What’s All the Hullaballoo about Boundaries?
by Suzanne Manser, PhD
I’ve been thinking about boundaries lately. We all know it’s important to have good boundaries, but we’re not always clear why it’s important or what having good boundaries means exactly.
A boundary is a marker that says, “This is where I end and you begin. Between me and that marker is my psychological space. I have full domain over that space. I get to say what is important to me, what is true for me, what my needs and wants are, what my feelings are, and what my pain points are. I get to say what my beliefs and opinions are. I will let you in up to a point, and I get to determine where that point is. That point is my boundary. Past that point, you need permission to enter. Past that point, you are in my house, and you need to respect the rules of the house.”
The clearer you are about your boundaries, the clearer you become about who you are (and vice versa). The space between you and the boundary gets more filled in. You see yourself more clearly as whole person, separate from everyone else, not needing approval from anyone to determine where your boundaries are and what’s inside of them. Focusing on boundaries is a useful way to solidify your sense of self.
A boundary says, “Everything between me and this boundary is my business. I own it. Everything outside of my boundary is NOT my business and I do not own it. It becomes my business only when it crosses my boundary and comes inside my space.”
This is so helpful. If I am clear that I own everything between myself and my boundary, then I know that I am responsible for it. I may not be responsible for how it got there, but it is up to me to manage it in a way that works for me. If I know that it is my responsibility, I won’t waste time waiting around for someone else to deal with it for me.
It is also helpful to know what is not your business. Other people’s feelings, needs, and opinions are not yours to own or manage for them. Stay on your side of the fence. Do not take responsibility for another person’s psychological space. It doesn’t work, and it only compromises your boundaries. (This does not mean don’t be compassionate or don’t care. You can do those things without crossing any boundaries.)
In the same vein, what other people think or feel about you is none of your business and not yours to manage. Their thoughts and feelings are definitely on their side of the fence, even though they are about you. If you find yourself focusing on whether your date finds you attractive, or if you are constantly figuring out how not to disappoint anyone around you, you have crossed your boundary and destabilized your sense of self.
Here’s what happens when boundaries get crossed or ignored: your sense of who you are starts to get muddy. Instead of you making deliberate decisions about what belongs inside your space, your space starts filling up with other people’s desires and needs and random opinions. You begin assuming that their stuff is yours, since it’s in your space. Your sense of self becomes diluted and polluted (no rhyme intended) by someone else’s truth. It causes self-doubt and insecurity. This is no good.
It doesn’t matter which direction the boundary violation comes from, whether we cross our own boundary or someone else crosses it. The muddiness results from any holes in the boundary. Often, we ignore our own boundaries because we doubt their validity. We are not confident in our right to assert our own boundaries. Sometimes it feels easier to ignore our boundaries instead of trying to assert them; we meld with the other person. What they like becomes what we like. What they think becomes what we think. It is a way of gaining a sense of self, albeit not ours. We also sometimes ignore our boundaries to preserve our safety, which I will discuss in a bit.
When others cross our boundaries, it’s sometimes because they didn’t know the boundaries were there. Though some boundaries are fairly obvious, most need to be directly communicated to anyone approaching them. We can’t expect others to read our minds. Part of the responsibility of owning our space is communicating to others where it is and where it ends.
This can feel uncomfortable. We often feel guilty for asserting a boundary, as if we’re stopping someone from going where they have a right to go. If you’re not used to communicating boundaries, think of it as helpful information for the other person. The more transparent you are about your boundaries, the less guesswork they have to do. And, you get information about their ability to respect boundaries.
Sometimes people cross our boundaries because they don’t perceive them as valid. People who “know better” tend to fall into this category. Children’s boundaries get crossed all the time. The parent who insists that the child likes pink or likes carrots. The parent who assumes the child wants and needs only what the parent wants and needs. The parent who does not give the child any privacy. The parent who does not allow the child to make (appropriate) choices for themselves. The parent who sees the child as a reflection of themselves. These are all boundary crossings. These are all examples of not seeing the firm distinction between two whole, separate people.
This kind of boundary crossing also happens frequently with romantic partners. For some parents and for some partners, boundaries feel scary because they take away a sense of control. The unconscious rationale is, “If I’m not in control (of you), I don’t feel comfortable or safe. I can’t control you if I have to ask permission to come into your space. I can’t control you if you are separate from me.”
When you grow up with a parent who ignores your boundaries (common for alcoholic, narcissistic, and anxious parents – parents who had pain that compelled them to prioritize their needs above anyone else’s), you learn that you don’t have a right to your own boundaries. You learn that your boundaries aren’t important or valid. As a result, you don’t develop a clear, strong sense of who you are separate from who your parent is. You aren’t sure which parts are yours and which are your parent’s. It’s muddy.
Muddiness can’t always be avoided; sometimes there are no better options. When parents ignore their child’s boundaries, the child doesn’t typically have the power to make them stop. And sometimes a child has to keep crossing their own boundaries – they may have to spend a lot of time on their parent’s side of the fence to keep themselves safe. The better they can predict what the parent is going to do next, the safer they are. That’s real, and that’s valid. If you learned to fly under the radar or be a people pleaser, you were prioritizing your safety over your boundaries.
A lot of kids were (and are) in this situation, which is why a lot of adults don’t have a crystal clear grasp on boundaries. Here’s the good news: you do not have to keep the boundaries, or lack thereof, that were given to you by others. Every person gets to decide for themselves what is true and what feels comfortable and acceptable. Every person has the right to have those boundaries respected.
If you want to work on developing your own boundaries, pay attention to your wants, needs, feelings, values, beliefs, and opinions. Pay attention to how important it is for you to hold each of those close to you and protect it vs. how willing you are to have it be up for debate. Pay attention to when you feel unheard, betrayed, or angry (often a sign that a boundary has been crossed).
Once you’ve identified some boundaries, practice owning them. Tell someone about a boundary, even if it’s small, even if it’s obvious. Write it down: “This is my boundary: ___________.” Practice visualizing your boundaries as clear endpoints or borders. If your boundary were a fence, what kind of fence would it be?
One significant challenge to developing our own boundaries is not believing we are allowed to have them. When others don’t respect our boundaries, too often our first thought is that our boundaries aren’t worth respecting. We second-guess whether they are acceptable. We wonder if they’re “too much.” If you fall into this bracket, as I tend to, get ready to practice a mindset shift. If you have stated your boundary and someone has crossed it, it’s about them, not you. That’s it. That’s the magic mindset shift. Your boundaries are not open to validation by someone else. You are allowed to have them. Period. Having boundaries is part of the deal of being a whole, separate human being. You are the only one who gets to set them because you are the only one in your body, living your life.
FYI, asserting boundaries does not take away from the other person. Your boundary cannot impact who they are (that’s what their boundaries are about). Your boundary only speaks to who you are. Your boundary will impact who the two of you can be together, however, as will theirs. Boundaries impact relationships. That is unavoidable – when two boundaries rub up against each other, there may be respect or there may be tension and friction. When there is friction, the goal is not to question the validity of the boundaries. No one is “bad” if their boundaries don’t match up to someone else’s. It’s just not a match.
I just checked Bookshop.org – there are pages and pages and pages of books on boundaries. Quite the hullaballoo. And rightly so. Those of us who are unfamiliar with, uncomfortable with, or unclear about our boundaries are doing ourselves a disservice. Boundaries make life easier (in a “I see a path around the obstacles” kind of way, not a “There are no obstacles, only butterflies and rainbows” kind of way). Knowing and owning your boundaries strengthens your sense of self and gives you a sense of empowerment. This is good stuff. This is what most of us are looking for.
Boundaries: worth the hullaballoo.