Written By: Rourke van Rossem, Registered Psychotherapist (Qualifying), MACP
“I really don’t want to go to this event but I have to.”
“They keep trying to call me and I’m just avoiding them.”
“My sister is always complaining to me about my brother, I feel so uncomfortable and I don’t know what to say.”
“I’m supposed to contribute $100.00 for the gift this year and it really stresses me out financially.”
Do any of these statements resonate with you? Maybe it’s more that you feel general dread or anxiety about upcoming events and engagements, or you leave an interaction feeling frustrated or resentful. If this is true, it’s likely a sign you need to work on boundaries.
Our life is lived interpersonally, we cannot escape relationships whether it’s with parents, siblings, friends, colleagues, bosses, coaches, the list goes on. We are constantly relinquishing control of situations, bending and moulding ourselves, in order to live harmoniously with others. This flexibility is a good thing, it’s a “pro-social” behaviour. But, what about when all this mending and moulding starts to feel really bad for us? Even worse, what if our relationships start to suffer because we grow to resent the degree to which we conform to people around us? Boundaries. One of those buzzwords that are thrown around but never really explained.
Some people might have an aversive response to the word boundary. Maybe it comes across as rigid or selfish, or it goes against your family’s norms. I get it, the word implies creating a barrier, creating a periphery or margin, keeping people out. This is the largest misconception of boundaries and likely a result of boundaries often being framed as controlling how others act around us.
Usually, boundaries are talked about in terms of setting them with other people. Yes, you need to communicate boundaries, but the boundary itself is all about you. In its simplest terms, boundaries are standards we set for ourselves. Boundaries describe what we will or will not do, how we will or will not spend our time, how we will or will not use our resources, how we will or will not engage physically with someone, how we will or will not engage intellectually with someone. Do you see the point? Boundaries are about us, what we will or won’t do, not what other people are doing.
For a plethora of reasons, it becomes very difficult to set and respect our boundaries when they are interpersonal in nature. People-pleasing, guilt, expectations, and relationship norms/customs/dynamics all play a role. These are also the times when it is most important to hold our boundaries strongly. Without boundaries, we often unjustly blame the other person for relationship breakdowns, attributing the breakdown to something wrong with their behaviour or their personality and it can lead to detrimental effects on the relationship.
Healthy boundaries preserve relationships in two ways. First, communicating boundaries works to prevent relationship breakdowns in the first place. If you’ve effectively communicated your boundaries there’s a high likelihood others will respect them and you won’t find yourself in a position where you’re experiencing discomfort. Second, if you’re oriented towards boundaries you will learn to recognize when your boundaries are being crossed and learn to respond appropriately. Rather than sitting in the discomfort of boundary violations, you have the agency to do something about it that will positively impact the relationship by reducing discomfort. We can’t force another person to do or say something, but we can force ourselves to respond in a certain manner that re-establishes our control.
Case Example: Sara is having dinner with Ali and Ali starts talking disparagingly about a mutual friend, Jorge. Sara begins to feel uncomfortable because they care about Jorge.
Sara has two possible options:
1) Allow Ali to keep talking.
2) Ask Ali to politely change the subject. This might sound like “I can tell you’re having issues with Jorge and understand how frustrating it must be but I won’t get involved. What I really want to hear about is your new job!”
Let’s imagine Sara chose option one. There are a number of negative consequences to this action. Sara would continue to feel uncomfortable throughout the dinner, they might leave having negative judgements about Ali for gossiping and they might resent the time spent with Ali because it wasn’t how they wanted to spend time. Sara might remember this dinner the next time Ali wants to hang out and feel more negative emotions. The beginnings of a relationship breakdown.
Option two was rather simple, Sara took control of the situation, communicated what they wanted to do about it, and executed the boundary. Notice how Sara framed the boundary. Sara didn’t attack Ali by telling them ‘You cannot talk to me about this’, rather, they simply stated their need and what they wanted to talk about instead. Also, Sara actively preserved the relationship with Ali by bringing them in a new direction that both could enjoy effectively. Understanding this framework of boundaries shifts the focus away from attempts to control others and towards our agency to control ourselves.
Boundaries are the lines we set for ourselves that keep us comfortable when engaging with others. Boundaries are a way to hold us accountable and remain in control when we cannot control others. Boundaries are a way of establishing agency, confidence, autonomy, and showing self-respect. Boundaries help our relationships remain positive and reduce the likelihood of feeling resentment.
If you want to learn more about setting and enforcing healthy boundaries take a look at Work in Progress’s new workshop. It can be hard to transfer the information you read into your personal life so our workshop is designed to be hands-on and experiential. Learn your own personal warning signs that boundaries need to be set, what type of boundaries are best for you, and how best to communicate them in your relationships.