By Dr. Marcus Mottley
Firm boundaries are fundamental for healthy relationships. Not just romantic relationships. All relationships. Relationships with your leaders, peers, direct reports, coworkers, friends and family members. Everyone. When you don’t set firm boundaries, the space between you and them may not only be disrespected – but it may be fuzzy and unclear. You may then feel resentful. And after that things can get messy very quickly. At the very least you may harbor doubts and potentially carry unspoken ill-feelings – which could then leak into how you relate to others.
So, what are boundaries?
The Cambridge English Dictionary defines a boundary as: “A real or imagined line that marks the edge of something”.
The principle behind personal/professional boundaries embodies this same idea and applies it to our relationships. For example, the phrase “to overstep a boundary” no doubt evokes the image of someone stepping over a physical line. Yet, it’s used to describe someone disregarding a personal or professional boundary.
Just as people have boundaries, limits, and dividing lines in physical space, we have boundaries in our relationships, lines that demarcate what we’re ok with and what we’re not ok with.
Much like literal physical boundaries though, personal boundaries have to be put in place and articulated. A fence doesn’t just materialize out of nowhere. Someone put it there to enforce a boundary. But while a fence can be seen, an individual’s boundaries must be articulated.
People won’t necessarily know what your specific boundaries are unless you set them yourself and make them generally well known. Yes, sometimes we have set boundaries – but very few people know about them because we have not made them known. A fence can be seen… and even then people may put notices on their fences. For example: “Private property.” Or, “No trespassing!”
Take complete responsibility for your boundaries.
Accept that nobody else is going to set boundaries for you. Embrace that if someone continually disrespects your boundaries, it’s your responsibility to first make sure they know where your boundaries are.
You also should get clear on what you’re OK with and what you’re not. Then let people know!
Question: Do you know what your boundaries are? It’s going to be impossible to set boundaries if you don’t know and are crystal clear about what your boundaries are.
So, the idea here is to cultivate self-awareness and emotional intelligence about your ‘space’ – where it starts and where it ends. That way, you can be sure where your boundaries are in a given relationship at any time. Because, over time, your boundaries will change because both you and your relationships will evolve.
Daily reflection in some form, be it a journal or other method, may be essential here.
Reflect on the boundaries in your life that already exist (or don’t exist and should…).
There are some boundaries, or lack thereof, that result simply from the culture you live in. This doesn’t just mean the country where you live, but also what the culture is like at work, with friends, and at home. For instance “someone might decide that they have certain boundaries with their romantic partner, but not with their friends and coworkers”. Hmmmm – that sounds like it should be the other way around. But… you get the picture.
So, yes, you may have boundaries. But, do they apply differently to different people? And, are you clear about those differences? Or do the boundaries shift based on your mood, who is around you, and your environment? For example, does your boundary change for your family member if you are at work… and change to something else when you are at home? If your answer is yes, do they know and are clear about this?
Think carefully and deeply about this. There is no wrong or right… its just what it is. Be clear to yourself first. The point also is to examine your environment and see what boundaries are already in place and which boundaries are lacking.
Don’t be afraid of discomfort, conflict or confrontation
Setting boundaries often leads to conflict and confrontation. No matter, you must let people know what you want by communicating it directly to them. Even if its uncomfortable for them to hear and for you to say it. Clarity is key here.
Discomfort now will save you from greater discomfort – and potential conflict in the future. Plus, being bold enough to stick up for your boundaries will help you build more fulfilling relationships with deeper connections as well as developing and or affirming your own self-confidence, identity and independence.
You may need to have tough interpersonal confrontations with others either when you tell them about the boundary or when you have to remind them about the boundary that you had discussed before. It’s not always easy. In fact, it’s almost never easy. But you need to be OK with having these difficult and emotional conversations because they’re often unavoidable when it comes to setting boundaries.
Think of situations where your boundaries are routinely crossed and then prepare to discuss your boundary.
Physical, professional and psychological
It is quite easy to understand physical and spatial boundaries. For example: no touching! Or, don’t come all the way up into my face (space) when you talk with me!
Professional boundaries can include how people address you and what they discuss with you. For example, if you are the Medical Director of your hospital, you wouldn’t expect a nurse to address you as ‘Jean’! And, the nurse, may even request that the Medical Director address her as ‘Nurse Martin’!
Psychological boundaries can include the types of conversations that get discussed. For example, the Medical Director would be out of place to ask Nurse Martin about who she went on vacation with… or about her childhood… etc. Professional and psychological boundaries can be crossed when some people move out of their ‘lane’ and become too ‘familiar’.
You probably know certain people who constantly disrespect your boundaries. Maybe it’s a friend, a relative, or a coworker. Either way, you’re probably quite familiar with the things they do that make you uncomfortable and sometimes, resentful.
Get clear on what boundary you need to set. Have a “script” ready for the next time they cross that boundary. It is important to think it through and prepare so that you say the right things at the right time and increase the chance that the message gets through… permanently.
Oftentimes, people, especially those we care about, don’t know they’re overstepping boundaries because we never say anything about it. We say “yes” all the time because we want to be helpful and don’t want to upset anyone. And saying “no” feels too confrontational for you to use.
Remember though, knowing when to say no is important for both parties. And, it’s not just about you. A relationship suffers without strong, healthy boundaries. Because you don’t want to hurt this person or have them misunderstand your meaning, you should spend some time thinking about what to say so as to be tactful, strategic and deliberate. If you hate confrontation, and you’ve been stewing on this for a while, you could end up blurting out something that miscommunicates your true intention, particularly if you don’t have a plan.
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes ferocity and courage is needed to set boundaries with some people, especially those who deliberately cross those boundaries. If you continue to allow them – they will step all over you!
However, it’s still important to know what you’re going to say, and how you are going to say it. That way you don’t freeze or go back to your default of saying, “it’s fine”, when it’s definitely not. Basically, planning in advance means you can decide how hard or soft you want to be in this situation. In other words… the first time you speak you may go for soft… the second time you should be much firmer… the third time…!
Setting boundaries is a difficult and ongoing pursuit. Much like household chores, you have to keep on top of them or they get messy and out of hand. In this post, I hope I’ve given you some tools to help you set strong boundaries in your personal and professional life that lead to greater wellbeing, smoother communications and better interpersonal relationships.