Creating Boundaries

A large part of therapy for many people is learning how to create “healthy boundaries.” Whether adults or children, with friends or family, we often find ourselves having our desires ignored, our time undervalued, and sometimes even our bodies mistreated again and again, despite our attempts to express our preference against such things happening.

People who admit to having poor boundaries often look upon those that do not and wonder what the secret is. How do those people get treated with more respect? Why aren’t they mistreated as often?

There are plenty of potential answers in this space, from demeanor to status to power dynamics, but the most important thing to recognize is that when we talk about social boundaries, they do not exist as barriers that physically stop people from ever violating them.

All “having strong boundaries” means is:

  1. You’ve stated a preference for how you’re treated.
  2. You’ve made it known what your reaction will be if you’re not treated that way.
  3. You follow through on the reaction.

That’s it. Do that enough times, and voilà, you have boundaries.

To make this more concrete, let’s say your mother keeps calling to criticize your life choices or your partner, or a friend keeps invading your personal space, and this makes you feel bad. In fact it may, reasonably, make you not want to talk to your mother or be around your friend anymore.

The first step is to let them know that. Ideally, you’d let them know that you want to maintain a good and positive relationship with them, but that [specific behavior] is keeping that from happening. It’s not a choice on your part, but a consequence of what’s happening, the same way that people do not choose to feel safe or not when someone invades their personal space; they either do or don’t.

Hopefully they will want to maintain a good relationship too. If they protest, try to guilt trip you, etc, just repeat the preference, and explain the consequence; that you’ll hang up/leave the hangout/whatever the next time they do it.

And the next time they do it, do exactly that. And if they protest, remind them that you talked about this, and you’re just following through on what you said.

And keep doing it until either they change their behavior or they decide the relationship isn’t worth them doing that. Which can be sad, but that’s up to you to balance when you set a boundary whether it’s worthwhile or not.

Again, it’s really that simple. Social boundaries are expectations we create from common knowledge, like politeness norms, or our actions. When someone pushes past a line you draw in the sand, or even just stumbles past it accidentally, you have to be willing to push them back, gently or not, or else the “boundary” doesn’t exist.

Ideally, those pushes take the form of calmly stating your desires, and following through on consequences if they’re not respected. Unfortunately, if certain lines are crossed often enough, sometimes enforcing a boundary involves getting really, really mad, shouting and storming out and slamming the door, because anything less than that is just ignored. If the boundary crossed is a physical one, sometimes “pushing back” includes literal pushes.

And part of why some people have a harder time building and maintaining boundaries is that they have been conditioned to not ever do things like that…

…or the people violating their boundaries have power over them. Enforcing your boundaries is always an unpleasant thing to do, and sometimes it can be a dangerous thing to do, especially if your job or physical safety is at stake.

But if you’re never willing to do any of those things, and you feel frustrated that people don’t seem to respect your desires or needs… this may be a large part of why.

Try not to push too hard at first, and don’t push thoughtlessly, but I’m here to tell you it’s okay to push back. The how and when might be complicated, but the will to protect yourself even if it upsets others others is the necessary first step.

Remember that boundaries exist as a way to preserve positive relationships. They should be shared in that spirit, and seen in that light, lest they be misused to pressure people into uneven relationships, or treated as selfishness by others who don’t know how to negotiate preferences properly.

Edit: I’ve found an article by Tasshin Fogleman that goes into more depth about all this, and is worth the read.

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