This post is a reflection of my own opinions and beliefs. I encourage all readers to read more about this topic in books and articles written by licensed professionals. I will put my personal suggestions for further reading at the end of the article.
- a line that marks the limits of an area; a dividing line.
Boundaries are the lines between what is okay and what is not okay. Professionally, this means what is okay for the work you are doing or the people you are working with. Personally, however, boundaries are the lines between what is okay with you, and what is not okay with you, what you are comfortable with and what you are not.
One reason for professional boundaries is to keep things simple and not confused. For example, if a therapist tried to see a good friend as a client, it might be hard for him to be sure he was acting objectively and not letting his emotions become involved in how he was treating this client. This would make it harder for him to do his job as a therapist well. Personal boundaries, on the other hand, help us to be comfortable and happy in our interactions. Where you set your boundaries tells the people around you how it is okay to treat you.
It is important to have boundaries you are comfortable with. If you are comfortable with your boundaries, then you will be comfortable interacting with people who respect your boundaries, and it will be clear to you when someone you are interacting with does not respect you. When you make your boundaries clear and someone crosses those boundaries, that shows a lack of respect towards you as a person. This can help you decide how much you want that person in your life. It does not mean that this person is good or bad, however it does tell you something about how comfortable it will be for you to spend time with that person. For example if you go to a bar with a new friend and say that you do not want to drink, and your friend urges you to go ahead and have a glass of wine, that person is saying ‘I don’t respect your decision to not drink.’ You could say that you are going to be driving home and you don’t want to risk driving tipsy – but really, your reason does not matter. What is important is that you made a decision about your actions, and it is up to your friend to respect that decision. This is a small example, and you might decide you don’t mind that small pressure. On the other hand, some boundaries are much more important, and it is helpful to know ahead of time what you are okay with, how you can make that clear, and how you will back it up.
Setting your boundaries is a process. The first part of setting your boundaries is to decide what you are comfortable with. The second part is to make it clear to others what your boundaries are. The third part is to act on the boundaries you have set.
How to practice finding, setting, and communicating your boundaries
This is a set of three different activities, each one should take 5 – 10 minutes. You can do them on a train, waiting for the bus, on a coffee break, or whenever else you have a few minutes to spare, and they can all be done at the same time, or at different times.
Deciding what you are comfortable with takes practice. You will not always know right away. However, practicing deciding what you are comfortable with for some things will help you understand what you are comfortable with in other areas. Here is something you can do to find your boundaries:
- Pick some kind of interaction you might have with another person. For an example, a stranger physically touching you, or a friend joking around with you about your appearance.
- Decide on a level of this that is okay with you – so, for physical touch you might say a handshake is okay, or a pat on the shoulder. For a joke you might decide that making jokes about your hair and clothes is fine and doesn’t bother you. This does not have to agree with what other people tell you should be okay, or that you feel society expects to be okay. You don’t have to be comfortable shaking hands.
- Write down or say out loud what you decided is okay – e.g. ‘it is okay for strangers to shake my hand when I offer it.’
- Decide on a level that is not comfortable for you. Like, it is not okay for a stranger to touch your hair without invitation – or, it is not okay for a stranger to shake your hand. This is all about what you are comfortable with, and no one else’s opinion matters right now.
- Write down or say out loud what you have decided is not okay.
- Do this for two other kinds of interactions or boundaries, for a total of three.
Once you know what is okay and what is not okay with you, the next step is to communicate that to others. Communicating boundaries depends on the context, and is different talking to a stranger at a new job versus talking to a stranger alone on a dark street. Here we will think about some of the differences – this will be easiest if you already done the activity above for finding your boundaries:
- Pick a boundary that you know – something you are aware that you are not comfortable with. Write down or say out loud two situations where that might come up.
- Write down or say out loud what you would say or do in the event that someone crosses that boundary with you in each of the two situations you picked. For example, in a professional setting ‘Thank you so much, I am so happy to meet you! I prefer not to shake hands though, is that okay?’ Or in a less formal context, simply ‘I am sorry I do not like to shake hands.’ Of course your response might be an action as well, such as ignoring a stranger you don’t want to talk to.
- Practice giving your response out loud, however you would like to say it in that moment – with a smile, with a stern look, whatever you want.
- Do this for two different boundaries, in two different contexts each.
So, now you have practiced understanding your preferences and making them clear. The final step is to follow through with actions. Unfortunately at times people will not respect our preferences. Since there is no way to control how other people act, you must decide how you will change your own behavior to maintain your boundaries where you are comfortable. Another way to say this is that you want to find a way to show that you do not accept being made uncomfortable. Here is how to practice:
- Like in the second activity above, pick a boundary and imagine someone crossed it.
- Decide what action you would take in the future in that situation to protect yourself and your boundaries. It might be as simple as standing a little farther away so a handshake is not practical, if it is a coworker – or, if a stranger in a bar keeps insisting on shaking your hand, you might go to the bar staff and let them know that this person is bothering you.
- Imagine a situation in which you would need to take the action you decided on, and try to think how you would feel in that moment, as you imagine taking the action you decided on.
- Go through this process for three different boundaries, imagining how you could adjust your own actions when someone does not respect your boundaries.
Please comment with boundaries that you feel are important to you, or that you have had difficulty communicating or maintaining in the past!
If you think I am wrong about something here – please comment and let me know!
Thank you for reading. For other perspectives on this topic I recommend bpdfamily.com, an online support group for Borderline Personality Disorder, esteemology.comfor a personal account of the importance of boundaries, and glassmanpsyd.comfor more information on the nature and importance of boundaries from an expert.