Many people grew up with poor or missing boundaries in their family. Or they learned that they needed to disregard personal boundaries in order to get love and attention. Then, when they discover much later that their lack of boundaries is problematic, it often seems terribly difficult to rectify.
I’d like to explain briefly why setting and maintaining appropriate boundaries is the most loving and healthy thing you can do for yourself and others.
Why Do We Need Boundaries?
Prentis Hemphill wrote, “Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.” Boundaries are the set of guidelines and expectations that allow relationships to feel safe, respectful, and mutually satisfying. They delineate the border between my lane and your lane — the difference between my needs and yours.
Without an understanding of where I end and you begin, relationships can turn into a royal clusterfuck of resentment, frustration, bitterness, and blame. So whether you have zero boundaries, brick wall boundaries, or electric razor wire boundaries, I can guarantee your relationships are gonna suck until you get that sorted out.
Tolerating Bullshit to Be “Helpful”
Do you put up with unpalatable behavior to avoid conflict or confrontation? For example, do you suffer in silence as someone monopolizes your time or firehoses you with mundane banalities of a painfully uninteresting monologue? Do you let racist, sexist, or offensive comments slide? Make excuses or take responsibility for other people’s emotional ineptitude and tell yourself it’s empathy?
If I allow someone to act like an unbridled shit-stick around me and I say nothing about it, I’m clearly communicating to them that their behavior doesn’t bother me. And if that’s not true, 1) I’m being dishonest, 2) I’ll continue to get what I tolerate, 3) I’m gonna resent them, and 4) The relationship will suffer. So, I’m actually doing them a tremendous favor by not allowing them to be a dick to me.
Whenever I feel uncomfortable around someone, I believe I have a moral obligation to say something. And how I say it can be the difference between a loving boundary and regular old trash-talk.
Setting a Boundary
If I tell someone, “You make me feel terrible because you’re so ______,” I’ve blamed them for my feelings, given away my personal power, insulted them, and started a war no one can win. This is not a healthy boundary.
However, I can say, “I’m not comfortable with X behavior. I’m certainly not interested in judging you or trying to control you, but I want you to know that X isn’t something I’m gonna choose to be around.” Then I wouldn’t be attempting to blame, shame, or tame them — just literally stating a fact.
And yes, oftentimes people will get butt-hurt and misconstrue this as feedback or an accusation, particularly if they’ve got toxic shame and self-esteem issues. But that’s not my problem. I’ve gotta give them the opportunity to manage their own feelings like a grown-ass adult.
Using the Shit-Sandwich Technique
If setting a boundary is new or scary, you can ease into it with a shit-sandwich. This is the method of smushing an uncomfortable boundary in between two positive comments. You can start with, “I love you very much, and I need to share something with you.” Say what you need to say. Then wrap it up with, “I appreciate your willingness to hear how I feel about this because our relationship is very important to me.”
Boom. That usually softens the edges on that thing.
But regardless of how the other person reacts, authentically sharing how you feel about the quality of your interactions usually helps you to not hate them or yourself for the inevitable deterioration of an unboundaried relationship.
Resentment or Boundary?
I always say that a resentment is a missing boundary. Any time I’m upset, especially with another person’s behavior, I usually have an opportunity to tighten up some boundaries. In fact, I’ve cultivated the habit of asking myself the question “resentment or boundary?” anytime I feel icky feelings bubbling in my chest.
Sometimes I will literally tell the person I’m interacting with, “I love you, but right now I have to choose between a resentment and a boundary. And because I love you, I’m gonna go with the boundary, because nobody wins when I choose resentment.”
Boundaries can be particularly challenging for those with an anxious attachment style, which is characterized by chronic self-abandonment. If you’re someone with anxious tendencies, I encourage you to run your daily decisions through this simple test:
Does this activity feel like self-care or self-abandonment?
Saying yes to a request. Choosing to answer a phone call. Wearing these shoes. Spending time with those people. Working through lunch. Keeping your opinion to yourself. Buying that thing…
Any one of these could fall into either category depending on the context. If you continue to choose self-abandoning behaviors, you will suffer the consequences. And the more you choose self-care behaviors, the better your life will be. It’s a pretty simple concept, but pretty darn effective in my experience.
Boundary or Wall?
The flip side of this exercise applies to people of the avoidant persuasion who sometimes suffer from having too rigid boundaries. Avoidant attachment is characterized by chronic self-reliance and difficulty letting others in. So, for these folks, I encourage you to ask yourself if you’re using a boundary or a wall.
Boundaries keep some things out and allow others to enter. Walls are indiscriminately impermeable — none shall pass. Boundaries are intentional. Walls are a trauma response. Healthy boundaries allow for connection and protection to occur simultaneously. Walls only serve to protect, connection be damned.
Can Intimacy Exist Without Healthy Boundaries?
If you have no boundaries, your relationship with yourself is probably doodoo. If you have walls instead of boundaries, your relationship with others likely stinks just as bad.
Intimacy is based on authentic sharing of your feelings, thoughts, wants, and needs with another person. Boundaries are the guidelines that make that feel safe enough to pull off.
No boundaries. No intimacy.
So, regardless of how you feel about boundaries, they are absolutely one of the most loving and nurturing elements of healthy human connection.
And if you’re not interested in healthy human connection, you’re missing out on one of the most wonderful things this life has to offer.