As a child, you were (hopefully) taught by your parents and caregivers ways to behave appropriately and how to interact with others. When a young toddler hits another child, the parent explains that it’s not acceptable to hit another person. In the wonderful teenage years, when adolescents push back on authority, they are taught how and why that behavior won’t fly. Parenting is all about setting and enforcing boundaries through teaching.
A boundary is something that indicates bounds or limits. A fence around the yard of your childhood home is an example of a physical boundary. As kids, your parents may have said the fence is the limit to how far you could stray when playing outside.
Every boundary also has a threshold; a point at which, when crossed, is of sufficient intensity to produce an effect. If you went beyond the fence in the yard as a young kid, there were repercussions like being scolded or grounded from playing outside for a few days. This was how you learned that to cross the line would result in some form of fallout.
Learning BoundariesIf you were parented in a way that you learned to stay within certain boundaries and why it mattered, there’s a good chance you learned how to set and enforce boundaries of your own. If the ways in which you were disciplined as a child weren’t clearly marked with an understanding of where the boundary was or why it was relevant, it may be more challenging for you to identify and state your boundaries to others as an adult—or to honor and respect the boundaries of others.
Boundaries are something everyone has learned about, whether they’re aware of it consciously or not. Think of a boundary as a line drawn in the sand that represents a “go” or “no go” in any given situation. If the boundary is honored, all is well. If the line is cross, and the boundary is violated, it could result in the loss of a job, the marring of a friendship, or the ruin of an intimate partnership.
People often confuse boundaries with ultimatums. A boundary is a limit that you have within a relationship or a given life situation. When that boundary gets pushed too far, it sends you over the edge, metaphorically-speaking. An ultimatum, on the other hand, is a final, uncompromising demand or set of terms declared by one party in a dispute. The rejection of meeting the terms of this demand will usually lead to a show of force, often resulting in the severance of the relationship. In other words, an ultimatum is a boundary with an extreme threshold, where one party dictates the action and/or the outcome.
Understanding BoundariesIt’s important to note that sometimes people infringe upon your boundaries (and vice versa) unknowingly. If you haven’t been clear that you have a boundary then you shouldn’t necessarily expect the other person to honor it. Of course, there are extreme examples, but this should be understood in common situations you encounter in your families, friendships, relationships, and in the workplace.
The reason it’s so important to know what your boundaries are and how to clearly communicate them is that it empowers you to have healthy, conscious relationships across the board. Every relationship you have is meaningful on some level or you wouldn’t be in it.
Clearly stating to an employer that anything over 40 hours a week is a boundary for you because you value your heath and downtime tells them what they should expect from you up front. Sharing with your fiancé that openly discussing your relationship struggles with mutual friends is a “no go” for you helps your future partner honor and respect that line.
In these examples, if there is any concern from the other party, a deeper-level conversation can be had to further explore boundaries on both sides. Relationships of all kinds can be greatly enhanced by sharing your values and mutually agreeing to honor each person’s boundaries up front.
Identifying Your BoundariesTo set boundaries in any area of your life, you must first know what is important to you as well as what is a “go” or a “no go.” For many people, infidelity in their relationship is a “no go.” In your job, being yelled at by your boss or torpedoed by your peers may be a threshold. For some, family arguments at holiday gatherings might be a strong boundary.
To begin, consider an area in your life where you feel that you’re being mistreated in some way. As you think of this situation and the person involved, identify what the specific behavior is that you find unacceptable, and then take it a step further by asking yourself why this behavior is unacceptable to you.
The purpose is to better understand yourself and what your thresholds are so that you can either bring this relationship back into harmony or discern if it’s time to let it go.
Next, consider this area of your life and make a list of the things that are important to you about this area. These are your values. Jot down a few words about what each of those things mean to you and why they are important.
As you look at this list, ask yourself, “If all these things were present in this area of my life, is there anything that would make me feel unhappy/unfulfilled?” Write down the things that come to mind. These are your boundaries.
Next, go back to your list of things that are important to you and ask yourself, “If all of these things were present in this area of my life, is there anything that would cause me to leave (this relationship, this job, this family)?” From this list, highlight the things that you identify as being “no go’s,” and this will give you your thresholds.
Communicating and Enforcing Your BoundariesNow that you know what your boundaries and the thresholds are, you’re ready to communicate them. In some instances, this may be easier said than done, and in some cases, you may find that it’s not difficult at all. The key is being mindful of how you communicate.
It’s generally best to have these conversations when things are going well versus when there is unrest, and sometimes you’ll have to communicate your needs in the moment.
Begin by telling the other person that this relationship is important to you. You may want to share some reasons why it’s important to you and what you appreciate or value about the relationship. This is often a good time to weave in your values to help them understand your position.
- Example: “In my friendships, honesty is very important to me because it implies that both people are coming from a place of integrity.”
- Example: “In my friendships, dishonesty is a boundary for me. When there is dishonesty, it breaches this boundary and I’m no longer able to trust that there is a level of integrity in the relationship.”
- Example: “If dishonesty continues to be an issue, I will no longer be able to stay in this friendship with you.”