Boundary Setting: Chapter 1

Boundary-setting is an invaluable tool that helps us avoid unnecessary suffering and conflict. I have encountered a few subtleties that seem to make the difference between it going well or not.

To clarify, “going well” to me means that the person I’m setting the boundary with hears me and is not offended or insulted. They may be disappointed, or even a little hurt, but they understand and accept my boundary.

The most important step in any effort to set boundaries externally is to recognize where they exist internally. We often discover them through people crossing them, so it’s understandable if we take a while to know them all – and this means we will have many experiences of conflict while we find them. The secret here is to recognize when people are about to cross a line, and ideally give them some kind of warning. These warnings can be more subtle or light-hearted, depending on how severe the consequence of crossing the boundary is. I’ll elaborate on the severity concept in a later post.

Once a boundary is crossed, it’s important to be direct, saying exactly what you mean. This is the core of what ensures the other person will understand that you’re setting a boundary, as well as what the boundary is. I have an instinct to be vague or ambiguous when I’m telling people what I want from them, and I had to really push myself to use clear, unambiguous language in these situations.

Another key element in effective boundary-setting is empathy. Having a grasp of what the other person is feeling and what is motivating them makes it a lot easier to anticipate their likelihood of crossing any given boundary, and it also facilitates the process of establishing the boundary in two ways. First off, it enables you to communicate to the person that you understand what they want and why, so they feel heard and are more able to recognize that the boundary you’re outlining is relevant to them. Secondly, it makes it easier for you to be compassionate and respectful of them rather than being aggressive and judgemental.

I’ve noticed that many people — myself included — have a tendency to expect people to figure out where our boundaries are on their own. On some level, we feel like our boundaries are “common sense” or universal. This brings me to my next point: we are responsible for asserting our boundaries. In actuality, they are neither universal nor “common sense”. In fact, the very idea of common sense assumes a degree of perceptiveness that is decidedly uncommon. Most people will need you to spell it out for them, usually because their boundaries are different. Our boundaries exist where they do because of our personal experiences, which are the opposite of universal.

It’s not lost on me that I’ve been a hypocrite in this area, as I have often needed others to be quite explicit about their boundaries, despite expecting them to know mine intuitively. It is the people I know who have set boundaries with me respectfully and without judgement who have inspired me to start doing the same. I dedicate this post to them, and they know who they are.

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