suffocate who you actually are in return for the smile of another.
This causes a myriad of problems, least of all the confusion that setting boundaries or saying no is in some form “being horrible" or unkind to another. As mentioned, this is part of a larger conversation; kindness IS beautiful, important and necessary. It’s just changing what the perception of and who the beneficiary of kindness is.
“Kindness and virtue” focused people pleasing can see you making requests of others not to squash, disrespect or walk all over you. As if their comfort while you step out from underneath them is a priority over you actually claiming space to exist.
An example of this could be:
Asking a friend who repeatedly gossips about you to “please find something else to talk about instead of me, if that’s okay?”, rather than letting her know that you find her gossiping to be unkind, hurtful and unacceptable, and it needs to stop.
Observing your boundaries as a notification, not a request can help you feel more empowered ahead of the outcome or their response. It can help you not feel quite as reliant on their response, and more focused on your expression.
Understanding that a boundary serves your needs, not others can be a difficult switch, especially for those more inclined to people pleasing (read: almost everyone with a pulse at some point).
Of course, context is important as does phrasing; making demands of your boss might ruffle some more feathers than need be, and while I’d love to be in the sidelines cheering you on, we gotta be realistic with how other dynamics come into play.
All of this said, phrasing a boundary as a question with a “is that okay?” can be an easy first or second paddling into the practise - it can also give you a heads up on how someone else may respond. Don't beat yourself up if that's your way for now, the important thing is to get it out.
As you may be able to tell, there’s no one size fits all, and this is truly your own sandbox to play in. For example, you may like to start with:
“In line with the new company wellbeing policy, I have decided to switch off all electronic devices between 9pm and 7am. Please let me know if you feel there will need to be any exceptions to this.”
“You won’t be able to reach me from 9pm-7am cause honestly, you don’t pay me enough for the stress you cause”
Ensuring you feel the “statement” of your boundary can support you in rooting into it as a regular practise in your life.
3. DETERMINE YOUR NON-NEGOTIABLES
Boundaries can be difficult to learn about because relationships themselves are multifaceted, ever changing and, of course, have more than one person in them.
Part of setting boundaries is learning that they are there for you and also for the benefit of relationship and interpersonal skills - not only a fortress to simply keep people out.
Learning your “soft” and “hard” boundaries can support you in feeling secure, understood and confident in what works, and doesn’t for you.
A soft boundary is something that, essentially, isn’t fixed, that is more reliant on the circumstance, person or context. A hard boundary is something that’s a non-negotiable for you.
A soft boundary might be “I never go out on week nights” or “I don’t work overtime”, there may be occasions where, in fact, you do.
A hard boundary might be “no physical harm to another human”, saying no to sex or being touched, where it is woven in with consent.
Hard boundaries are well thought of in the bi-nary - it’s super obvious when it’s crossed and may tie more in with morals and values.
Of course, there are many boundaries that are more obvious than others, you don’t go around grabbing at a strangers nose or asking their most traumatic life experience on the regular for this very reason.
Some boundaries are socially blurred, like working excessive over time or inserting ones opinion and judgement onto someones life.
Others appear in how others treat you, in dating for example; someone who blows hot and cold could cross a boundary in that they are non-communicative and disrespectful of your time, or they could want to be in constant communication and want to know everything about you right away.
Perhaps there is a struggle with setting boundaries around emotional dependency, cheating or consistently trying to “save” those you date.
Similarly, in friendships, perhaps you have a friend who always wants to be together non-stop, or who never lets you figure something out on your own.
Boundaries CAN and ARE confusing in many ways, and in practise, don’t fit the neat sentence they were perhaps formed in. You’re asked to check in with how you feel, learn your navigation system and educate yourself on vocalising that; this is naturally going to be a process.
Relationships are made up of a multitude of boundaries, which will vary person to person, and you learning your non-negotiable’s aids your own growth and understanding.
My focus when writing about boundaries is to explore the number of mini-questions and hurdles you may face in your own exploration…
There’s literally not a guidebook for this… and it takes practise. That’s especially difficult when the practise is… your life.
But, with all this wonderful guidance, insight and tips, my hope is to enliven a little spark in you to learn, grow and get curious through any fear, difficulty and frustration toward relationships and communication that feed you; most of all, the one with yourself.
In Part 3, I will be uncovering more of how to respond to crossed boundaries PLUS the importance of boundaries and the nervous system…