About 20 years ago, the word boundaries were an uncommon concept to think about or to even communicate. In the past, if you missed a call because you didn’t hear the phone ring then it was considered an acceptable reason to not respond. Nowadays, the smartphone is making all of us accessible 24/7. Technology shifts have made us available to texts, emails, calls, notifications, and more. It has gotten to the point where we must silence our accessibility by putting our phones in a “do not disturb” mode. Earlier, we were in less demand as an individual, and we were not made to be always accessible to all relationships.
While we as a society still are new to instant notifications and how to navigate the use of technology, we are having to learn how to set boundaries when offline and in our interactions with others. Setting boundaries could be with loved ones contacting excessively, bosses that do not respect our free time, or having relationships where the other person belittles our ideas in front of others. Whether we realize it or not, we all have boundaries that exist no matter if we communicate them or not. However, if we don’t communicate our boundaries then we invite others to cross those boundaries and cause us discomfort.
Let’s talk about boundaries and how to set them. First, there are several types of boundaries.
Types of boundaries:
Sometimes it helps to label the boundary type being crossed just like when you label an emotion to help explore and understand what is happening.
Examples of each type of boundary:
· Physical: someone hugging or being in your personal space
· Mental: someone dismissing or ridiculing your ideas or thoughts or giving unsolicited advice
· Time: someone late to arrive for an event or a supervisor invading your 15-minute break from work
· Sexual: someone sexually harassing you or making sexual innuendos at you
· Spiritual: someone pressuring you to believe a certain way or when you go against a personal value to please someone else
· Emotional: someone invalidating your feelings or emotionally dumping without permission
· Material: someone borrowing money, or you are sharing personal items with another person
At times, you can experience someone crossing more than one type of boundary. Every scenario varies. Next, boundaries can be set in multiple ways. A person will tend to set boundaries in a porous, rigid, or flexible/healthy manner. Each boundary-setting sounds like this:
· Porous: feels responsible for others, has difficulty saying no, or is easily influenced by others & boundaries seem to be nonexistent
· Rigid: feels protective, avoidant, or detached & boundaries are set without any adjustments or openness
· Flexible and Healthy: feels able to communicate one’s wants and needs, does not compromise values, or chooses who to let in and keep out & boundaries are adaptable to situation and person
Which area do you fall in when setting boundaries? Are there areas to improve on with certain types of boundaries? What certain boundaries would be kept rigid no matter what?
Cultural and social differences:
Let’s briefly discuss the cultural and social factors around boundaries. Every culture has its interpretation of boundaries. Think about how different cultures view social boundaries. For example, in European airports, Europeans will crowd up to the front when waiting to board the flight and do not notice personal space in the same way American cultures recognize it. You might see others standing right next to you in an uncomfortable way. In the same scenario but in an American airport, Americans value their personal space. You might see suitcases separating between each person for added space as they wait to board the flight. These are considerations a part of understanding boundaries. Other ways cultural and social boundaries show up in our lives are through family relationships or within your place of employment. These examples represent how there are different levels of cultures that exist - macro to mezzo to micro levels in society.
How do you know when a boundary is being crossed? Pause and check in with your emotions or body. Remember our mind and body are connected. We are affected holistically.
· Emotional sensations instances:
Feeling resentment, sudden anger or frustration, feeling annoyed, or feeling something’s “off”
· Physical sensations instances:
Pain in the throat, heart racing, hot or cold sensations, or head or stomach pain
What’s okay to do when a boundary is being crossed:
Sometimes it’s okay to just say “no” when setting a boundary. “No” is a full sentence after all. Also, you do not necessarily have to explain yourself if you do not want to. It’s okay to disagree with others. Disagreeing is normal. It does not mean you are bad or wrong to have disagreements. It’s okay to walk away if it’s not working. Adapt to the situation and person.
It is not about being liked or disliked when setting boundaries. Rather boundaries are the lowest form of showing respect for another human being. What you continue to take from others as disrespect will continue until you communicate a change.
Communicating and setting boundaries:
· Identify the boundary being crossed or recognize physical or emotional sensations being affected
· Pause if needed & try to come from a compassionate & curious part of you rather than an emotionally reactive part of you
· Be clear, direct, and respectful using “I” statements when communicating the boundary
· Monitor your tone as you speak
· Expect push back but do not take the other person’s reaction personally
· Maintain the boundary when there is pushback, (e.g., remember healthy versus porous)
· Expect some compromise if needed
· Set consequences if needed but avoid ultimatums
Start small and build up when setting boundaries. Maybe setting a boundary with someone you love or with a boss is too scary and intimidating. That’s okay. Try setting a small boundary with someone you can trust that will respect you or someone you feel comfortable with if the relationship had to end. Build confidence from experience to face those individuals that are tougher and be able to set boundaries in a healthy manner.
Get to know your values and know you have the right to voice them when you believe your values are being crossed. Also, try to come from a place of compassion and curiosity to set boundaries. This helps when more than a “no” is involved in setting the boundary with the other person. Ask yourself, are you coming from a place of being emotionally charged when reacting as you set a boundary, or are you coming from a compassionate and curious part of you? You will be more likely to be flexible and receptive to working through the differences especially when there is pushback.
Again, it’s okay to pause and check in with yourself before communicating a boundary. New skills require time. Remember it’s a learning process and a skill not taught in our society commonly.
Here are some health benefits of setting boundaries:
· Greater assertiveness
· Your needs are met
· Greater self-esteem
· Less anxiety and stress
· Feeling respected
· Feeling understood
· Experiencing less conflict in relationships
· Feel safe
Workplace and setting boundaries:
With technology and organizations, it’s okay to discuss boundaries to generate ideas toward policies and training to improve the work culture. Supervisors can set the tone and influence how boundaries are enforced creating a healthier work climate. If boundaries are never discussed, then there is a lot of room for open interpretation which often leads to highly stressed environments with burnt-out employees. Leaders, the change starts with you, and how you set the example of setting boundaries.
Kimberly Ernst, MSW, LCSWA