Clarifying Your Boundaries

The last few posts have helped you develop some insight into boundaries and what yours look like. Now, let’s talk “brass tacks.” What are ways in which you might clarify your boundaries?

1. Articulate your feelings respectfully

Sometimes, our feelings can help us identify when a boundary line has been crossed. Keep in mind that feelings don’t always clarify reality, however they can help clarify your personal stance. For example, if you are beginning to feel resentful towards a friend who keeps brings up the same topic, your resentment could be cluing you into something. Perhaps, she’s manipulating the conversation, perhaps you disagree with her statements or maybe you’re just plain tired of the same old story. Whatever the case, set a boundary! Try: “I know this is super important to you, but for today can we talk about something else?” Or, if it’s a time issue re-arrange things: “I can’t get together today, I’m need to spend time taking care of x, y, and z.” Bottom line, if you’re feelings seem “loud” or” stuffed” pay attention, you likely need to express them, or at the very least you may need some space.

2. Speak your Limits

Has someone ever offended you but you didn’t know how to speak up? Not all battles are worth fighting but if something violates your values or personhood, it’s worth saying something. Try: “I’m thinking we see this issue really differently, I’d love to have a conversation with you but when you use that tone it’s hard to listen. Or, simply, “Please don’t talk to me that way.”

3. Use “I” Language

Conversations become explosive when someone doesn’t take ownership of their boundaries, but instead blames. For example, “It’s not right for you to be that way!” This is vague and feels offensive. The upset speaker could be describing a boundary issue, but it’s still unclear. Instead try, “I find myself shutting down when the conversation takes this turn, I would prefer we try to address it differently.”

4. Don’t be impulsive

Sometimes it takes time to know where you stand with someone or something (an idea, project, plan). Don’t be afraid to let things sit before you commit. Sometimes, folks will work to pressure you on the spot. There is nothing wrong with saying, “Before I say yes, I’ll need to ___________. Can you give me some time?” The response is thoughtful and respectful.

5. Know yourself

Remember the bull’s eye or target analogy? It’s hard to clarify your boundaries (i.e. what you are and what you aren’t) if you don’t know yourself. Spend time reflecting and understanding your desires, dreams and needs. Doing so will help you better understand your world- including its boundaries.

An Exercise in Boundaries

Boundaries are like bulls’ eyes. Sounds strange, but it’s true. You’ve all seen a bull’s eye, right? Sketch one on a scratch piece of paper if you’re having a hard time imagining it while reading. Label the innermost circle, the “target” as yourself. That’s YOU in that tiny little circle in the center of the bull’s eye. Your personhood exists in that circle; your feelings, thoughts and most personal expressions of yourself including your sexuality. Now move out one ring. The second ring is the tightest circle of individuals you’ve “let in.” For some people this is family: perhaps your parents or siblings. If family has proved untrustworthy this close ring might include someone else; perhaps a very close friend. Whatever the case, these are the folks who know the most about you. They also should be the most trustworthy. After all, look how close they are to you! Now move out to the next ring, these folks are still fairly close to “you” or the target. This ring may be long-time friends, mentors or maybe even grandparents. Now, as we move out another ring we are getting further from target. This layer may include more extended community; people that are hopefully trustworthy but you don’t know them extraordinarily well- teachers, neighbors or more distant family.

Why the metaphor? The bull’s eye is helpful for several reasons. First, did you notice how between each “ring” or “layer” of people is a definitive, solid circular shape? That’s the nature of the bull’s eye, right? Different circles have different point values in a game of darts. It’s helpful to recognize that YOU are separate from OTHERS. Even your closest friends or spouse cannot “blend” into you. They are separate entities, like separate darts on the target. Life and relationships become very tricky for folks who believe that everyone has “access” to “you” or the bull’s eye space. The bull’s eye space is private, personal and yours.

Next, think about each of the rings as representative of a boundary that must be crossed. Your neighbor, for example, who once inhabited the outermost ring might slowly gain your trust and enter a closer ring- say, two circles out from you. Your neighbor might be able to gain this close position by spending time in your home, watching your pets while you are away or coming over for coffee several times a week. Really, your neighbor gets to move closer to you, when there has been enough time and energy to establish trust. Read: boundaries are about trust. What if your neighbor knocked on your door a week after move-in, didn’t introduce herself and plopped down on your couch? Strange, right? It mimics the scenario in yesterday’s post. She acts like she belongs among your close friends when you don’t know her well. There has been no trust established.

If you haven’t already, take a moment to label your personal bull’s eye or your “network” as I’ve described it here. Notice who is closest to you and who is farthest away. Notice if you have many people in the circles close to you or if they reside further away from you. The look of your bull’s eye will clue you in to your social support system and the boundaries therein.

Now, if there are few people (say, less than two) in the two closest rings; tune-in. Your boundaries are either too rigid, or perhaps you are in a transitional season with few people close to you. Whatever the case, reflect on this a bit. Why is it no one is close to you? Do you have a hard time “letting” people in because you are naturally distrustful? Was your trust deeply betrayed by someone close to you? These are all questions worth exploring. On the flip side if you have many people in the two closest rings (say, more than ten), also ask yourself why do I have so many people? Are these people really all that close to me? And if they are, should they be? Unfortunately, people often find that those that should be closest to them (i.e. a spouse, long-time friend) are actually not particularly “close” in the truest sense of the word. Do these people know your strengths/weaknesses and remain patient with you? Do you spend a lot of time with these people? Do you feel heard by these people?

If your bull’s eye feels strange to you or you’d rather it look a different way, draw your ideal. How might your boundaries need to change to let more safe people “in” and let less safe people “out?”

Boundaries: When saying “No” is too hard

Have you ever heard someone say, “Whoa! They definitely crossed the line!” or, “That is definitely NOT okay with me.” Or even, “I think that’s something that I need to pay attention to!” When you hear these kinds of statements, whether they know it or not, these speakers are referring to personal boundaries. I think boundaries are one of my favorite topics to address in both my professional and personal life because they are just so relevant! From the way we spend our time, to our physical health, to the development of our most intimate friendships boundaries shape our interactions with ourselves and the outer world. In short, boundaries define who we are and who we are not.

Now, pretend for a moment you are invited to a friend’s house for lunch. It’s a relatively new friend whom you don’t know very well. She opens the door to her home and warmly invites you in. You talk, first about small things: the weather, your days; then a bit about personal things: your hobbies, interests, respective families, etc. It all feels really normal. You enjoy her company, she expresses that she enjoys yours. You stay at her house, oh, an hour and a half or so and leave hoping you’ll get together again. Now, imagine an alternate scenario. Imagine you are invited over a different friend’s house under similar circumstances; you know her but not very well. You drive up. She invites you in and asks if you can help her with some chores around the house. You figure she must need help, so you do even though it feels a bit strange. She then asks if you wouldn’t mind running a quick errand for her while she waits for her kids to get home from school. Again, it feels strange, but you do it. Before you leave her house, still a bit bewildered feeling she hugs you for a long time telling you how much you mean to her.

Two very different experiences, aren’t they? The first scenario portrays good boundaries- the friend had a set aside amount of time to connect. Additionally, the conversation had a natural flow- some “chit-chat,” evolving into deeper conversation with greater substance. Time wasn’t monopolized but it wasn’t rushed either. The second scenario feels out of control- the host demonstrates poor boundaries by using her guest and then expressing gushing emotion at the end, and the guest demonstrates poor boundaries by her compliance. In the second scenario, more appropriate boundaries would have been demonstrated if someone voiced the reality of the situation. The hosting friend could have said, “I think we need to reschedule our time together. I should have called sooner, but I am completely overwhelmed with housework and chores. Can we rain-check?” The guest could have said, “I was under the impression we were getting together to relax and hang out. It feels kind of strange that I’ve been cleaning your house. Am I missing something?”

If you connect with the above scenario, or you find yourself chronically pushed into uncomfortable situations, feeling responsible for troubled people, or just downright unable to say “no, ” you may need to work on establishing firmer boundaries. Ask yourself what kinds of needs you have in relationships and complete an inventory of your relational history. What did you learn about depending on people in times of need? Is your past marked by any kind of physical, sexual or emotional abuse? While healing from abuse is absolutely possible, victims can have a difficult time with boundaries since their needs were chronically overlooked, typically by important people in their life. Is your personality marked by compliance because conflict is difficult for you? Some people who report high-drama households or explosive conflict have difficulty setting boundaries because it could mean an angry, or downright abusive response. If you find yourself saying things like, “I’m just really easy-going” or “I just like it when everyone else is happy,” push past that compliance a bit. While a spirit of self-sacrifice and harmony has its place, it overlooks the uniqueness that you bring to the table. Ultimately, never showing your true cards or colors under the guise of self-sacrifice feels awkward and untrustworthy to those around you. Really work to define what makes you uniquely “you.” In coming posts we’ll look at the practice of setting boundaries in your life.

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