Setting Boundaries
Setting Boundaries
Dear Tacit,

I try to set boundaries with the people in my life, but it does not seem to work.  Or if it does, it does not last long.  How do I get people to respect my limits?

Signed: Setting Boundaries

Dear Setting Boundaries,

Let’s start with a quick chat to help explain the process of “boundaries”.  Boundaries are the expectations we have of the roles we are in with other people.  They define how we will function.  They are the limits that are set in order to protect us, so we can feel safe and comfortable (in a healthy balance) within relationships of any kind.  Boundaries do not just pertain to the dynamics that exist between ourselves and our loved ones (parents, siblings, partners).  They also regulate the engagement we have in the workplace, with our neighbours, and in generalized society (with acquaintances and strangers).

Boundaries cannot be fixed concepts.  They need to be reviewed regularly and redefined as necessary.  They grow and evolve as we do.  There are different types of boundaries to consider – physical, sexual, intellectual (how we communicate), emotional, material (what we do with our possessions), and time based (how we spend our precious energy/time).  And when our boundaries are not effectual, we see the emergence of unhealthy relational patterns.  We might develop enmeshment in our connections with others; or codependency and enabling behaviours; or patterns of ongoing avoidance issues; or the development of mental health issues like depression, burnout, apathy and PTSD; or self neglect and issues with overgiving; or counter-dependency concerns (the inability to ask for help – doing everything on our own, at all times).

Properly setting boundaries is a two-part process.  The first step is the communicated message.  A clear and concise explanation of our expectation, need or want must be stated.  And it must be repeated, especially if it is a new boundary, on multiple occasions, to the other party.  (Assumptions that the other person “should know” cannot be made – and simply stating the problem is not the same as identifying one’s own boundary/desired outcome relative to that problem.)

The second step of the boundary establishment process is the action that gets taken if/when the message we have stated is not respected/honoured.  Boundaries are completely ineffective unless there is a follow-up (sometimes considered a consequence) that happens when the limit/request is not being met.

It is important to understand that the person responsible for setting a boundary is our own self.  And the successful achievement of a boundary is also the responsibility of the person who is setting it.  It is not dependent upon the other person’s responding behaviour.  Because of this, it is critically essential that we first know what it is we are trying to accomplish with our expectations.  Boundaries are NOT meant to change another person.  Boundaries are designed to meet our own needs/wants (usually stemming from our value system).  We start by realizing what value (not behaviour) is needing attention.  And we create the boundary with this outcome in mind.

We must also have a full understanding of our own feelings.  How do we feel when the boundary is violated?  Or how do we feel when it is being satisfied?  And we must practice being able to express those feelings in a way that does not blame or attack the other person.  For example, saying that we “don’t like it” when a particular behaviour happens is not digging deep enough into our root feelings.  But rather, being able to identify that “I don’t feel safe” when that behaviour happens better correlates to the value that is at the foundation of the issue (we each have a right to feel safe in a relationship).

When a boundary is triggering issues for the other person, we can expect to see them respond in certain ways – they might ghost us, or give us the silent treatment, or act defensively or display anger/control issues. But regardless of this response, WE always have the choice to continue to exert the boundary, or to give in.  If our end goal is our safety, for example, the consequence we impose if the other person is not acting in a way that makes us feel safe must be focused on that outcome – perhaps we will leave the situation or stop having contact with the other person (until such time they change their behaviours).  If WE continue to maintain the boundary we put in place, our expectation will be met.  How it will be met might require further action on our part (if the other person cannot abide).  But the power to ensure the boundary is honoured is entirely ours to enforce.

So, in answer to your question, I would encourage you to review how you are managing the boundaries you have tried to put in place.  I commend you on figuring out your needs, wants and/or expectations.  But it is you who must ensure that you are doing your part in getting them met.  And when you do, you will find the consistency you are looking for.

Take care!

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