Boundaries: Easy Peasy Lemon Squeezy?
I have to admit, this article started from a crabby place. Articles and discourse abound about the merits of setting and enforcing healthy interpersonal boundaries, but there is much less discussion about the fact that this is hard to do! Setting and enforcing boundaries is not as effortless as we may think. And there are reasons for that.
And it can be easy to get deterred and think, “this is too hard, I’ll just keep the status quo”; while that can be tempting, I feel strongly that the rewards are worth it: the ability to identify and express boundaries that work for you can be enormously beneficial for both yourself and others.
Bare Bones Boundaries
I’m not super-jazzed to write a review of what boundaries are, etc., because truthfully, I find that boring. But, for the purpose of orienting the reader, I’ll talk about this ever-so-briefly.
Here, I’m referencing interpersonal boundaries—not border crossings. A common definition of interpersonal boundaries, here cited from Psychology Today, is “the limits we set with other people, which indicate what we find acceptable and unacceptable in their behaviour towards us.” I would also add that boundaries are intrapersonal too: the limits and freedoms we set for ourselves personally. But that is not the focus of today’s article.
Much of therapists’ understanding of boundaries comes from the pioneering work of Structural Family Therapy, where interpersonal boundaries between family members are viewed as falling on continuum ranging from:
Rigid and disengaged —> Balanced and clear —> Enmeshed (over-involved)
As you can likely guess, most self-help articles—this one included—are discussing what is commonly known as “healthy boundaries” or those that are balanced and clearly expressed/actioned.
When we research boundaries, talk with friends, or even sit in a therapy session, we may hear variations of the following messages:
- You are an unhealthy person if you “don’t have boundaries.” Healthy people have boundaries.
- You have significant problems with assertiveness.
- All people can set boundaries.
- Problems setting boundaries is evidence that you are not motivated enough.
- Your reasons for not setting boundaries are simply excuses.
- It’s just a matter of doing it (setting them).
- People will respect you more if you have boundaries.
- Once you get started with boundaries you will never look back.
- You owe it to yourself to have boundaries.
- You must override your guilt and set those boundaries.
- Boundaries are easy if you have the right tools.
- Setting boundaries is very rewarding.
I am not suggesting that there is no truth in the above, however there are numerous factors that make boundaries a challenge.
Boundaries – Interfering Factors
Before we get down on ourselves for not setting boundaries, there are typically a number of factors that challenge or stop us:
- Complicated family or friend situations.
- Fear of confrontation.
- Unsafe situations where enforcing boundaries could compromise our security or that of others.
- Long-term family “brainwashing” where going against the rules has made us feel like we are committing a crime against humanity.
- Lack of power/position/resources in relationships or relationships with active abuse.
- Regrets about the way that we have treated certain people in the past, making us feel that we have to be lenient with them forever after.
- Feelings of low self worth which makes taking steps to invest in our wellbeing feel wrong or unnecessary.
- Previous trauma or adverse childhood experiences where healthy boundaries were seen as bad.
- Lack of positive role-modelling with setting boundaries.
- Cultural factors – if setting boundaries causes significant offence or disruption.
- Significant push-back from others or severe consequences when we have previously attempted to set boundaries.
- Fear of the unknown about what will happen when we set boundaries.
- Personal expectations/stress about having a new and improved standard to maintain (e.g.self doubt about one’s ability to do this, questioning whether one wants to put in this work or energy over time, etc).
So, yes, when we factor in societal pressure including pressure from the self-help/psychology community and our own personal situation/expectations, we often realize that setting boundaries can make us feel like we’re just left with a big bag ‘o lemons.
Motivation For Change
You may accuse me of being hopeless and bleak and I would agree with you if I didn’t think that heathy interpersonal boundaries are actually worth it. There are things that we can do to make changes but we’re setting ourselves up for failure if we don’t honour the difficulties that will arise along the way, understand that this is a normal part of the change process and manage our expectations for change effectively.
But before I get to some of the mechanics of boundary change, I feel that it’s important to identify why we would even want to to do this, understanding that there will be variations in each person’s situation and reasons.
The core of most folks’ motivation to set boundaries originates from experiences where others have “crossed the line” and have said or done something that this “not ok” and gone past our boundary of acceptability. Sometimes the limits we choose are unique to us individually (for example, “I don’t talk politics on Sunday”), other times they are universal (for example physical, psychological and sexual abuse is never acceptable). A feeling on the anger spectrum (annoyance —> anger —> rage) is a hint that often tells us that our boundaries have been crossed or violated.
Common reasons for setting boundaries and possible rewards include:
- Healthier relationships / relationships with people who respect us.
- Less internal conflict because we’re not doing or agreeing to things that don’t put us in conflict.
- Increased assertiveness.
- Improved self worth.
- More confidence in ourselves and our abilities.
- Heightened personal integrity and a life lived more honestly.
- Valuing and practicing self-care.
- More clarity in our relationships, both for ourselves and others.
- More energy as we are not allowing ourselves to be roped into activities that don’t work or are harmful to us.
- Expanded self-awareness as we reflect on whether interactions, requests etc. are helpful or harmful.
- Significantly less guilt over time.
- Starting a new, healthier chapter in our life story.
- Increase in autonomy / personal agency.
- Positive / healthy role-modelling, particularly if we are in a parenting/teaching/mentorship situation.
- Having more authentic relationships with others.
I firmly believe that if setting boundaries was easy, we’d all be doing it. The topic of personal boundaries is an almost-universal discussion in counselling offices and articles on the Internet abound, which tells us that the challenge of setting boundaries is a persistent issue.
As such, when making boundary changes, it’s important to manage our expectations accordingly. For example, understanding that:
- Change takes time, especially if setting healthy boundaries has been an issue for a while.
- In general, healthy relationships ultimately accept healthy boundaries, while unhealthy relationships resist them.
- Related to #2, initially firming up or changing your boundaries may cause some confusion for others in your life who are used to a different status quo. This is not necessarily synonymous with them being unsupportive long term (although it could be), but may be more reflective of a preliminary adjustment period.
- Setting healthy boundaries is typically more challenging in close relationships with an established interpersonal dynamic than with acquaintances or people we encounter more peripherally.
- There is a principle of short-term pain for long-term gain, but only if it is safe for you to proceed.
A Few Tips
- Start small. Practice your boundaries with people you are not heavily invested with emotionally. “No, I’m not interested in upgrading my Internet package,” for example.
- Get clear on what you would like to see change. Journalling or brainstorming are some of my favourite methods for helping with this.
- When changing your boundaries in longtime relationship dynamics, repetition and consistency are key. I can’t stress this enough. If a dynamic has existed for a long time, it’s essential to be consistent and persistent, in the face of what is often significant resistance, it we want to establish a new normal.
- When significant resistance to setting boundaries comes from within (often in the form of guilt or worry or is relatted to chronic low self-worth) this can be a sign that counselling support would be beneficial.
- Role-play and repeat. Enlist a trusted friend or family member to help you practice setting boundaries with difficult people.
- If you are currently unsafe in one or more relationships the first step may be a crisis service, transition house or an anti-violence counsellor. If you are in British Columbia, some resources can be found here.
- Reward yourself periodically, to keep yourself encouraged along the way. This needn’t necessarily be material. For me, spending time alone taking photographs is hugely restorative.
- Remind yourself why you’re doing this. Make a list! Setting boundaries is challenging short-term work with rich long-term rewards. We are doing this to improve our wellbeing and relationships! You can’t put a price on that.
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