“I need to get better at having boundaries.”
I hear this from women now and then – from the ones who realize that boundaries are an issue for them.
When I talk about boundaries, I often think of the #metoo movement, which from my perspective was/is about boundaries. Every story in the form of “I did it even though I didn’t want to” is a story about boundaries.
About victims who didn’t know how to assert a boundary in the moment, were afraid to, or expected that they only need to state a boundary once in order for it to be respected.
And about perpetrators who didn’t check for a boundary, or assumed that if the victim really meant it they’d do more to stop what was happening, or didn’t like being told “No.”
We could say that’s what all boundary challenges are about at their core: one party struggling to set them while another wants them to not exist. Of course, sexual harassment and assault isn’t the only context in which boundaries apply. There are many more commonplace examples of the need for boundaries in everyday life. Let’s talk about a few of them, help you understand why you avoid setting them, and suggest some strategies to help you.
One example that comes to mind is phone calls. Let’s say you don’t want to get phone calls or texts during the middle of the night. That’s valid, right? Sleep is important!
How would you assert that boundary?
Notice the differences there. A properly-set boundary isn’t about wishes or words; it becomes real through action – your action.
Of the above options, #1 is as if no boundary was even imagined at all. #2 puts the responsibility for the boundary in everyone else’s hands (which is how most people try to set boundaries).
Option #3 is the only one where you stand in your power to make sure the boundary exists. This is important because if you don’t respect your own boundary, then no one else will either.
Boundaries are how you teach people how to treat you. They are your ways of showing people, “this is what’s acceptable, this is what isn’t.”
Or, “This is what I like, this is what I don’t.” Boundaries can be based on what you like – it’s doesn’t have to be a need.
Another example: Let’s say you have a business where you see clients by appointment.
Do you see how appointments are a type of boundary? “We’re going to spend time together between X:XX and X:XX.”
What, then, do you do with a client who is repeatedly late for their appointments? You might empathize with their busy life, but having appointments run over affects your schedule and your other clients.
Did either of these examples – the late night phone calls or the late clients – make you cringe a little?
I’ve brought up both of these in conversations. The #1 objection with the phone example is, “If I turn off my phone, I might miss an emergency call.” And the #1 objection for setting boundaries with clients is, “I might lose the client.”
Which leads us into…
Fear of consequences. I wish I could say there’s a way to set boundaries which would spare you from any negative consequence, but there isn’t. Yes, you might miss an important message. Yes, you might get fired by your client or your boss. Yes, someone might actually react violently in response to your asserting a boundary.
But you have to ask yourself how likely those consequences are. Are you willing to lose sleep every night for the emergency call that might come once in 5 or 10 years – or not ever?
And how undesirable are those consequences? Fear might say that you can’t afford to lose the income from that job, but I can tell you first-hand that tolerating situations where your needs and wants are not honored drains the energy you could be using to create more prosperity for yourself. How many people have stories where being fired was the best thing that ever happened to them? That only happens when you stand up for what you want.
I get that if you’ve experienced negative consequences in the past when you’ve tried to set boundaries, then these are more than theoretical fears – but that doesn’t make them more real. Meaning, just because it happened in the past doesn’t mean it will happen again in the future. But you’ll need healing of those past experiences to truly believe that.
Empathy. One reason you might struggle to assert boundaries is because of your experience on the other side. If you don’t like being told “No,” then you’re going to avoid saying it to others.
That’s why the better way to assert a boundary is sometimes to redirect. Instead of pushing back with a straight “No,” respond with an “Instead.” Like when a child asks a parent, “Can I have a cookie?” and the parent says, “You can have a fruit roll instead.” It’s a way of saying “Yes” to something that’s agreeable to both of you (hopefully) instead of having to tell the person “No.”
The other way is to avoid having to say “No,” is to give them a clear choice, “You can arrive late or we can do a full one-hour session” has a different feel for both of you than scolding your client for being late all the time.
Unworthiness. Now we’re getting deeper in the subconscious stuff. Unworthiness, in this context, amounts to “What I want doesn’t matter,” or “What I want matters only if someone else agrees that it matters.” Version A shows up as not asserting the boundary at all; Version B shows up as asserting it once, but then dropping it if the other person doesn’t honor it.
This is a hard one to get past on your own, because worthiness issues have their roots all the way down in the Core Wound that formed while you were still in the womb. It’s unlikely that you’ll heal the wound on your own, but working with affirmations can retrain your mind to compensate for it and give more priority to what you desire.
Powerlessness. If your life experience has repeatedly taught you that no one listens to you, no one cares, nothing you do works, then you wouldn’t even try to set boundaries in the first place. I honestly don’t have a DIY remedy for this. To say “try it anyway until you have a different experience,” while true, sounds tone deaf for the level of despair you probably feel about this. My guess is that boundaries aren’t the only place in your life where you feel this way, and qualified professional help from me or someone else can really make a difference across the board.
My guess is that boundaries aren’t the only place in your life where you feel this way, and qualified professional help from me or someone else can really make a difference across the board.
I’ve waited till the end to tell you my story with boundaries, because while it’s a vivid description of a person stepping into her power, it’s also a scenario that I hope never applies to you.
I consider myself very good at setting boundaries now, in a way that is typically calm, matter-of-fact, and projects no blame at the other party. (Although some people will feel blamed regardless, and I’ve had to learn I can’t control that.)
This wasn’t always true; it’s a skill I’ve honed along with lots of healing that took away the unworthiness and feeling bad about saying “No.” This work happened throughout the last 10 years, but when I look back, the pivotal moment that made it possible actually happened when I was 16, in an incident with my mother.
Throughout childhood, my relationship with my mother was tumultuous. I could even say violent. She had wounds and insecurities that she didn’t know how to handle, so she took them out on me verbally, emotionally, and physically.
This continued into my teen years. It never occurred to me that if “spanking” had ever been appropriate, by that age it had clearly morphed into something else.
Until a day when I was 16, and my mother stormed into my bedroom, ranting and raving angrily about something. The memory is blurred, but I remember it escalating to the point where she was flailing around and accidentally knocked my favorite coffee mug off my desk onto the floor, smashing it in pieces. I remember screaming at her in response, which is when she came at me and hit me.
Then something powerful happened: I hit her back. It was my first time ever doing that – and it was my last, because after that she never hit me again.
I can’t say exactly how or why or what compelled me to hit her. I doubt it was a conscious thought. And I’m not proud of it; in fact, until earlier this year, I was carrying a massive burden of guilt and shame that I didn’t even realize my subconscious mind was holding. After all, what type of horrible person hits their mother?
Looking back on it now, especially through healer’s eyes, I also see this as a moment of power. For the first time in my life (or at least the most powerful one) I stood up for what I wanted most: for the hitting to stop. In that moment, I tapped into an inner power that was stronger than any shoulds or should nots, any sense of who had the authority in that scenario.
Finding my power in that moment set a new precedent. It showed me that when I want to, I can stand up to any unwanted thing in my life. Since then the rest of my journey with boundaries has been dealing with the smaller, less obvious needs for boundaries – the ones where, just like we discussed above, what I want or need feels like it’s in direct conflict with what I fear.
The power I found that day is the same power which dwells within each person, and my prayer for you is that you never need to experience something so extreme to find your power. But if you have, know that I am here to help you heal that trauma and find your power just as my clients and I have found ours. That support is only a click away.
Want to hear more talk about boundaries? Tune into the podcast, “Flushing It Out with Samantha Spittle,” available on most podcast platforms. I’ll be one of the featured guests during her upcoming series on boundaries.