Go ahead – say the word.
How did it feel? Positive? Joyful? Did you feel anticipation of something lovely?
It is a heavily charged word – no doubt about it. And while that may be rightfully so sometimes, boundaries generally get a bad rap. I mean, we all need them. But which category of life do they fall into – the “have to” or “get to” ? I think they belong in both.
In my city, I have to define my property line. Our fence is our boundary. That’s the “have to”. What kind of fence I build? That’s a “get to”, within the zoning requirements at least.
I have been very grateful for high fences in the past. It is true that good fences make good neighbors. But these days, I am grateful for the shorter chain link fences that allow for backyard chats between my neighbors and myself. We already are good neighbors – we don’t need a fence to make that true of us. But if that ever changes, we will happily chip in for a new fence.
I have to have lockable doors on my home. But I get to unlock those doors and open them to people I trust. If I am unsure whether to open the door, I have my alarm system to rely on, a.k.a. my three dogs. If they like who they see on the other side of the door, so will I.
But what about my personal boundaries? I recently re-examined my boundaries with a therapist. It was very helpful – I identified boundaries that needed some reinforcing. I look at this practice as “scheduled maintenance”.
Do you prefer a more rural metaphor? Ride your fence once in awhile. It’s easier to repair a hole than it is to replace an entire stretch of fence.
Are you a city dweller? Keep those guardrails in good condition – if they fail you have vehicles falling off the highway, and no one wants that.
Whatever your metaphor of choice, you can do this too. Here’s my homework from my therapist about boundaries:
Boundaries are our own personal limits. They allow us to have space between us and another. They are the foundation of healthy relationships. Many of us don't have or understand boundaries because we were not modeled clear boundaries by parental figures OR our boundaries were consistently violated or ignored. Four Types of Boundaries 1. Physical - boundaries around our physical limits and personal space needs. This may sound like: "I've had a really tough week, I need some time to myself to rest." OR "Please knock before coming into my office/room." 2. Emotional - boundaries around how you feel, who you engage with & what parts of your self you share. This may sound like: "I am going to need to pause from this conversation & take a break. I'm at my max emotionally right now." OR "Do you have the ability to listen for about 15 minutes while I share what's been happening for me recently?" 3, Resource - boundaries around your time & energy. This may sound like: "Saturday afternoon is the time I recharge, so I won't be available then." OR "I am open to collaborating in the future, I just don't have the space for that now." 4. Material - boundaries around your things, how they're used & how they're treated. This may sound like: "If you'd like to borrow my things, please ask first." OR "I don't allow people to drive my car, I'm uncomfortable with that." How and Why? When setting boundaries it's normal to feel afraid, guilty or confused. These types of feelings often come from a maladaptive, learned behavior. With practice, we can evolve to understand boundaries as part of our self worth, and we learn how emotionally healthy it is to hold our own & respect others' boundaries. It also underscores an understanding that we each have our own unique limits & that those limits are not mean or rude. With practice you may begin to see into the dynamics of your relationships; perhaps witnessing people react to or even ignore your boundaries. For many with unresolved trauma, boundaries may feel like abandonment. It is important to understand you are not responsible for the emotional state of others. How a person reacts to a boundary is for them. How you respond to that reaction is you. With this understanding of boundaries, can you review your current close relationships and whether healthy or unhealthy boundary patterns exist?
I did the homework, and here’s what I learned. My boundaries are pretty good. I did, however, notice areas where they are less defined than they could be. I also learned that clearly defining those boundaries are for my benefit first and foremost. This felt selfish to begin with, until I remembered that I can’t take care of anyone else if I haven’t taken care of myself first.
Here’s what this looks like for me:
I will take phone calls/messages during <this time>, but not <that time>. With the exception, of course, of an actual emergency. I will schedule personal encouragement/relationship building visits on <these days>, but not <those days>. I will say yes to some requests but not all. I will not expect perfection from myself, or from anyone else.
Why? I need sleep. I need downtime. I need to restore my own heart and mind. I need to create space in my life for Me. For making messes and cleaning them up. For creating, de-constructing, and re-creating. For writing, erasing, and re-writing.
Here’s where the magic happens
When I make space for Me, I never run out of space for those who rely on me. I can give to others from a place of being filled with resources to share, rather than showing up empty and faking it, hoping no one notices how fake my faking is. I did that for way too long. It hurt me, and it hurt people around me. But that was then.
Now, I show up for scheduled boundary maintenance. I keep them well defined, but flexible. Because doors with locks sometimes need to be locked. But if I can’t unlock the door, I can’t get out.
I want my boundaries to be movable. I want to adjust them when they no longer serve me sitting where they are. Just because they have always been there isn’t a good enough reason to leave them there. So check your boundaries once in awhile. Good boundary maintenance makes for a happier life.
You may not be completely worry-free, but I can promise you it is a much better way to live.