Imagine living in a high rise apartment building where most of the people’s flats have no doors or windows. Some have doors, but the locks are broken. Consequently, things get moved, taken, eaten, and used without permission. People can come in and watch your private business. You can see and hear what goes on in other people’s lives. It’s so close, you may even feel their emotions. Maybe you wake up with someone in your room or watching you sleep. Residents with doors may find them opened by people who don’t knock because everyone is used to just doing whatever they want.
This is what it’s like living in a society where lots of people don’t have healthy boundaries. You might hear things you don’t really want to hear, see things you don’t want to see, and even be touched by people who have no business touching you. (Or maybe you do this to others). You may take on other people’s struggles, feelings, or desires as your own. This can leave you feeling tired, manipulated, over burdened, and/or out of control. You may feel outraged or confused, like you don’t know what is going on. On the other hand, rigid or boundaries may leave you feeling isolated, fearful, and lonely. To understand how to fix this, let’s first look at what are boundaries.
What Are Boundaries?
More and more I hear people say that they aren’t even aware of what personal boundaries are. If we are a society that is unaware of boundaries, it’s no wonder that some people feel free to encroach on others’ space. It’s not surprising that others experience boundary violations. If you aren’t aware what boundaries are, it makes it really hard to enforce them or obey them.
Boundaries are a barriers that delineates where one thing ends and another begins. Take real estate for example. If you are a hunter and you hear that a plot by the lake allows hunting, how do you know where that land begins? How do you know where it ends? It is helpful to have a fence to form a barrier, isn’t it? It’s also helpful if those who don’t allow hunting or trespassing to have signs so that you know. That’s what boundaries do for you. They tell you what the rules are and give you parameters so that you know where those rules start and where they end.
Personal boundaries act like that fence. They are invisible energy barriers created by words, behavior, feelings, and intention that let’s people know where you begin and end. Like signs, they establish what is and isn’t acceptable to you. These boundaries are generally somewhat conditional and vary from person to person. For instance, people on a crowded bus or train often stand within inches of each other. However, if you did that while standing in line at a grocery store, people would think you were crazy. Another example is that “Guy” may allow people to hunt on his property, but “Sheila” doesn’t.
Now, if I am joking with my girlfriends about personal things we might all have a laugh. If I say those same things to my co-workers, someone might call me out for being offensive, insensitive, or harassing them. Context matters. I believe this is one of the reasons why #MeToo is happening. Boundaries can be confusing. So we may not know that we’re stepping over the line or what to do when someone violates our boundaries.
If the Rules Are Always Changing, How Do I Know What’s Appropriate?
Fortunately, there is an easy way around this. With a few simple guidelines, you never have to worry about violating someone else’s boundaries.
- Ask for permission before doing anything that involves another person. If someone else is affected by your actions, they have a right to be included and give permission first. This means saying things like: Do you want to …? Is that okay with you? How do you feel about that? Don’t assume. No mind reading either. A short skirt is not an invitation to touch. Having someone’s phone number doesn’t give you permission to send photos. What A agreed to last week is not true for B today. Avoid doubt. Ask.
- If your original request changes, you have to ask permission for the new request. Just because someone says it’s okay to kiss her doesn’t mean it’s okay to do anything else. Permission for X isn’t permission for Y. Again, don’t assume.
- Wait for a yes or no. The absence of a yes is a no. A maybe is a no. It’s hard for some people to say yes. Sometimes people are quiet because they can’t say yes. Backing away shows respect. It also teaches the person who can’t say yes to stand in her own power. It teaches the other person that she can’t get what she wants if she doesn’t ask for it and doesn’t accept it when it shows up. A healthy relationship requires equality and respect. This is one way to get it.
- Respect the no. Some people beg and plead until they get what they want. No means no. Talking someone into something is disrespectful. Trust that we all know our own mind. If we don’t, it’s not up to others to change it for us. If we lose out enough times, we will eventually catch on. But as long as we’re saying no, it’s a no.
- If you are unsure where you stand, do not move forward. If you are thinking about touching someone and you haven’t gotten a clear, verbal, “Yes,” stop. Maybe you told this joke to twenty people and they all laughed, but now you are unsure about whether it’s okay in the present company. If so, stop. Think of any grey area as a no go zone.
- It’s okay to change your mind. We make the boundaries as we go. Either party can change them for any reason. Yes is only yes until it’s no.
- If you are subjected to things you don’t like, you can either remove yourself from the situation or let the other person know that what is going on is not appropriate. You’ll have to look at the circumstances to know what is appropriate for that situation.
- If someone tries to blame you for something or obligate you to something, think of it as an offer. You can decline. Just because I serve a ball to you doesn’t mean you have to hit it back. If you don’t hit it back, we don’t have a game. Don’t play the game.
- If you wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of your behavior, don’t subject others to it. How would you like to be cat called? Would you like to feel you can’t say no? How about being disregarded or walked on? Would you want your wife, mother, or child to hear what you are about to say? Healthy relationships require consideration and respect. Taking a little time to think about how the other person feels goes a long way.
It’s Up to You to Set Your Own Boundaries
Your boundaries are determined by you. If you don’t have any, you’re going to be overwhelmed by other people’s energy, demands, and problems. You aren’t going to have a lot of energy left for yourself because people will suck you dry. I’m not saying that people are horrible. I am saying that the lack of boundaries is basically a green light for others to do whatever they want. Other people can blame you for things, obligate you to do things you don’t want to do, subject you to things you don’t want to hear, and violate your body.
Setting personal boundaries won’t stop everyone. Some people are clueless. Having boundaries will filter out much of it however. Having healthy boundaries will also mean that you don’t get blindsided when someone complains about your behavior. You won’t have to find out what boundaries are by being fired, dragged into court, or being accused of inappropriate behavior.
A really useful way for maintaining healthy boundaries is to practice mindfulness. When you are mindful, you’re always present. This gives you a bit of distance from whatever is going on so that you see it clearly and can respond instead of react. Without mindfulness, you can get caught up in things and get carried away with the flow. When you look back and see what you could have done differently, it’s too late.
Here are some examples of mindful statements that reflect healthy boundaries. They are clear, firm, and fair. There is no chance for misunderstanding.
- Yes, I will be glad to give you my attention when I finish typing this email.
- I am not comfortable with that and do not want to participate. Thank you.
- I respect your opinion (or maybe “You’re entitled to your opinion”) and I’m not willing to argue with you.
- Let’s wait to discuss that when you’re voice is as calm as mine.
- I am sorry. I thought I was okay with that, but now I see that I am not.
- Yes, I’d love to.
- I am not a party to this. Can we talk about something else?
Make sure your behavior reflects your words. If you say no with a smile on your face and move in closer, you’re sending a mixed message. This doesn’t mean you have to be mean, just firm and congruent. Don’t worry about seeming being rude or mean. It’s neither rude nor mean to set a boundary.
Loose personal boundaries don’t generally lead to gross violations. They just tend to make things uncomfortable or uncertain. However, little violations lead to big violations. One violation leads to repeated violations. You don’t want to leave it up to others to take care of you because you’re likely to be not very well cared for.
When you exercise healthy boundaries, you experience less stress. You know who you are, what you want, and how you feel. You also command more respect. This reduces interpersonal misunderstandings. makes you safer, and makes your relationships a lot happier. It also reduces the likelihood that you will be falsely accused of inappropriate behavior, so it’s a two way street. Healthy boundaries are better for everyone.