Setting boundaries

By | Monday 9 February 2015

What is a boundary?

A real-life boundary (much like a fence or wall) marks a line across which you may not pass. In the same way, but metaphorically, we set boundaries in our interactions with other people and animals.

For example, you may not allow other people to hit you. Or, you may decide that you do not swear in front of children. Those are both boundaries that you set.

Life is complex, which means that people have different boundaries. While most of us will agree on a broad range of boundaries (hitting, swearing, speeding), there are many types of boundaries that are not as clear.

Have you been offended at something that someone said, and that person is taken aback because they never imagined that it could be taken that way? Likewise, you have probably had the opposite experience: you’ve said something that offended someone, and you are taken aback because you never intended it that way.

Assuming that there was no misunderstanding, these reflect the fact that the two of you had different boundaries. While one person had a strong boundary about that issue, the other didn’t.

Whose boundaries?

You set boundaries for yourself, and these reflect your upbringing and ethics. They decide what you may not do. A good boundary would be that you don’t deliberately hurt other people, and a poor boundary would be that you don’t allow yourself to be creative.

You also set boundaries for other people. They decide what you allow other people to do. For example, I don’t allow other people to deliberately hurt me or others; I don’t allow my children to bully other children.

Too loose…

What happens when a boundary is too loose? Perhaps you are one of those people who doesn’t know how to say, “No.” Or, you have most likely come across a spoilt child, who has not learned any boundaries because their parents give in too much, too often.

There are times to have loose boundaries, but any boundary can be too loose. When a boundary is too loose, it leads to excessive behaviour. When it’s a boundary for yourself, you cause yourself unhappiness (and, often, other people albeit unintentionally). When it’s a boundary for other people, you can become a doormat for others, or allow yourself to be manipulated into doing things against your own better judgement. When a parent sets too loose boundaries, their children can become spoilt and bullying.

… and too tight

Likewise, you can set a boundary too tight. Excessively tight boundaries for yourself can lead to you missing out on the enjoyments of life. For other people, it can lead to misunderstandings, unpleasantness, even anger and rebellion (think of a boss who is too tight).

Setting good boundaries

Here are a few guidelines on how to ensure that your boundaries create the least problems and the greatest smoothness in your life.

  1. Be aware. Most people hold their boundaries unconsciously, and so have no control over them. They “inherit” their boundaries from their upbringing and ethics, and don’t know how to question them. By learning to spot boundaries whenever they happen — both yours and other people’s — you can become aware of boundaries, and question them whenever appropriate.
  2. Be consistent. Has a friend or spouse ever encouraged you to step out and do something, but been too afraid to do it themselves? As you become aware of boundaries, try to ensure that whatever boundary you set for other people, you also set for yourself. An abusive spouse won’t allow you to shout at them, but will feel free to shout at you. Or, you might be offended when a friend points out a flaw in you, yet you’ll feel free to point out a flaw in them. Perhaps you sometimes allow your child to behave badly and not others; that is a recipe for confusion and anger.
  3. Question your boundaries. Most, if not all, of your boundaries are there because, well, they just are. As you learn to spot your boundaries, you can start to ask yourself if those boundaries have been well chosen. Are they there because your parents said so? Or because you were bullied as a child? Regardless of why, as an adult, you are free to revisit these and inspect them. Just as food has a “best before” date, so boundaries can also expire.
  4. Loosen boundaries. Many boundaries are there to keep us in check, and for good reason. But also, some boundaries can be too tight. Do you forbid yourself from dancing at a party? Do you feel guilty when you are genuinely sick and cannot go to work? You have set your boundaries too tight; it’s time to give yourself permission!
  5. Tighten boundaries. On the other hand, you may find that some of your boundaries are too loose. Do you have no boundaries when it comes to doing favours for others? Do you always say “Yes” to a request even when that will cause problems? Do you allow your child to get away with rotten behaviour? It’s time to tighten those boundaries!
  6. Be clear about your boundaries. If you’re not sure about how to loosen or tighten your boundaries, perhaps they are ill-defined. Imagine if the law was loosely written, so you didn’t know whether or not you were breaking the law? If the speed limit was “Not too fast”, how would you ever know when you were breaking the speed limit? If you tell your child that he is allowed “only a little TV tonight”, how will he know how much is too much? Awareness allows clarification: when you decide to keep (or create) a boundary, define it clearly so that there is never a doubt.
  7. Be fair. Don’t set boundaries just because you can. Each boundary needs a reason to exist. If you set a boundary for others, you need to set the same for yourself — and vice-versa. Accept that your boundaries will not agree completely with other people’s, and so you need to have a degree of flexibility: which boundaries are absolute (for you), and which ones can flex to allow for differences of opinion? The answers won’t be easy, but allow yourself mistakes as you learn, and wisdom will follow.