Setting Better Boundaries

What boundaries are, how to set them, how to assert them.
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00:01 all right today we’re going to talk
00:02 about
00:03 boundaries i’m sure you’ve all heard
00:04 about that you hear it all the time
00:06 people saying
00:07 uh i’ve got a boundary on this or you
00:09 need to set clear and healthy boundaries
00:11 and
00:12 and it’s it’s in our culture but very
00:15 few people talk about how to do that
00:17 what boundaries are
00:19 and how to set them so that’s what we’re
00:21 going to talk about today
00:23 classically what people are saying when
00:25 they say
00:26 healthy boundaries is limits on what we
00:30 consider acceptable behavior towards us
00:33 and we just sort of expect
00:36 that the people around us will respect
00:38 our boundaries
00:40 an example of this might be our spouse
00:42 or significant other who gets
00:44 angry all the time and screams and yells
00:45 and and is verbally abusive
00:48 and so we might say uh hey it is
00:50 unacceptable the way that you’re
00:52 screaming yell me all the time
00:54 i’m not gonna stand for it you need to
00:56 control your emotions
00:58 this is uh the type of boundary that
01:00 people often
01:02 express is here’s a behavior
01:05 that i don’t like and i don’t want and
01:07 i’m gonna tell you
01:08 so that you can stop it this is my
01:10 boundary here’s the problem
01:12 i have with this kind of boundary is
01:15 that it it abdicates
01:17 all personal responsibility if we have
01:20 a boundary and we’re putting all of the
01:22 responsibility on
01:24 on maintaining the boundary on other
01:26 people on the
01:27 very people who don’t maintain it by
01:30 default
01:31 and so it really sets us up for failure
01:33 so i’m going to define boundaries a bit
01:35 differently the way i define them
01:37 is is this boundaries are the area in
01:40 our life that we claim full
01:43 responsibility for
01:45 this is a very different way of seeing
01:47 boundaries it’s not just telling people
01:49 this is how i don’t want you to be ha to
01:52 to behave it’s
01:53 this is an area that’s all my
01:55 responsibility and i’m going to make
01:57 sure
01:57 that things happen in here the way that
01:59 i want them to
02:00 all right boundaries are the way that we
02:02 care for ourselves and we respect
02:04 ourselves
02:06 and and here’s the most important part
02:09 boundaries are for
02:10 us to abide by not other people
02:14 that’s critical right so how do we what
02:16 what does a boundary look like in this
02:18 in this model and there’s two parts to
02:20 it number one is defining the boundary
02:23 to define a boundary is a boundary the
02:25 only reason we would set a boundary
02:27 is because there’s a point after which
02:30 we don’t feel safe
02:31 in some physical mental emotional way
02:34 our health and safety is at risk at
02:37 least we think so
02:38 and so the boundary that we define is
02:41 there is the red line
02:42 and anything that crosses that line
02:45 is my boundary i don’t feel safe after
02:48 that
02:49 so the second part and this is the part
02:51 that most people
02:52 miss is asserting the boundary so how do
02:55 we assert a boundary
02:57 is it’s a way that we bring ourselves
03:00 back to a point where
03:01 that boundary is not violated we make
03:03 sure that we are no longer in a position
03:06 of unsafety which means it’s on
03:09 us to make some sort of action
03:12 so asserting a boundary is our
03:15 predefined response when somebody
03:18 crosses that boundary
03:20 so if we go back to our example
03:23 uh our spouse comes to us and we say hey
03:26 i consider it completely unacceptable
03:29 that you
03:30 yell and scream at me all the time if
03:32 that continues
03:33 i’m going to break up with you and i’m
03:35 going to move out
03:37 now this isn’t a threat it’s not a
03:38 manipulation it’s not a punishment
03:41 it’s a response it’s a way that we are
03:42 going to respond
03:44 to someone else when they cross a
03:46 boundary that we have set
03:48 and and told them about in order for us
03:50 to respect ourselves in order for us to
03:52 put ourselves back
03:53 into a position of safety
03:57 now when we treat boundaries this way we
03:59 have a whole lot more freedom
04:01 to make sure that they are respected
04:02 because we’re the only ones that need to
04:04 respect the boundary
04:05 it’s us taking an action we can’t
04:08 actually control
04:09 the way other people think or speak or
04:12 behave we can only
04:14 at best influence them we can only
04:16 really control
04:17 what we do and so if we’re going to
04:19 maintain
04:20 healthy boundaries then they need to be
04:22 things that we
04:24 do to respect ourselves this is how i
04:27 see boundaries
04:28 and how i think that we can be setting
04:29 them better
04:31 now there’s a caveat here right and that
04:33 some boundaries are
04:34 really easy to set and maintain some are
04:36 really difficult if you were in an
04:38 abusive relationship
04:40 then saying to somebody this is
04:43 unacceptable behavior i’m going to leave
04:45 that could actually put you in further
04:47 danger
04:48 and so i’m not suggesting that merely
04:50 doing this
04:51 is always the right thing to do this is
04:53 more of a
04:54 i wanted to get a distinction out there
04:56 between setting a boundary as
05:00 request for a different type of behavior
05:01 versus setting boundary as
05:04 taking responsibility for our our health
05:06 and safety
05:07 and having an action and a response that
05:10 we’re going to go through
05:11 when that boundary is violated please
05:14 let me know what you think if this is
05:15 helpful if you have thoughts or comments
05:17 or disagreements please let
05:18 put them in the comments below

One of the biggest catch phrases these days is “healthy boundaries.” Unfortunately, saying the phrase is usually as far as it goes: people tell you to have healthy boundaries, but not what that means or how to do it. This post is not a full treatment about boundaries, but a good primer to start with.

Classical Boundaries

Here is the classical way of thinking about boundaries: They are the limits on what we consider acceptable behavior toward us. Setting clear boundaries is letting others know what those limits are, and we expect the people in our lives to respect our boundaries.

An example of this type of boundary would be:

“It’s unacceptable the way you get angry and scream at me and I won’t stand for it. You need to control your emotions.”

My disagreement with this type of boundary is there is no responsibility. “It is” unacceptable, as if that’s intrinsic truth. “You need” to control your emotions. The person setting this boundary has no control over whether it’s respected. It’s a request that someone else is free to honor or not as they please. That sets us up for failure. Imagine one nation relying only on the kindness of its neighbors not to invade. It’s not a strong boundary.

New Boundaries

I like to think about boundaries differently: Boundaries are the areas in our life where we claim full responsibility. They are how we respect ourselves and how we care for ourselves. And they are for us to abide by, not others.

When seen this way, the freedom to enforce our boundaries is back in our own hands. We only have power over what what we think and how we act. We have no control over others beyond influence. And since boundaries are created for our own health and safety, under areas in our life that we have full responsibility, then only we are responsible for respecting them.

This type of boundary has two components:

  1. Defining the boundary. This is the red line we draw that we will not accept others crossing. This may show up as a request or statement to another, but it doesn’t have to be communicated at all. Most important is that we know it.
  2. Asserting the boundary. The goal of asserting the boundary is to put ourselves back into a situation where the boundary is not violated. This step is an action. It is a decision we make ahead of time about how we will response if our red line is crossed. A real boundary is behavioral, not verbal.

An example of this type of boundary would look like this:

“I won’t accept you screaming at me when you’re angry. If you continue to do this, I will break up with you and move out.”

The second part is where most people fall short on their boundaries, but this is the difference between a boundary and a mere request. To respect ourselves, we must respond when our boundaries are violated. That response is not a punishment, it is not a threat, it is not a manipulative way of getting others to change their behavior. It is how we restore ourselves to safety and health.

Thanks to Paul King-Robinson at The Executive Shrink for his inspiration on this post.

1 comment

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  • Really well explained Tim. We ultimately have no control over the actions of others, so it is much more freeing to realize where we do have the ability to affect the situation and find our own freedom and boundaries.

Tim has been practicing and teaching interpersonal relations and communications skills since 2006. He leads the esteemed Boulder T-Group community and has taught circling and relational leadership for the Integral Center and C4 Institute.


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