Boundaries are sometimes thought of as aggressive weapons swung by aggro people. Threats like “If you spend Thursday night at the casino one more time I’m out of here!” Or brittle, impossible rules imposed by brittle, difficult people. Rule sets like “Lookit, don’t text me after 10pm or before 9am. Please use my work email address for business and my gmail address for social. If Kevin is invited then use our Mac address, which is linked to our shared calendar. Why is this so hard?”
Those are kind of terrible ways to relate, and they are also not good ways to set boundaries. In fact, those are not examples of boundaries at all. Because a boundary, as life coaches think about the topic, is not a declaration of war, or an ultimatum, or a booby trap ready to spring, or even a demand. It’s a statement of intent. And the intent is not control, but self-care.
Wait, this is not a story about control?
Not at all! Quite the opposite: a boundary is an acknowledgment that we’re actually not the Empress here, and the world is full of other sovereign beings who act in ways that may bring us into conflict. Oof, other people! They can demand all our maturity and hard-won wisdom.
With that wise understanding that, wow, we just cannot make others do our bidding, that in fact the only thing in the world we can ever hope to control—apart from the remote, and then only if we live alone—is ourself, we can create boundaries that just might help keep us safe and sane. Here’s a formula that life coaches like:
“If [X] should happen, I will respond by [doing Y].” <— It’s simple! No overstepping, no threats, no wheedling, no manipulation. With this statement, you acknowledge that other people have a right to do things you may not like, and, drumroll, you have a plan for that.
Thus, it’s not “You better be on time, or else!” and then fume when they’re late. That’s not a boundary. A boundary is “We agreed to leave at 11:30. If you’re not here before then, I’m going to have to go without you.” It’s very respectful. You acknowledge you can’t make others do what you want, and you gently let them know they can’t make you do want they want, either. The natural consequence of their being late is not everyone’s late. It’s their being left behind.
So you can see this kind of self-protection plan works well in those chronic annoying situations where someone else’s bad habits roll downhill on you, costing them nothing. You’re handing the cost of their actions back to them, and you can do it politely, with advance warning. No passive aggression here. No one’s left in their driveway wondering why you’re not responding to texts. This may end all tardiness—or not. It doesn’t matter because control isn’t the goal. You leaving on time is the goal.
More serious boundary examples:
- “Drink all you want. But if you do drink, I will not drive with you. I will call for a car.”
- “Date anyone you want, pursue your happiness wherever it takes you. But if you want to date others, I will not date you, for my happiness lies in constancy.”
You know you’ve got a solid working boundary when, if the worst happens, you can walk away. That’s what all these examples have in common. No one can protect herself (or her children, or her property) against everything, but a good boundary is set with the goal of keeping your person and your equilibrium safe.
When do you know you’ve got an iffy boundary or no boundary at all? When you’ve handed your safety and emotional stability to someone else.
Let’s look at a household boundary: “Husband, you can leave the toilet seat up, but if you do, I will …” Um, gee, what goes here, besides impotent rage? Awkward. I can’t think of anything you can insert into that statement that isn’t an empty threat. And walking away certainly seems extra.
If you are thinking That sounds like real life, you are correct, and tell you what else: I never came up with anything I liked better than, “If you leave the seat up, well … I will just put it down my own self.” Gasp, WHAT? Yes, I found a simple unilateral solution, and it works great. It only takes a second. Emotional equilibrium is in my own control, and I am unflapped.
I’ve come to see that even good people don’t always agree with me about what’s important. And sometimes, especially if I’m not fuming, I might decide they’re right after all, and the thing I thought was so important really isn’t—as I did with the toilet seat.
And some things are important. So hopefully your cousin doesn’t actually want to drink and drive, and your coworker wants to be on time and your boyfriend will decide you’re the one for him. But if not, you’ve got a formula for creating a self-care boundary that can be expressed temperately. Kindly, even.
One last little thing about boundaries: You don’t actually have to inform anyone in advance about your boundary, or inform them at all. You can just know what your own boundary is, and deploy as needed.
More resources: I do want to acknowledge that not everyone has the personal power to set boundaries, and not everyone can walk away from danger or difficulty. In the US, the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233) can help with a path to safety.