Babies learn to set boundaries naturally- you step out of their sight, they cry. You feed them too much food, they expel substances all over you. You don’t leave them alone; they aim a few kicks into your sternum.
When those babies grow up, they undergo societal amnesia. They forget how to say no. They learn to please everyone at their expense. They learn to bully others at others’ expense. When these adults have their own babies, they restart the brainwashing cycle- shaping their babies to be obedient citizens or chaos in motion. Having observed these patterns in many around me (not to forget myself), I felt it might be time to run a refresher on why we need boundaries:
1. Boundaries define what you do
This applies to how we relate to authority- be it our parents, employers, spouses or even our lawyers. If you are in a relationship- personal or professional with someone, you need to know what each of you is going to do. Granted that a lot may be ambiguous not clean cut- say who is going to drop off the kids to school next week, but boundaries help define what you bring to the table. More importantly, they help define what you do not.
Which brings me to…
2. Boundaries help express who you are
If you do all of the work in a relationship (at home or work), then you don’t need the other person around except as an ornament. Sure, there are relationships where your partner may not contribute intellectually or physically, but might provide emotional support. If you are managing every aspect of a relationship by yourself, you might want to (genuinely) ask if you gain any value from the relationship.
3. Boundaries give you purpose
Yup. Romantic relationships have a purpose. Friendships do, however casual they might be. Work has a monetary goal. You might not like taking a cold hard look at your relationships, but if your best friend suddenly starts criticizing you every chance he gets, or shows little interest in your life, you have reached a stalemate. If your relationship is in the dead zone, you don’t need boundaries. Conversely, if you want a healthy relationship (without being a doormat or bully), you need boundaries.
4. Boundaries are an investment
Boundaries don’t count if there is no one on the other side. You can put up all the fences you want, but if you don’t have someone (or something like a cow) that is trying to barge into your garden, building a fence will be a wasted effort. Set boundaries when you are sure they will be respected. And remember, when you set up your fence, it marks your neighbor’s property as well. Your boundaries impact others’ as well- you might do well not to stray into their pastures.
5. Boundaries help you focus, not compromise
If you enter a relationship passively, from a place of fear or insecurity, you might focus on keeping the other person out of your space, than defining your own space. This is rarely sustainable. It brings to mind the story of the boy who plugs his finger into the dyke to keep the sea from flooding Holland- you will have to keep your finger in that hole constantly, without being able to move away. If you spend your time fighting to maintain your boundaries, you won’t have much energy left to enjoy your space. Focus on what you need and maximize it, rather than minimizing what enters your space.
6. Boundaries evolve as you grow
As a child, you might have wanted little from the world, the adult ‘you’ seeks a larger playground. Your boundaries will, and should, change in sync with your evolving self. This means that your relationship will undergo changes as both of you seek different things from each other and the world around you. This means that if you and a partner (again personal or work-related) do start traveling in different directions, there may no longer be a need for boundaries. Boundaries are only essential when you are traveling the same path and exploring the same space.
A few final thoughts…
Learning to set boundaries is not natural for many. A great book that can help you get started is Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life by Henry Cloud . Boundaries are everywhere. You have the freedom to read, comment and (not?) disagree with this article because I respect your boundaries. It is easy to allow people in to make them happy. It is easy to trample over others and make everyone around you miserable. We need maturity and a balanced ego to find and hit the sweet spot.