When I was little I thought setting boundaries was telling someone what they can or cannot do. To me, the concept of setting a boundary felt negative and only related to personal space or rejection.
No, you cannot sit next to me.
No, I don’t want to play capture the flag with you.
According to my little kid brain, boundaries were not nice. My definition of boundaries didn’t evolve for decades.
Until it had to.
At age 28, I found myself living in a city and an apartment I didn’t really want, with my beloved boyfriend, who really wanted to be there.
We moved to Denver together because he had gotten his dream job and I, well I loved him so deeply I could live anywhere. “My dreams are portable! I’m a free spirit, what’s another new city?” I boasted about my flexibility.
In that moment, all I wanted was to be as supportive as possible and make him happy.
Consequently, I rushed my job search. I accepted it for the sake of timeliness with the move. I found myself hiking and skiing every weekend, something my NYC spirit secretly resented and didn’t appreciate (What happened boozy brunch? What’s all this fresh air?). I rarely worked on building up my coaching practice because on the weekends I didn’t know how to carve out time for myself or create privacy in such a tiny space.
After about 6 months of white-knuckling Denver, I found myself depressed and sitting in my new therapist’s office, sobbing.
“I feel like I’ve lost myself” I sniffled. “I miss my alone time, and need more space. I don’t even like Colorado. I don’t have time to do anything anymore.”
My therapist, a matter-of-fact realist to her core, mentioned creating healthy boundaries.
According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, a boundary is “a point of limit where two things become different.”
According to Essential Life Skills,
Personal boundaries are the physical, emotional and mental limits we establish to protect ourselves from being manipulated, used, or violated by others. They allow us to separate who we are, and what we think and feel, from the thoughts and feelings of others. Their presence helps us express ourselves as the unique individuals we are, while we acknowledge the same in others.
Mark Manson also defines healthy boundaries as:
Taking responsibility for your own actions and emotions, while NOT taking responsibility for the actions or emotions of others
After months of therapy and consciously setting boundaries for the first time, here’s what I’ve learned:
Setting Boundaries Can Hurt At First But Then They Don’t.
There should be no guilt when setting a boundary that helps you connect with your best self.
But if you’re new to the whole boundary setting thing, it can feel like you’re distancing yourself from something or that you suddenly care less about it.
Think of it this way. In the office, you work 12 hour days and this is your norm. In fact, this is the norm for the entire office. Everyone hates their life.
One day you commit yourself to working healthier hours and leave at 6:00 PM. You sneak out the back door and everyone still notices. This feels painful but you know that this is your right for you. Some people make comments. Some judge you. Some get jealous. For a few weeks, you look like the lazy employee.
But your productivity is still high and your work is still getting done. There’s actually nothing for anybody to get mad about.
Suddenly, people stop caring.
The discomfort that came from setting that boundary vanishes with time and you can enjoy life again.
Boundaries Are Neutral
When communicating a boundary, it is helpful to think about how impersonal that boundary actually is. The importance comes in communicating that boundary.
Explaining to your spouse that you need an hour to write every morning is a neutral boundary.
It’s not a rejection or an attack on character, it’s merely sticking a flag in the ground and saying, “This is what I need to be my best self.”
Unfortunately, something so neutral could be misinterpreted. Does this person not want to share our mornings anymore? Do they care more about writing than they care about me? If someone is hurt by a boundary, it may be a sign of an unhealthy attachment or codependency.
I am starting to think of boundaries as neutral as having a job.
For instance, there are so many Sundays in which I just want to run errands, clean and meal prep. But nine out of ten Sundays a social outing lures me off track. I almost always put my needs on the back-burner.
But what if I had a job on Sundays? I wouldn’t be skipping it to have a few beers with friends. I would just go to work. Social allure would have no chance.
So I’ve been telling myself: Treat this boundary like it’s your job. It makes it easier to say no in the moment and experience less inner conflict.
Considering Yourself First
When you end up in a situation in which you’re unhappy, check in with yourself and ask,
What do I really want?
There’s nothing more painful than looking back and realizing you didn’t have the self respect to listen to your heart and communicate what you need.
And as much as you think you can help it, you are not responsible for anyone else’s happiness.
Boundaries are set for protection. They’re here for you to preserve your individuality and unique expression. It’s dangerous to live without boundaries because their absence may jeopardize your happiness.
Without boundaries, you end up feeling caged.
The creation and reinforcement of my boundaries has revived my sense of self in this new place. Learning more about boundaries has strengthened my ability to clearly identify what I want without second guessing myself. I can navigate throughout the world with authentic yes’s and authentic no’s. The learning of my own boundaries has been a true source of empowerment.