I’ve heard the word ‘boundaries’ in one context or another, probably my entire life. I’m sure most readers have as well. But of all the things we learn in school, the concept of personal boundaries usually isn’t one of them.
Some would argue that kind of education is the purview of one’s parent(s) or guardian(s). And many of us are familiar with concepts like “good touch, bad touch.” But for most of us, learning about boundaries didn’t go much further.
Unfortunately, that means that many of us grow up knowing neither how to establish our own boundaries, nor how to respect the boundaries of others.
We may not even realize that the concept goes beyond the idea of non-consensual touch. What we are and aren’t willing to accept in our lives – for our own physical, mental, and emotional needs – is about more than just who is allowed to embrace, kiss, or have sex with us.
And that’s basically what a boundary is: a line in the sand that says, “These are my limits. This is what I can handle. This is what I’m okay with.”
Once I realized this was a thing, once I was armed with this knowledge and really understood it, it was pretty affirming for me, personally.
I get to say who and what I allow in my life and how they exist with me.
You can create boundaries for many things. For example, your communication needs (what works for you, what others need to know, what you can’t tolerate, etc.), your limits in the bedroom, or even when your employer or employee is allowed to call or text you. They can be established for romantic, familial, platonic, and professional relationships.
Of course, how one approaches boundaries depends on many things. Cultural differences can factor into how one perceives where a boundary is, and how one interacts with others in general. In addition, for those who are neurodivergent/neuroatypical, which encompass many different disabilities, things that are considered “social norms” may not come so easily. And both of those things are okay.
We all move differently in this world based on our individual experiences and abilities.
So I’m passing on what I’ve learned in a very large overview. Take what you can and discard what may not work for you.
1. Know Them
Setting boundaries involves more than one person. You are, at some point, relaying your thoughts about your needs to someone else.
But you can’t tell someone else what you think or feel until you know yourself. Until you know what you want to say, you can’t say the words. And if you try to speak, it can come out wrong, or sound non-sensical.
So the first step to setting boundaries is knowing yourself. This takes inward thinking and reflection. How long this step will take depends on how well you know yourself already, but it doesn’t really matter where you’re starting, as long as you do it!
What specifically do I need in this particular situation, or from this relationship (romantic, familial, platonic, professional) in general? What are your goals in setting this boundary? What do I want? What can I accept?
Is your goal to define the terms of a budding romantic relationship, or put your foot down about a colleague’s gossiping? Are you embarking on a new religious journey and want your loving but cuss-like-a-sailor cousin to refrain from swearing around you? Are you in recovery and want your friends to better understand what is and isn’t okay for you right now?
And in any of these situations, what is your breaking point or limit? Maybe after you’ve asked your cousin to stop swearing thirty times, you’ll stop interacting with them extensively. Or perhaps it’s a bit more vague: once you sense your needs aren’t being respected, you’ll either jump ship or attempt one final communication. You must develop your needs... and an exit strategy if your needs ultimately aren’t met.
In any case, these are the kinds of things you need to consider within yourself before getting anyone else involved.
Writing these things out and making note of the decisions you make can help.
2. Establish Them
Boundaries are always best when established from the beginning of a relationship, but that’s not always possible and that’s okay. Setting boundaries requires a constant open line of communication – some relationships don’t have that, but you can start.
This is a chance to talk about what you need and why. You can discuss what will and won’t work for you in order to have healthy relationships of various kinds with others.
If possible, talk only when you’re ready. “Can we talk later?” can create anxiety. And not being ready to handle the exchange can create all kinds of problems, including miscommunication. Of course, non-threatening tension is natural and understandable.
Choose a time when you’re both/all relatively calm and relaxed. Be honest and open.
And don’t blame or shame.
You’re doing this for your needs and well-being, not to accuse or attack the other person. That will only make them defensive, and perhaps less inclined to listen to you. Instead of saying, “You’re always gossiping about our colleagues,” you could say, “I really don’t feel comfortable around gossip. I’d appreciate it if you could refrain from that when you’re around me.” Or instead of saying, “You never listen when I [blank]!” you could say, “I need to feel like I’m being listened to when I share or try to contribute something. I think you can help with that.”
The key is to stick to your guns, and it’s okay to be emotional (in non-professional settings), as in upset, angry, or hurt. It's okay to express those things. But your communication has to be strategic to be effective.
3. Keep them
“Keep them” loops back to “know them.” To keep your boundaries, you must know what they are and if or when they change. This means trying your best to keep in tune with your changing needs. Maybe in a year, you won’t need as much support in your recovery. Perhaps you’ll grow to find that your lovable cousin’s swearing is no longer a burden to your spiritual needs.
But whether they change or not, if your boundaries get violated, you’ve got to be willing (if you’re able) to communicate. If necessary, you may have to implement your exit strategy.
This is a process I’m still learning for myself. It takes practice and practice takes time. It’s okay if you don’t get it right the first time (or the second or the third). What’s important is that you’re standing up for yourself.
You’re worth what it takes to get what you need!