Boundaries can get to be quite the controversial topic. Some people seem to think that rules and boundaries are the same thing. That is not true. You can’t impose boundaries on other people. Other people also can’t break your boundaries. Boundaries do not involve anyone else but yourself. So, what is a boundary?
What is a Boundary?
A boundary is an agreement you have with yourself. Typically based off of your needs, but you can setup a boundary based off anything, I suppose (though there isn’t much reason to hold a boundary up if there isn’t much backing it). A boundary is a way to make sure you’re getting what you need out of life. To make sure you are keeping yourself safe, or that you’re working towards success, or that you’re being healthy, or making a real effort towards happiness. A boundary is an agreement with yourself that allows you to make sure you’re paying attention to your needs, recognizing your needs when they arise, and doing something to meet your needs. In that sense, you could explain a boundary as a means of making sure your needs are met (though it could be any sort of agreement with yourself that you’re trying to stick to). Setting up a boundary can help you put your needs into terms of what you should and shouldn’t do in order to meet those needs.
For example, if you want to make sure you don’t get skin cancer, you could make an agreement with yourself to always wear sunscreen when going outside, and thus refuse to go on outings with other people when you are unable to get access to sunscreen. It doesn’t stop the people around you from getting skin cancer. You can’t make them use sunscreen if they don’t want to, but at least you’ll be sure to keep yourself protected. That’s what boundaries are all about – protecting yourself, regardless of what others are doing. And that protection can come in the form of physical, mental, emotional, psychological, or spiritual protection. It can be about protecting your body, your children, your finances, or just your general well-being. A boundary is like drawing a line in the sand; it’s a way to restrict or confine your own actions to keep yourself safe (think of an electric fence that protects your home and keeps unwanted visitors at bay). Establishing clear and firm boundaries for yourself can help you navigate complex situations, make difficult decisions, and form healthy and lasting bonds with people.
Forming Your Own Boundaries
If you’re looking for help in forming your own boundaries, then you need to start by identifying your needs (you can also use wants, but your needs should be covered first). Maybe you need more time to yourself. Maybe you dislike when people grab at you and you need more personal space. Maybe you need to be able to trust someone before having sex with them. Maybe you need more quality conversation. Maybe you need to focus on taking care of your children. Maybe you need to setup some sort of budget or financial plan. Maybe you can’t stand hearing sexist, racist or otherwise prejudice jokes. Maybe you need to stay away from alcohol because you’re a recovering alcoholic. What are your needs? Only you know. Take some time to really think about it.
Remember, your boundary is an agreement with yourself. You cannot control other people. You can’t impose your views on them, or decide how they live their life. You can tell others what your boundaries are and hope they respect them, but it is only up to you to implement those boundaries. It is no one else’s responsibility to make sure your boundaries are upheld. In the case of romantic relationships – you can’t control your partner’s actions, but you can control your reaction or response to those actions. So, how do you turn your needs into boundaries?
Let’s take a look at the needs expressed above. If you need more time for yourself there are a multitude of ways you could express this as a boundary. First, decide how you’d like to take more time for yourself. Maybe you want to spend the mornings or evenings all by yourself, or maybe you want to pick a specific thing you go and do all by yourself. If you want to spend your mornings all alone, then that becomes an agreement with yourself. Your agreement is to spend mornings alone. Your boundary, then, would be worded something like this “I will spend my mornings alone.” And your boundary would be upheld by making sure you don’t make or take plans with anybody in the mornings. If you see someone you know while you’re spending that time alone with yourself and they want to talk to you, you tell them you can’t talk right now because you’re taking time for yourself. You advocate for yourself and make sure that your boundary is upheld.
If you need to setup a budget for yourself, then you workout exactly what that budget is, and you make an agreement with yourself that you’ll stick to that budget. No matter if you want to spend money on other things, or if you’re invited out to somewhere where you’d spend money that is outside your budget, you tell yourself (and/or whoever is inviting you out) that no, you can’t, you are sticking to your budget. If you need people to stay out of your personal bubble then you make sure to tell people you don’t like being touched (or grabbed in a certain way, or whatever it may be), and then you continue to advocate for yourself. If someone touches you in a way you dislike you tell them not to. If they don’t listen then you take the initiative to leave, or get away from that person, so that you continue to feel comfortable and are able to uphold your boundary for personal space. You could even make an agreement with yourself to take some form of self defense in order to be more capable of keeping people from disrespecting your boundary.
If you’re needing more quality conversation and your partner is not good at keeping up a conversation with you, you can do any number of things. You can decide that the relationship isn’t one you want to be in, but you can’t make them talk with you more (though discussing your need to talk more is important). You can accept that your partner can’t fulfill that need and then go search for another outlet for conversation. In this case your boundary would be more of an agreement with yourself to get your need met, such as “I will make sure I am able to talk with someone everyday” or even “I will make regular weekly counseling appointments so I can thoroughly discuss things with someone that will listen to me.”
If you’re a recovering alcoholic then you can setup a boundary to not let yourself be around any alcohol. This means you turn down offers to go to the bar with coworkers. This means you don’t allow any alcohol in your house. This means you might have to cut off ties with friends or family who refuse to stop drinking. You do what you need to do in order to keep yourself sober. If what you need is to get enough sleep at night so that you wake up early enough for work (or other obligations, or time for yourself) in the mornings, then you can set yourself a bed time or agree to head home by a certain time every night. And then it is your responsibility to make sure you turn down invites to late night outings, and make sure you get home and into bed at a reasonable hour. No matter what it is you are needing (from life, from your relationship(s), from yourself, etc.), there is a way to form a boundary around it. Just think about the base need you have, and decide in what way you are going to meet that need. The way in which you decide to meet that need becomes your boundary. I’ve given a ton of examples, now you try it.
When Your Boundaries Are Not Respected
Taking time to think through what your needs are, and then forming boundaries based off of those needs, is only half the battle. You also need to make sure you uphold those boundaries. This can be hard to do when there are people in your life who refuse to respect your boundaries. Let me be clear – sometimes people mistakenly disrespect your boundaries because they don’t know what your boundaries are or because they forget about your boundaries (in which case you simply need to explain your boundaries to them). Don’t expect people to be perfect. However, don’t allow people to take advantage of you either. If someone is continuously disrespecting your boundaries, and you’ve made an effort to explain them…do not stand for that. You may not be able to decide who someone is or what they do, but you do get to choose whether or not you want that person in your life (and whether or not you want to be in a relationship with them). And you ABSOLUTELY have full control over your own body. Just because someone else is doing something TO your body, that doesn’t mean you can’t make them stop. They have free will. They are allowed to make their own decisions and form their own actions, unless those decisions and actions have to do with your body. Never tolerate anybody who thinks they have control over your decisions and actions. You are the only one who has power over your body and mind.
In milder cases of boundary disrespect, you can just walk out. Sometimes walking out is exactly what your boundary is all about. If your need was to stop being around people who make judgmental or prejudice jokes, then you can either choose to not be around those people anymore, or simply walk out of the room when those kinds of jokes are being introduced. Of course, if you want to take the activist route you can always speak up and try to change people’s minds on things like that, but that’s completely up to you. Sometimes it isn’t worth putting in effort to change someone’s mind about something. And, no matter what, it is always more important to protect yourself first. Take yourself out of the bad situation, then if you want to you can go back in later to try and fix the situation.
Living Your Boundaries
Knowing yourself is always important. Recognizing your needs is especially important. Meeting those needs is vital. If you want to live a happy, healthy, safe, and successful life (whatever that may look like for you), then you need to know how to form and work with healthy boundaries. You need to know how to demand respect of those boundaries, and how to respect other people’s boundaries. Like any other skill in life, boundary setting can take some time to fully learn and implement. It can feel weird at first, but the longer you work at it the easier it becomes. Eventually you’ll be more in tune with yourself and be able to quickly recognize new needs and put new boundaries into practice immediately. Until then you may need to play around with your boundaries. Figure out what works best for you. An agreement with yourself only works if you’re 100% in it. You’ve got no one to hold you accountable but yourself. If your boundary doesn’t seem to fit that’s okay, just reconfigure it (or let it go). Sometimes things we thought we needed, we didn’t. Other times things we used to need, we don’t anymore. It’s perfectly okay to outgrow a boundary. People grow and change as time goes by, you are no exception. The best thing you can do is to be open to that growth and change. Allow yourself to be true to yourself, because a boundary won’t work unless it’s tied to the truth.