Life is all about relationships — with yourself, family, friends, employers, partners, pets, etc. You have a relationship with food, money, sexuality, and other things. Every single one of these relationships is governed by boundaries or a lack thereof. Therefore, learning the fine art of setting boundaries is more of a necessity than you may realize.
“Boundary” Is Not a Four-Letter Word
Misconceptions, misinformation, and ignorance about setting boundaries keep people from engaging in this entirely appropriate and healthy form of self-care, communication, and relationship building.
Many think that setting a boundary means conflict, confrontation, or rejection. Some believe that setting boundaries is mean, controlling, or hurtful. It often feels like there must be a winner and a loser. At the very least, it can be uncomfortable as shit.
But the truth is, boundaries are simply the way we communicate our needs to others.
I wanna feel safe and get my needs met. So do you. Ok, cool — we’re in the same boat. Let’s work together to find a win-win solution to this. We can use words!
Why People Have Shitty Boundaries
Unfortunately, many of us grew up in dysfunctional family systems. Perhaps there was abuse, neglect, abandonment, mental illness, addiction, poverty, violence, or any number of traumatic circumstances. Frankly, it would be a statistical anomaly if you experienced no adversity in your childhood. It’s kinda just part of the human experience.
However, we adapt for survival at a very early age. This can result in having no boundaries in an attempt to satisfy our fundamental human need for connection (anxious attachment). Or, it can produce impermeable walls in place of boundaries in an effort to protect ourselves from harm (avoidant attachment). Or a mix of both! (disorganized attachment).
It also doesn’t help that we live in an invasive culture, rife with personal and institutionalized boundary violations. Plus, twelve years of public school generally teaches us fuck all about emotional intelligence and self-care. So please don’t be ashamed of not knowing how to do something you were never taught or modeled.
I know my parents loved me to the moon and back. Nonetheless, for reasons I won’t detail here, I didn’t feel safe, seen, soothed, or secure for large swaths of my childhood. I adapted by shrinking, becoming invisible, and going wantless and needless. Don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t rock the boat. Just grow up real fast and do what you gotta do to get the fuck outta here.
Eventually, drugs and alcohol would play a major role in coping with the pain, but that’s neither here nor there.
I remember being in first-grade gym class. We were doing relay races or something — sprinting back and forth across the gymnasium — and I had to pee sooooo bad. I don’t know if I was afraid to interrupt the activity, to be a burden, to ask for what I needed, to stick out and be seen. Who knows? But I vividly recall pissing my pants in front of everyone. Huge dark spot on my jeans. All down in my shoes and everything. It was a mess.
I spent a large portion of my life being completely terrified of having needs and subsequently feeling physically paralyzed and literally incapable of asking for them. My experience of living with chronically unmet needs reduced my faith in humanity to practically nothing. Asking another human being for help became an absolute life or death last resort for me.
When I was old enough to date, no surprise, I didn’t do such a swell job communicating my needs. I would shower my partners with love, gifts, and attention. All the time, I would strive to be super-boyfriend. If I can just be the best thing that ever happened to you, plus not need anything from you, that should be the perfect recipe for please don’t abandon me, am I right?
As it turns out, that didn’t work at all.
If the relationship didn’t end from being cheated on, left, or treated like dog shit, my own self-abandonment became utterly intolerable and I had to hit the eject button out of sheer necessity.
Usually, I would sweep all my wants and needs under the rug. I would keep my concerns, preferences, and opinions to myself, and avoid confrontation like the Ebola. Then, suffering in silence with habitually unmet needs, I would assemble a whole gaggle of resentments against my partner for not satisfying the very needs I was denying myself. Eventually, the self-inflicted pain became great enough to justify my untimely departure from the relationship.
It was insane.
Setting Boundaries at Work
At some point in my early thirties, after doing some recovery work around codependency, I found myself feeling miserable at my job. I was teaching a bunch of classes that I didn’t enjoy and not making enough money to live in San Diego. I decided I needed to quit.
Then, it dawned on me that I felt the same way I typically feel in a failing relationship, and I was lacing up my running shoes for the grand exit. It was the same old bullshit — not communicating my needs, blaming others, then vanishing.
I decided instead to sit down with my boss and tell him how I felt. He was like, “Ok, let’s rearrange your teaching load and give you a raise.”
I was fucking mystified.
Come to find out, communicating your feelings, wants, and needs is a highly effective way to make your life not suck.
Setting Boundaries as a Moral Obligation
In order for you to show up as your best self in any relationship, you need to feel safe and cared for within it. Period. If you don’t feel safe with a person, place, or thing, you’re likely to become resentful, spiteful, avoidant, or some kinda salty about it.
Therefore, I believe setting boundaries is what you do when you truly care about a relationship, and not setting boundaries is what you do when you’re ok with letting it burn to the ground.
Chances are that you know when you don’t feel safe, you know what you would need to feel safe, and you know that the relationship would be way better if you did.
And yet, most people choose to not say shit.
Like Jordan Peterson says, “When you have something to say, silence is a lie.”
Again, there are many reasons for this all too common situation — trauma, shame, fear, abuse, anxiety, etc. And if you are currently in a physically violent and dangerous relationship, please get confidential help immediately at thehotline.org.
For most of us, however, I believe we don’t set boundaries simply because we don’t know that it’s our job. Nor have we received proper training in how to do this job.
Well, now you know. If you are choosing to not state your needs or set boundaries in a relationship, you are responsible for whatever shit show ensues. And you will continue to get what you tolerate.
When to Set a Boundary
I always say that a resentment is a missing boundary. So if you’re upset with someone, there’s a strong chance you haven’t communicated your feelings, needs, or preferences with that person.
You can also look at any negative feeling as a possible indicator of a missing boundary. Do you feel drained after talking to or hanging out with someone? Disrespected or patronized? Hurt, anxious, or used? Icky feelings often signify you don’t feel safe, seen, soothed, or secure in a relationship.
Now, this could mean they are violating your boundaries, or it could mean you’ve never communicated your boundaries. In either case, feelings are your check engine light. Pay attention to those.
It’s worth mentioning, too, that you don’t have to wait for a relationship to suck before you set a boundary. In fact, I recommend front-loading your boundaries so you don’t have to put out any fires later.
How to Set a Boundary
First, determine exactly what it is you need in order to be your best self in a particular relationship.
If it’s a job, write down specifically what you need to be successful: salary, time off, training, support, resources, etc.
For a romantic relationship: time together, time apart, communication, physical intimacy, etc.
Family member: what you’re happy to discuss, what topics you’re not interested in talking about, preferences around holidays and visits, or whatever.
Really, just imagine you’ve got a blank check and you can write in anything you want. Jot down the ideal conditions for any relationship and know that the quality of that relationship depends largely on your willingness to talk to the other person about it.
Second, have the conversation. Don’t spring it on them, if you can avoid it. Ask in advance, “Hey, I’d like to share some thoughts and feelings with you about our relationship. When’s a good time to chat?”
The general talking points are along these lines:
“I care about you and our relationship, and I want us both to feel safe and respected in it. To that end, I’d like to share some things that don’t feel good to me.”
“To be clear, I don’t wanna control you, change you, blame, shame, or manipulate you in any way. This is about me taking care of myself and communicating my needs so I can bring my best self to this relationship.”
This is important because many people will get super defensive or completely shut down and be unable to hear you if they think you’re trying to control or blame them.
Also, be sure to use I-statements in this conversation. You-statements can be triggering, and are usually boundary violations. Obviously, violating someone’s boundaries while asking them to respect yours is a flaming bag of poo.
“I feel [feeling] when you [behavior], and I’d rather not be around it. If you feel the need to do it, that’s fine. Just don’t do it around me. And if you’re unable to not do it around me, I’m just gonna stop being around, and now you know why.”
Granted, aforementioned behavior can be anything from saying a mildly offensive word, to shooting meth, so these conversations can take innumerable forms. But this is the gist.
Finally, you have to enforce the shit out of your boundaries and repeat them often. This is tough. But a boundary without consequences is just a suggestion. So if you say you won’t tolerate X behavior, it’s your responsibility when you see X to choose between reinforcing the boundary and being a liar.
Bars to Setting Boundaries
People who struggle to speak up for themselves often have self-esteem issues, an anxious attachment style, toxic shame, or some other type of trauma. Which is to say, if you have a hard time communicating your needs, please seek out professional help. Your problem may be a lot deeper than you realize.
The good news is, you don’t have to be perfectly healed and flawless in order to set a boundary. You don’t have to “earn” a boundary by being a saint. As Brené Brown says, “There are no prerequisites for worthiness.”
You Can Do It!
There is a lot more to say about setting boundaries, but these fundamentals should point you in the right direction.
The Center for Nonviolent Communication has a list of feelings you feel when your needs are satisfied, as well as the feelings you feel when you have unmet needs. That list also has a link to a needs inventory to help you identify your needs. Most people don’t even know what their needs are, beyond food, water, and air.
You may also find some helpful resources in the 12-step fellowship of Codependents Anonymous. And, of course, I always recommend working with a coach, therapist, sponsor, or mentor to help you along your healing journey.
Boundaries can be tricky, but they are absolutely imperative to create a life that doesn’t suck.