Setting Personal Boundaries

Boundaries. Now there's a topic that has come up over and over again in my life. But recently I have made some real progress: Understanding the value in setting them. And how to do it gracefully. Well fairly gracefully. I'm still working on that.

When our boundaries are not well defined, we may end up being victims of our own kindness. Boundaries are putting limits on what we will and won't do, and on what we will and won't accept from others. We're entitled to this. By setting boundaries, we're standing up for who we feel we are, and for what we value - and not letting other people define that for us.

We know our boundaries need to be set when we feel an energy drain, or inner tension, or feel tearful or angry when someone asks too much of us or disrespects our needs.

It starts innocently enough. From my childhood, I recall times when a good tickle went a bit too far. Or coming home from school to discover that the pink plush poodle I'd won at the carnival had been given to a needy child. Or the time my sister and I were asked to befriend a girl from our neighbourhood who had no friends. I don't know what made Mom think this was a good idea. There was a reason this kid didn't have any friends.

Childhood stuff like this can translate into unclear limits as we get older. When I was in nursing school, I had real problems with empathy and boundaries. Sometimes I'd give way too much and then when it became overwhelming, I'd hold back too much. At the time I didn't even know what boundaries were. I was just thrashing around doing my best.

Now it's easier for me to see when my boundaries have been breached. Doug is a relative. He's a nice guy, but he's also a bigot and he sends emails to everyone on his contacts list that I find really, really offensive. Another is Janie, a client who sometimes shows up on my doorstep without appointment or invitation. Since she's driven many miles to get here, she feels it's only fair that I let her in and tell me about her problems with her love life. And then there's Mr. Hunter. He's a 90 year old who tries to trap me in a corner at a social event so he can expound on his theories about the polar expedition of 1952.

We have all had our strategies. As little kids we could come up with a real stomach 'flu to avoid going to Auntie Joyce's. As adults we could prearrange a phone call so that we could bow out of the party early. "Minor emergency at home. Gotta go." But these solutions are pretty lame. They may get us out of the uncomfortable situation, but they do nothing to establish our boundaries. We take this approach when we're afraid of the consequences, or afraid of making waves, or losing a job, or disappointing a friend. But by doing it this way, we are still letting others define our values. This puts us in a position of powerlessness, not power.

However once we truly realize we can still love our nephew and say "no," to him when he wants to borrow the car or leave a one-sided telephone conversation when we tire of trying to get a word in, it becomes easier to stand up for ourselves.

A good starting off place in establishing new boundaries is to see what we value and what rights we feel we should be entitled to.

For example, I am entitled to:

I am also entitled to be treated with respect by others. This may need to be spelled out. Like other people may not:

But setting boundaries isn't just about deciding what they should be. That's the easy part.

The hard part is actually doing it.

It's saying what needs to be said and acting on what I have decided. It's being willing to feel that edge of guilt until it fades. Being willing to forgive myself for being ungraceful at first until I get the hang of it. And being willing to stand firm.

The easiest way to set a boundary is in advance. "I'm going downstairs to meditate for 20 minutes. Don't disturb me unless the house is burning down."

Next easiest is to step right in the second that your boundaries have been breached. Use plain language. Spell out what is expected. It could be a simple, "No." Without adding anything: no apology, no explanation. They already know you are reasonable and courteous. For example, to your brother in law: "It's not okay with me to talk about Fred behind his back. I'd like to change the subject." Or to the angry teenager: "You may not shout at me. If you continue, I'll walk away." Or to the high maintenance friend: "I won't be able to help you plan your family reunion. I'm taking some time for myself." Or to a co-worker who disturbs your lunch break over a work matter: Look at your watch and say, "I'll be back at my desk in 10 minutes. We can talk then."

It's pretty easy to get caught up in old habits when boundaries are breached. If my habit at a time like this is to think "He should know better!" or "I shouldn't have to remind her!" or "I hate being bullied!", then there's a good chance I'm already feeling irritated or frustrated, so it can help to have something prepared in advance. I used to have a hard time breaking free gracefully from someone during a reading that was going downhill fast. So, I taped a piece of paper to the wall right by my computer that says, "I don't think I'm the right person to read for you today." When I feel my frustration levels rising, I look at the note and it reminds me that I am entitled to bail out if I need to. That way I can establish my boundaries with no hard feelings.

If speaking directly doesn't do the trick, remember that actions can speak louder than words. Sometimes all it takes is silence and patience for the other person to remember that you have set these limits and she has breached them. I haven't perfected this one, but we all know what it looks like: it's the "teacher look." Mrs. Anderson would stand silently beside her desk in the classroom looking you straight in the eyes and waiting for you to smarten up.

If that doesn't work, then get out of range. Walk away from someone who is speaking to you inappropriately. Or get out of the building; your co-worker can't make you respond to her demands if you're eating your lunch in the park. If you find it hard not to answer a ringing phone, turn down the ringer. I rarely answer calls after supper on my business line. If it's important they'll leave a message.

All these are simple actions that show others that we value ourselves and our time.

It gets easier with practice. And it feels good. I'm still learning. I still have to sit down and decide what I'll say to Doug the next time he sends along an offensive email. If I can't manage it gracefully, then, well, I did my best. If he doesn't like that I've asked him to respect me, it's his problem.

There. That feels better already.