Edges, Boundaries, and Limits

Michael McDonald
7 min readJan 27, 2019
photo by Yoann Boyer on Unsplash

Boundaries, especially within the territory of Consent, can be confusing, but they don’t have to be.

As the person who is the one setting a boundary (in the dimension of Honor Self —see the Three Dimensions of Consent), what are you truly a Yes to or a No to? What are your boundaries? When someone makes a clear request of you, sometimes the answer is obvious… and sometimes finding your Yes and your No creates a confusing, existential crisis.

Why are boundaries so confusing? Shouldn’t coming to a Yes or No be an easy, clear-cut decision? Well, it’s more complex than that (and it also can be simpler than you are making it out to be). We want to be safe, to not do things that will hurt us. We want to have high standards, to focus, to only do the things we really want to do. If we ‘cross our own boundaries’ we’re likely to get hurt, maybe right away, or maybe realizing the morning after that we shouldn’t have done that thing we did.

And, we don’t want to live in fear. We don’t want to play small. Sometimes our ‘boundary’ is really just our comfort zone, and growth and adventure and everything we want requires leaning into or blowing past our boundaries. If we don’t, we face a different kind of hurt, the pain of holding ourselves back and gradually withering away in a prison of fear.

When you come to a choice that scares you, does that mean that it is something that will hurt you or something that will make you grow? Do you choose freedom, or safety?

What’s really missing here isn’t discipline, it’s discernment. There are some boundaries that you want to lean into and push, in order to grow. There are some boundaries that you want to set in order to focus your energy, to stay grounded and in control, and in order to slow things down. And there are some boundaries that are there to protect yourself from significant hurt. ‘Boundaries’ has multiple meanings. Imagine if all your friends had the same name. Imagine if both ‘left’ and ’right’ were replaced with one word. Boundaries are confusing because we’re using one word for multiple concepts.

I’ve come up with three distinctions which I teach my clients and in my workshops: Edges, Boundaries, and Limits. These distinctions, like all distinctions (and all words), are made up. But have been proven to be really useful in clearing up the confusion around ‘boundaries’ and they have helped many friends and clients immediately transform from believing they are ‘bad with boundaries’ to being more clear about what they are a Yes to and what they are a No to, as well as being uncomfortable in the not knowing.

What these three concepts–Edges, Boundaries, and Limits–all have in common is that at least part of you is a No. What they acknowledge is that there are different kinds of No, whether it comes from fear of the unfamiliar, from a desire to stay grounded, or from a determination to stay safe. Let’s explore each.

A Boundary is knowing what you are a Yes to and what you are a No to. It has a feeling of clarity, will, and focus to it. This is the kind of boundary we set when we sign a contract, or do what we need to do in order to catch a flight. This is the kind of boundary where we are clear what we are willing to do, and with whom.

Boundaries are not about safety. (That’s what Limits are for.) Boundaries are creative: you get to design what kinds of experiences you can have by consciously setting your boundaries. You’re free to rub up right against a boundary, as long as you don’t cross it. Boundaries are also mutable: you are free to change your mind moment to moment what you are a Yes to and what you are a No to.

In contrast, a Limit is the point at which you get hurt. When someone (including yourself) crosses a Boundary, it’s just a mistake, a sign that something is out of alignment. When someone crosses a Limit, you get hurt. A boundary is a No by choice and by design. A limit is a full-on No that should never be crossed. (Kudos to Marcia Baczynski for helping crystallize this distinction between Boundaries and Limits for me.)

So wherever there’s a Limit there should be a Boundary, right? Nope. This is why so many people are getting hurt. You actually want to place your Boundaries far out ahead of your Limits. It’s common to rub right up against a Boundary, but you don’t want to rub up against a Limit. When they’re too close together, it’s too easy to get hurt. Boundaries get crossed all the time for a variety of reasons, so we want a big buffer in between where you place your boundary and the Limit. Boundaries can be layered like multiple lines of defense to prevent you from truly being hurt.

When you really realize that boundaries come way before limits, and that boundaries are mutable, boundaries become a source of creativity rather than safety. You can even set superficial boundaries with people as a way of gradually testing how much you trust them. A famous example of this is Van Halen’s contract rider during a world tour in which they specified “absolutely no brown M&Ms” in the ‘Muchies’ section of the contract. This seemingly ridiculous detail was actually a very cleverly designed boundary: David Lee Roth wrote in his autobiography: “So, when I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl … well, line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error. They didn’t read the contract. Guaranteed you’d run into a problem. Sometimes it would threaten to just destroy the whole show. Something like, literally, life-threatening.”

Know your limits. Create with your boundaries. Make sure there’s plenty of distance between the two.

So, what about ‘getting outside of your comfort zone’? For example, public speaking might strike the fear of death in someone, but it’s very unlikely to be a Limit: it won’t actually hurt you, and in fact you’ll probably feel better for having done it. This exciting and often scary territory is neither a Boundary nor a Limit: it is an Edge.

An Edge is something that part of you is a Yes to and part of you is a No to. Edges are uncomfortable and often unfamiliar, but also have an air of excitement to them; edges are ‘edgy’. Being at an edge is neither a green light nor a red light; it’s a yellow light. Proceed with caution. Slow down. Pay more attention.

An Edge isn’t a bright line like a Boundary or a Limit; it’s more like a range. You’re free to set Boundaries before, in the middle of, or past Edges. You can set a Boundary before in order to consciously prevent going into uncomfortable territory (e.g. “I’m not going to have any contact with him for a week.”) You can set a Boundary within an Edge to lean in some (e.g. “I’ll go this far but no farther.”). You can also have an Edge with no Boundary when you know that you won’t actually get hurt (e.g. “I know it’s scary, but I’m all in.”)

How can you tell if you’re close to an Edge or Limit? There’s an emotional tell that I’ve observed: When you’re at an Edge, you feel fear and/or excitement. When you’re at a Limit, you feel anger or shame. At an Edge, it’s just your ego which is being threatened. At a Limit, it is your health which is being threatened. In order to really lean into your edges, you should be crystal clear on what your Limits are.

Instead of needing to choose between freedom and safety, you can have both. In fact, true freedom requires safety. When you know that embarrassing yourself won’t kill you, you can speak up. When someone has proven themselves trustworthy, you can trust them a little more. You can say No whenever you want. You can say Yes to things that scare you. And by knowing your Limits you can stay clear of them in order to prevent getting hurt.

Imagine a path that runs along the edge of a cliff. The railing is the Boundary. The cliff is the Limit. The Edge is looking down.

First use these distinctions within your own world. What are your Limits? Do you have Boundaries set far enough away from them? What are your Edges, and how far into them would you like to lean right now (by setting Boundaries)? Before you enter a situation which might be particularly edgy for you, what Boundaries would you like to set beforehand?

And then, teach these distinctions to others. When their Yes or No is uncertain, ask them if they are at an Edge and whether they want to set a Boundary. Ask them how close they are to a Limit. Help them see the difference between Edges, Boundaries, and Limits so that they can explore the full range. When they set a Boundary, honor it (Honor Other.) When they are at an Edge, slow down and proceed with care. If they reach a Limit (even if you didn’t actually cross a Boundary, even if they said Yes), do whatever you can to reduce harm and plan for some Clearing Up later on.

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Michael McDonald is an Integrity Coach, writer, facilitator and speaker. “Something awesome is trying to happen, and your job is to allow it.”