Boundaries: filters for incoming and outgoing

A disclaimer to kick off today’s thoughts: More often than not, I get stuck while I’m writing because so much is not at all black and white. There aren’t any rules, really, that apply to all people in all situations. But writing becomes muddy and hard to read when it is full of exceptions and disclaimers.

With that said, let’s talk about boundaries.

In a post recently about the 20-minute visit, I wrote: 

2- Likewise, it’s easier to end the conversation because the time boundary is in place. (I’d not extend this invitation to people who won’t honor that boundary, or rescind it from people who turn out not to.) If you’re like me, it’s easy to let the ends of conversations take five or ten minutes, and it’s also hard to jump in and say, “Hey, I have to get going” and end up spending more time than wanted. This alleviates both problems, at least to a large degree.*

*This is not going to give a person who doesn’t respect boundaries sudden adherence. Unless you tell them you have to go and then hang up. That might. But that’s a whole separate conversation.

Let’s have the whole separate conversation.

We, collectively, are not good at setting, respecting, or enforcing boundaries. As an extension to that, we’re collectively terrible at teaching children to set, respect, and enforce boundaries.

Without boundaries, we don’t feel comfortable or safe with people. Maybe just certain people, maybe all people—depends on so many variables.

“But I don’t want to be rude!”

This is the most common argument against maintaining boundaries, and, as we used to say in the 00s, it lets the terrorists win.

If you tell someone not to do something to you (or for you) and they do it anyway, they’ve already broken the social contract.

I don’t want to be touched. I don’t want to eat that. I can help with X but not with Y. I’m not able to help at this time. I don’t enjoy that activity. This is when I’m available. This is how much money I can spend. 

Without explanation. Explanations are often invitations for negotiation.

(All of this is muddled by people—men and women alike—who say no because they are unable to say yes and accept help/gifts/advice. People. When you are offered something that you want or need, say yes. Express discomfort with the yes, but don’t say no when you mean yes. No means no.)

When a relative demands a child hug them and the child is required to meet that demand regardless of where they would prefer their boundaries to be, the child learns that their personal space is not theirs, and they need to push down uncomfortable feelings instead of heeding them.

That’s not a good lesson.

Yes, there are social conventions that children need to learn in order for society to function. Casual/social touching when it’s undesirable is not one of those things.

Yes, there are times when we do things we don’t want to do because it’s the right thing to do. But that’s our decision to make, not the decision of the person/people we’re interacting with, and not to avoid the negative response. If you’re consistently doing things to avoid making someone else angry, that person has problems and your best bet is to create space.

When people are accustomed to taking whatever they want from you, they will not react well to you setting boundaries. Their negative and sometimes harsh reactions make you question whether you’re doing the right thing. There will be people you desperately want to connect with who will refuse to treat you appropriately. Is that you or is that them?

Be thoughtful and introspective regarding your wants and needs. Sometimes talking to a friend will help, but sometimes friends just tell us what we want to hear. A good therapist will help.  

Another side to this that a therapist pointed out to me years ago: boundaries are not only for what you allow others to do or say to you (incoming) but also for what you allow yourself to say or do to others (outgoing). I had never heard that, but it makes sense. So if you are explosive, for example, you are not maintaining good boundaries in that context.

Likewise, when someone sets a boundary, respect it. Maybe have a conversation if you want or need so that you can learn, but not so you can find a loophole. If there’s a pattern that gives you pause for one reason or another, initiate a conversation to try to find out what’s going on. But as a general rule, no means no. An uncomfortable maybe also typically means no, but this brings me back to something I said a moment ago: say no when you mean no.

Are you good at setting boundaries? In what context? I know I’m good in some and terrible in others. You?

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