I didn’t realize this until everyone in the world started talking about setting boundaries, but apparently I’m an expert on the subject. I have absolutely no problem telling people “no,” and I don’t feel any need to explain myself when I do.
I first found out that many people struggle with boundaries at a dinner with my wife’s extended family a few years ago. The topic came up of cashiers asking for donations at the grocery checkout line. Everyone at the table was going on and on about how uncomfortable it makes them, and how they have to explain all these reasons why they couldn’t:
- I give to another charity
- I just donated yesterday
- I’m going to send a larger donation later today
What do I do? I look them in the eye and say “no,” even when it’s a cause I believe in. It’s just second nature to me.
Honestly, I think my boundary setting borders on a character flaw, but I do believe I can still impart a little bit of healthy boundary-setting wisdom nonetheless.
What Are Boundaries?
I think it’s important to set some ground rules as to what boundaries actually are. The people most vocal about learning to set boundaries actually seem to be weaponizing boundaries to block out normal human interaction.
- Someone made a joke you didn’t find funny?
- Someone looked at your IG story but didn’t engage?
- Someone disagreed with your point of view?
A normal person’s boundaries look more like:
- Leaving at 7PM after telling your friends you can only stay until 7PM
- Not responding to non-urgent work emails after 5PM on Friday after stating you don’t work on weekends
- Asking someone to leave if they’re cursing in front of your kids after you already told them not to curse in front of your kids
Basically, it’s stating a reasonable expectation, and following through with what you stated.
These are just a handful of imperfect examples. It’s always easier to stand firm if you’ve already prepared a stance like the examples above, but there are plenty of times where it’s perfectly acceptable to take a hardline without forewarning (ex. Someone inappropriately yelling at your kids, etc.).
Who Benefits From Firm Boundaries?
Honestly, I would suggest that everyone benefits. By establishing boundaries for yourself, you can sidestep a lot of those feelings of being walked on by those around you. You can avoid a lot of unpleasant situations by just having some structured parameters for people to interact within.
On the flip side, while you absolutely will have some people who respond to your boundaries like Damian on his way to church, boundaries can actually reduce some points of friction for the more normal people you interact with as well. There’s comfort in consistency, and boundaries offer just that: a consistent playbook for what a person will or will not tolerate. A person with firm boundaries is actually easier to interact with once you learn to navigate their playing field – there’s very little question over what’s in or out of bounds, and the further inside the lines you play, the safer everyone is.
How To Set Appropriate Boundaries
I think this is equal parts love and science. On the love side, go with your gut – does something feel like a line you don’t want crossed? That’s a good starting point for your own personal negotiation on where your boundaries lie.
Where science is concerned, I think observation and testing are very helpful. Look around at society on the whole, and see how “normal” behavior fits alongside your boundaries. You may need to step a little bit outside of your comfort zone to prevent your boundaries from completely removing you from society. Test moving your boundary line a little further into “the norms” than you might naturally want to go, and see what happens. Was it an awful experience you never want to deal with again? Adjust your line accordingly to avoid future issues.
Now, the formula above is a little bit of an oversimplification. What about personally traumatic events/scenarios or strong convictions where observation of “normal” behavior really doesn’t apply? This is where things get a bit nuanced.
Take for example a couple who has just tragically lost a pregnancy. It’s totally appropriate and reasonable to set a firm boundary that they won’t be attending baby showers for friends and family while they grieve. What about a person who spent their childhood watching a parent struggle with alcoholism? It’s completely reasonable to set the boundary that they do not want to be present when or where alcohol is consumed. In both cases, the trigger behavior is totally “normal,” but knowing your own personal limits may need to trump normalcy… with one big caveat:
If the behavior you’re drawing the line in the sand over is overarchingly “normal,” I believe you owe it to yourself and your friends and loved ones to dole out a little extra grace when people forget to respect those boundaries. Sure, in a perfect world you wouldn’t get a baby announcement shortly after losing a pregnancy, or you wouldn’t be invited to a friend’s birthday party at the same bar your dad used to get hammered at, but life is messy and so are relationships. The best approach, in my experience, is to forgive the intrusion on your boundaries, but stick to your guns until you feel safe testing your limits once again.