I’ve been doing boundaries wrong my whole life, guys. In my defense, I’m not the only one.
Ideally, boundaries form throughout childhood, as you learn who you are, and who you are not. Natural boundaries happen spontaneously, because they are based on healthy self care and self esteem. If your childhood is bumpy, however, it’s easy to get off track with that natural process and become lost in others. I emerged into adulthood not really sure how to protect myself, what was allowable or not in interactions with others, or how to get what I needed in my relationships. At one point in high school, I didn’t talk to my best friend for two months. I don’t remember the triggering incident, and I don’t remember the reconciliation. I do remember the pain of separation, and realizing that I was punishing myself. I remember the lost time, and to some extent I’ll always live with the regret for wasting those two months, shortly before our lives took us in different directions forever. I stopped speaking to her because I was hurt, I didn’t know how to talk to her about it, I wanted attention, and maybe I wanted to punish her a little for whatever unremembered thing she did…that I now am sure had nothing to do with me. After we made up, I promised myself I would never hurt someone I love with silence and stonewalling again. Never, ever.
Having eschewed the tools of passive aggression, and having no permission ever in my life to engage in frank aggression, and also having no natural boundaries or assertive communication skills, I became like Kenny from South Park. Kenny dies in every episode. At the first hint of any conflict, I sacrificed myself, taking in the blame and the responsibility…and the control. Oh, sweet, sweet control.
I became the Nicest person ever, and held a barely conscious belief that if I followed excruciatingly correct rules of Nice Behavior, Nice Words, and Nice Actions, that other people had to be Nice to me, also. I invented a sort of Nicey McNicerson Social Contract. And it sort of worked. As long as I stuck with other people who subscribed to some version of Nicey McNicerson, and as long as I continued sacrificing myself, denying any anger or other Not So Nice Feelings, even from my own awareness.
But sooner or later, we all experience a violation of the Nicey McNicerson social contract. We either encounter a person from Fuckyouverymuchville or we can even run afoul of other Nicey McNicersons. The First Amendment of the Nicey McNicerson Bill of Niceness is that we don’t compare or debate what the rules are, because everyone is supposed to know how to be Nice. So the first time two Nicey McNicersons encounter a true conflict of values, mutual self-destruction is assured.
We do have a social contract. We have laws. We have rules of etiquette. But none of that replaces personal boundaries. Personal boundaries are the N of 1 version of all of those social rules, and as such, fundamentally can’t be assumed to be known to anyone other than the individual they apply to.
I now think of Tony Stark when I think of boundaries. Tony Stark (Ironman) has some kind of weird hangup about people handing him things. It’s never explained in the movies, but he gets quite upset if someone tries to put a package or letter or something in his hand, and he curtly informs the violator to set it down or hand it to an assistant. This is a quintessential example of a personal boundary. Boundaries can often be inferred from norms of social behavior, but many can’t be and you really can never be sure where they are until they are communicated verbally. We can’t have rules of etiquette applying to every situation and every person and every person’s unique set of feelings and circumstances. To be generous, one should generally assume that a breach of etiquette is a boundary issue unless you’re very sure that you and the violator are from the same sub-sub-sub-culture where all of the rules of etiquette are known and shared among all members.
Boundaries are more than just rules for how people can treat you. On a deeper level, they’re about teaching others to respect who you are, as expressed by your thoughts, feelings, and needs. As such, they’re rarely as simple as a rule that says “If x, then y.” More often, a boundary encounter looks more like, “I don’t like it when you x. Please don’t do that again.” That means anyone who is not able to say words like that—to everyone and anyone—does not have functional boundaries. That includes a very large number of people.
I’m still a work in progress with boundaries. There’s often a pretty long delay between the ringing of my boundary alarm and the initiation of the hamster wheel of a response. Often, by days or more. It becomes awkward to bring up something that happened several days ago, and say, “You know, actually…” But it’s necessary.
In years past, I thought having boundaries was about quietly withdrawing from people who made me uncomfortable, often in ways I couldn’t have articulated in a simple statement even if I wanted to. Ironically, I both wanted them not to know I was withdrawing so they wouldn’t be hurt, and ALSO to know exactly why I was withdrawing, and feel VERY VERY SORRY. The real message conveyed by withdrawal, silence, blowing people off, taking them off your Christmas card lists, not inviting them to things, etc., etc., is actually nothing. Some people won’t even notice. Others will be vaguely puzzled. Some will notice, and be extremely hurt, but they still won’t know what’s going on or why. Lack of data is lack of data. I may have achieved the same result by withdrawing from a relationship that I would have by confronting the behavior, but by not confronting, by never confronting, I sent a message to myself that I was not worth it. Asserting boundaries creates self respect, even if the other person doesn’t respect you, respect your boundary, or even remotely “get it.” If I have to lose someone from my life who doesn’t “get it,” I’d rather have the satisfaction of knowing I stood up for myself.
In the past, lacked boundaries to such an extent I didn’t even know where they should be. I felt other people’s feelings, analyzed their thoughts and behaviors, and tried to manage their responses by giving them what I thought they wanted or by expressing myself optimally so as not to cause upset. If that sounds kind of manipulative, it is. It’s not that I was never direct. In the land of Nicey McNicerson, I was actually a bit of a bitch. I dared to express preferences, not always like the same things my friends liked, state openly that I didn’t feel like joining a group activity, etc. Nicey McNicerson can get pretty hard core if they want and I wasn’t hardcore. But I really was not able to assert myself in the areas that were important to me.
I am slowly developing these skills, and some of it has been awkward. My husband deserves credit for his patience. Because anger is often our first “alert” that a boundary has been breached, many of us new to boundaries vent that anger at the person doing the breaching. But flipflopping from one dysfunctional boundary practice (withdrawal) to another (aggression) is not a solution. It may represent progress, but it’s not a place you want to stay unless you want to die alone and be eaten by your cats.
It was a revelation to me when I realized boundaries have nothing to do with blame. If asserting and holding boundaries are my responsibility, then there’s no room to blame the other person for crossing a boundary. The truth is we bump into other people’s boundaries all the time in life, and almost everyone does it unintentionally.
Sure, there is a small percentage of the population that push boundaries on purpose. They are deeply disordered people who either consciously or unconsciously get off on it. But if you treat everyone like an Evil Boundary Pusher you are not going to have any people left.
On the other hand, if you grant everyone a basic assumption of good will, but hold your boundaries firmly, you’ll find the Evil Boundary Pusher bounces off harmlessly. Evil Boundary Pushers can’t have any fun with calm assertive types. You don’t have to put black and white hats on people and label some people “Good” and some people “Bad” and then hide forever from the bad people because you’re too Nice to tell them off. (The case of the Evil Boundary Pusher who is actually an abusive parent or partner is another topic for another blog. For this purpose, I’m talking about casual acquaintances.)
Boundaries are for your own behavior, not others. A lot of us try to control other people with our boundaries. When I stopped speaking to my high school friend, I was hurt and offended by a behavior of hers, and the silence was my way of trying to force her to change. When we reconciled, she was the same person as before. All that had changed was that I had learned to accept her as she was.
Let’s say you set a boundary with your mother. You ask her not to call you at work anymore, because the interruption throws off your groove. She also pushes your buttons and makes you angry, which results in distraction and screwups. So you ask her, Nicely, not to call you at work. And she doesn’t. For two days. The the third day, there she is, calling you at work. You answer the call and tell her, very sharply, “I told you not to call me at work. This is very distracting and I do not have time for this right now!” and you are upset for the rest of the day. And now your Mom’s upset and confused. Everyone’s upset.
What if, instead of punishing your mother for violating your Precious Boundary, you had simply let her call go to voice mail and returned it after work? Would that be so terrible? Your boundary is for you, not your mother. You are never going to change your mother’s habit of…I don’t know..impulsivity, or whatever it is that makes her think she has to make a call as soon as she thinks of it. You just need some uninterrupted time to get your work done. The boundary is for getting your needs met, not correcting someone else’s character flaws. You have plenty of your own. Work on those. And, as a bonus, since actions speak louder than words, your mother may “get the message” that you don’t want calls during work time if you simply won’t take them. (Remember, you already told her–this is not a case of passive-aggressive withdrawal and seemingly random behavor uninterpretable to an observer. Mom knows why you’re not answering the phone, because you told her.)
Imagine if Tony Stark lectured everyone who tried to hand him a package about the evils of handing people things, rather than just accepting that the world is full of people who do that. By keeping boundaries about yourself, and taking responsibility for them, you respect others and let them be who they need to be. Boundaries are for you.
Yes, some people are persistent. Some people are aggravating. A very small number are predatory. Maintaining your boundaries means owning your feelings and taking care of yourself, not projecting thoughts and motives you know nothing about onto others. You don’t have to know why other people are doing the things they do to know you’re not ok with a certain behavior or interaction. And just because you, personally, are not ok with a particular behavior or interaction says diddly squat about the morality, social acceptability, or inherent rightness of the behavior. Other people might be totally ok with the behavior that’s driving you nuts. It doesn’t have to be “bad” to be a boundary for you.
A lot of people think boundary violations are mostly about being asked for something you don’t want to give, or being pressured in some way. Those of us who have had poor boundaries have been violated repeatedly in that way. But we have also violated the boundaries of others, and we have to own that. By trying to predict and control other people’s responses, by feeling their feelings and making assumptions about what they want, we’ve usurped their autonomy, and possibly made them feel kind of icky. What you think of as empathy may be perceived as unwanted intrusion by your target.
When you’ve grown up in less-than-ideal circumstances, you become hypervigilant. One manifestation of that quality is being exquisitely sensitive to other people’s feelings and mood changes. It’s a survival strategy. But in adulthood, it can be less than helpful. No one can read minds, and our spidey senses can mislead us catastrophically. Even if we’re right—and us highly sensitive, empathic types often are—if we don’t give someone a chance to identify their own feelings and make a choice or a statement based on that, we are interfering with their connection to self, putting our own egos in their way. I know I get very annoyed with people who name my feelings for me, even when they happen to be right. I prefer to be asked how I feel.
Having healthy boundaries means pulling those antennae back in and using them only when necessary, choosing verbal communication over mind reading, and curiosity over assumption.
Flattery is also a boundary violation. Basically, whenever you want something from someone, and try to get it from them without asking directly, you may be violating a boundary. Being direct and asking for what you need is a healthy boundary practice. And in order to ask for what you need, you have to know what you need. Identifying with your needs means having a solid sense of self. It’s all connected.
Sometimes we violate our own boundaries. Gossip and oversharing are boundary issues. Both practices are rooted insecurity. We think that by volunteering our own or others’ secrets, we can shortcut to the trust phase with another person, and get them to like us—the holy grail of the people pleaser. Inappropriate disclosure can have the appearance of building intimacy rapidly, and so in our eagerness to feel close and to feel important, we end up saying too much. I have fallen into this trap, on both sides. If you think you have no secrets, and share personal information with everyone, what you actually have is no boundaries. Likewise, when you share the personal information of others, there’s often a justification that you “care” and you’re just trying to find solutions for them. Alternately, some people justify that kind of gossip by rationalizing that the target will never know, or that he doesn’t deserve respect for his privacy because of some kind of character flaw or bad behavior. All of that is justification for a deep need to seek the approval of others by sharing privileged information and the appearance of superiority or specialness. When your boundaries improve, the desire to gossip and overshare disappears. In fact, it becomes tedious when others do it.
Having healthy boundaries is so simple if it comes to you naturally. You don’t even have to think about it. But if you didn’t receive that skill in your developmental toolkit, it can be extremely complicated and difficult. Now that I’m aware, I’m shocked at how often people tell me about some person or other that offended them and they never said anything. If the situation continues, it inevitably results in some kind of ugly conflict, reinforcing everyone’s avoidance behaviors. Usually the excuse for not telling the person who did the offensive thing is that they “should know.” Well, obviously, they don’t know.
A lot of people who are forming healthy boundaries for the first time get very emotional reactions from friends and family, sometimes even resulting in loss of relationships. In the process of developing my boundary skills, I asked a friend who has healthy, firm boundaries if he’d ever had a problem setting a boundary with a friend. “No, never,” he said. “I’ve never had a bad reaction.”
Not so lucky, me. My attempts at setting boundaries have been fraught with emotional overreactions and traumatizing retaliations. The difference, I believe, is in trying to walk back from some very unhealthy, enmeshed, boundary-less relationships. It’s the difference between reminding someone who is currently standing on the sidewalk not to step on the grass and calling the police on someone who is actively turfing your lawn with their pickup truck. No one would get that far in if they didn’t have boundary issues of their own, and once people get used to a version of “you” and are comfortable with it, they can feel very personally attacked when you tell them things are going to have to change. Furthermore, remember that people with poor boundaries tend to withdraw or aggress, so when you’re starting to set boundaries, you can’t be surprised if you encounter some withdrawal or aggression from people who are unable to talk about how they feel or what they need. Remember, this is not the land of Nicey McNicerson. Everyone is not obligated to applaud and support your personal growth.
Knowing people may be hurt when you assert a boundary does not obligate you to take care of them. In fact, there’s nothing that undermines a boundary faster than pursuing another person for their approval or agreement or good feelings about your boundary. Other people are responsible for their own feelings. At the same time, knowing people might be hurt when you assert a boundary is not license to be cruel or heartless. If you can’t set a boundary without insulting someone, or violating that person’s own boundaries, then you’re not setting a boundary. You’re engaging in some unhealthy drama, and possibly trying to control somebody.
At the end of the day, I know now that boundaries are not about picking “good” people and letting them “in,” while excluding “bad” people. That’s a childish and simplistic view of human beings. Boundaries are a way of relating to all people. They do not create intimacy, but are necessary for intimacy. People can’t be close to each other unless their individual differences are recognized and honored. Learning about boundaries has in some ways made the world a harsher place for me. No more Nicey McNicerson social contract. I have to accept that I don’t get along with some people, and never will. I can’t be everyone’s friend. I can’t please all of the people all of the time. That’s hard. The reward is that I can stop committing suicide every time I see conflict on the horizon. I think that’s worth it.