There’s a lot of talk about boundaries in the self-help and mindfulness spheres lately. Some of us don’t set boundaries at all, so a lot of the literature out there can be helpful.
But I also see a lot of confusing advice about what boundaries actually are, how to set them, and how to enforce them. We have very little idea of what healthy boundaries actually look like.
Let’s clear this up.
What Boundaries Are and Aren’t
Boundaries are not about controlling others
So many people think boundaries are controlling, but this is not true.
In reality, we can’t control others, and attempting to control is both ineffective and disrespectful to the other person.
Trying to control can be harmful to relationships because it prevents you from accepting and loving the other person as they are.
Boundaries do not mean you don’t have compassion
“Empathy without boundaries is self-destruction.” – Silvy Khoucasian
Boundaries do not mean that you don’t have empathy or compassion for other people, but they do limit how much you allow other people to affect you. You can still listen and help when someone is going through a hard time, but that doesn’t mean you need to give them all your time and energy or feel sad all the time just because they feel sad all the time.
Boundaries are not mean
Boundaries are the balance of accommodating other people while taking care of yourself.
For example, maybe you have dinner at your aunt’s house every week, but you hate the food she serves. Instead of telling her that you hate her cooking and she should cook something else, or that you won’t visit anymore, maybe you decide not to visit your aunt at mealtime. Maybe you decide to go out for lunch instead. You don’t stop spending time with her, but you find a different arrangement so that you’re both happy.
Boundaries are not self-centered and “me me me”. Boundaries are knowing that we DO have a choice so we can take ownership of our choices.
Boundaries are YOUR business
Boundaries are your business. The other person’s actions are not.
A lot of people misunderstand boundaries. It’s not “don’t treat me like that.” It is “If you do ___, I will ____.”
It is okay to say “I don’t like the way you’re treating me, so I won’t stick around. But you can do what you want.” In some circumstances, you can say things like “Stop” or “Please step back.” Some situations call for firm, direct boundaries, like if someone intends to harm you.
This doesn’t mean that you’re okay with someone else behaving destructively. You can still offer your help to someone else while being aware of your own wellbeing. You don’t have to take responsibility for others’ thoughts and actions and blame yourself when they do or feel something.
Boundaries are your actions
Remember, the other person is free. You are also free to do what you will do.
Minding our business is knowing and enforcing our boundaries. It’s not controlling someone else. It’s taking action by responding consciously.
How to Set Boundaries
Setting boundaries is about knowing what boundaries you want to establish and enforcing them by taking action within yourself. It’s not taking action to control someone else.
A boundary is not “You aren’t allowed to do ______,” it is “If you do _______, I will _______.”
It’s not “don’t yell at me,” “don’t call me before work hours,” or “stop commenting on my weight.”
A boundary is:
“If you yell at me, I will leave the room or hang up the phone.”
“If you call me before 9 am, I will let the call go to voicemail and call you back during work hours.”
“If you keep commenting on my weight, I will stop visiting.”
A boundary is an action YOU take. It’s not forcing someone to act or not to act a certain way, because that’s impossible.
Boundaries are your responsibility
A lot of people set a “boundary” or a rule and then get mad at someone else for breaking the boundary.
It’s not their job to not do what you don’t want them to. It’s your job to respond in a conscious way that protects your boundary, not to be reactive.
This is similar to my view on “triggers”. It’s not effective to set rules and insist others follow them. We’re not in charge of others, we’re in charge of ourselves. After all, we wouldn’t appreciate it if someone tried to impose their own rules on us.
Ultimately, boundaries are up to you. They are your actions and your decisions based on your limits. They are meant to protect you, not to control others.
Where can you set healthy boundaries in your life?