Setting strong boundaries with people is the key to good relationships. Right?
And when things go wrong, that bad thing happened to us because we didn’t do a good enough job enforcing our boundaries. Right?
That’s the way I used to think about boundaries. It implies that ‘putting up’ boundaries is the key to getting others to treat you the way you want to be treated. If someone is being controlling or problematic, acting entitled to your time or emotional availability, feels more strongly about you than you do about them, it’s your job to set a boundary with them and it’s their job to respect it.
And then what? If you ‘set a boundary’ and they continue to cross it, what now? You can, again, assert your boundaries with them. And then… do it all over again, I guess?
We talk about boundaries as a tool we can use to prevent others from hurting us. This implies that deep down, we believe that boundaries can in some way control or influence the behavior of others.
Asserting our boundaries will somehow get them to stop doing that thing that they’re doing that we don’t like. We could have a good relationship if only they would just listen to me! If only they would respect my boundaries and behave in the way that I want them to! Setting boundaries is the key to others treating us in the way we want to be treated… right?
At the end of the day, we can’t control the behaviors of others- not even a little bit. People do what they do. We all bumble, don’t pay attention and accidentally overstep. People are sometimes malicious and intentionally run roughshod over our boundaries. People run into boundaries that they didn’t know were there, or forget about them. Miscommunications happen. Power dynamics at play can cause others to repeatedly cross our boundaries because they face little to no consequences for it.
At the end of the day, we can’t control the behaviors of others- not even a little bit.
People are going to cross our boundaries. It’s not okay, but it’s going to happen. The important part is how you honor your own boundaries when they do.
Imagine you’re driving and another car pulls out dangerously close in front of you. Do you set a boundary to protect yourself from harm by:
A) Continuing to drive at full speed toward them. Expect them to notice the imminent collision and get themselves out of your way. After all, they are in the wrong and it’s their job to respect your boundary. I call this the ‘hey you can’t do that to me!‘ boundary model
B) Hit the brakes. Accept that you can’t force them to stop pulling in front of you- and recognize that you don’t know if they even realize that you’re about to collide. Take control of what you can in the situation by slowing your own car down. Maybe change lanes so that you can get some distance from them. Honk your horn to alert them of the situation. I call this the ‘this is what I’m choosing to do now’ boundary model.
Option A certainly helps us feel like we’re in the right. It feeds into our sense of moral justification, and allows a great outlet for blaming the incompetent people around us. Option B might not give us that same satisfying feeling of moral outrage, but the nice part is that we end up only expending energy to control what we can (ourselves), and not expending energy trying to control or, worse, blaming ourselves for failing to control what we can’t (others).
The “hey you can’t do that to me!” boundary model that operates from an expectation of control.
The “this is what I’m choosing to do now” boundary model that operates from a place of personal responsibility.
Ultimately, I think personal responsibility is the better option for avoiding a car crash. (Obviously I’m a defensive driver.)
If you’re not sure what kind of boundaries you’ve been setting, ask yourself these questions: Is the boundary setting you’ve been doing making your life better or easier? When you set a boundary, are you expecting it will lead to a change in someone else, or a change in yourself?
What I’ve learned is that good boundaries aren’t about other people’s behavior. Boundaries are about owning our own behavior. If they’re about finding where I end and you begin that means recognizing the difference between things that are my responsibility (me) and the things that are not under my control (you).
Once I started thinking about boundaries as the ways I choose to respond when things out of my control are causing me discomfort or harm, my relationships have gotten a lot easier.
A deep sense of empowerment came with this shift in my understanding- I feel more in charge of my own life and the way that my interactions with others play out. Recognizing that I can’t use boundaries to exert control or influence over others has made my life much less dramatic and traumatic- because I’ve stopped expecting others will do what I want them to. When I talk with people about how their behavior has affected me, the conversation is a lot less stressful because the only thing I’m expecting to get out of it is a sense of peace for myself, not a change in them.
Bad things still happen (again- people do what people do), but I feel empowered to choose what happens next and have a deep sense of agency and ability to use the power I do have to decide how I will respond, which is something I never felt when setting boundaries before.
Looking at boundaries from the lens of personal responsibility can be scary. It acknowledges the truth that ultimately, we are not in control of what happens to us.
When two people who are setting boundaries only for themselves come together to make relationship agreements, it becomes very simple. When both people are acting from an empowered, non-controlling place, creating relationship agreements can be as simple as speaking those boundaries out loud and then working together to create a solution that works for you both.
Practicing boundary setting from this place of personal responsibility may even enable you to not need specific relationship agreements and instead lean into trusting each other to honor and communicate individual boundaries as they arise.
For me, this kind of empowered boundary setting has helped to shift my relationship discussions from a battle- each person fighting for the version of the relationship they feel is better- to more gentle and trustful conversations on where you’re both at, what the relationship looks like these days, and what you’re each feeling and needing.
Ask yourself: what would it be like to not feel like relationships are a battleground? What would it be like to feel empowered instead of victimized, even when someone has done you wrong? What would it be like to feel in charge of your interactions, rather than provoked into them? What would it be like to feel an inner sense of agency, even in the face of oppression or harm?
Ask yourself: what would it be like to not feel like relationships are a battleground?
What would it feel like to love yourself enough to respect your own boundaries? To treat yourself the way you want to be treated by others.
Go on, I think you’ll like it.