“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.” ~Brene Brown
Our boundaries should be non-negotiable, so we shouldn’t feel guilty about enforcing them with the people we deal with in our lives.
It seems simple enough, right? When we go to work each day and head into our office, if we close our door behind us then our colleagues know not to barge in without knocking first.
Or, common courtesy is that our friends don’t call or text at 1 am expecting a response if we have to be up at 6 am for work. Anyone who grew up in the generation of coming home when the street lights came on, probably grew up having a ‘special ring’ for emergencies only.
If you called after 10 pm without knowing the ‘special ring’, you were out of luck.
Coworkers who know not to just walk in and start a conversation if our door is closed probably understand the nuances of how things are supposed to work in a business environment. Those who don’t, will probably get a sit-down meeting with their boss and a list of goals to consider, starting with Knocking-101.
Same with anyone who calls after 10 pm.
Yet, what we think should be commonsense regarding boundaries, isn’t always so common.
A transactional relationship is what goes on in a work environment where shared goals focus on making money, reducing costs, collaborating together.… and knocking before entering.
There’s less emphasis on the people behind the transactions, yet there are rules in place where most employees ‘get it’ in giving each other space, and providing feedback in a timely manner.
The thing is, even if our coworker did barge in unannounced, except for losing our train of thought or having to put a call on hold, chances are we wouldn’t bite their head off. We would probably ask them if in the future they can knock before entering.
That’s because this is a transactional relationship — you scratch my back, and I’ll do the same.
There are unspoken ‘rules’ in place about job-related duties and professional conduct. Some of us take it up a few extra notches and prefer not to talk much to colleagues outside of work just to keep that professional boundary even firmer.
Because it’s a transactional relationship, emotions aren’t (or shouldn’t be) in play, so enforcing and maintaining our personal and professional boundaries comes pretty easily. On the flip-side, are our personal friendships, family members and significant other.
What should be easier in enforcing and maintaining our boundaries with the people we’re closest to actually works in reverse.
The more emotionally close we are to someone, the harder it is to enforce and keep our personal boundaries.
Emotions Aren’t A Good Thing For Boundaries
Just because we may be emotionally close to someone, doesn’t make it a good thing when trying to enforce our boundaries. Actually, emotional investment usually works against us.
For example, think of that relative you have that always manages to get under your skin. They may put in their two-cents about the one Christmas decoration you didn’t put up last year instead of the dozen you did, while offering their unsolicited ‘advice’ about the situation.
Or, maybe you have a relative that confuses frugal, with downright cheap — where things like home repairs are based on the cheapest quote instead of balancing price and quality.
In times when they’re driving us nuts, it can be easier to tell them to back off — or, insert operative four-letter word, here.
In those fleeting moments when we actually are having a pretty decent time around them, this is where our boundaries start getting blurry. We may be guilted into feeling bad for saying no this time to cheaper repairs because of a fiasco that happened last time we got suckered into it. Or, we may decide to dig out that one Christmas decoration from storage just to pacify that nosy relative.
Boundaries can be even tougher to maintain around our significant other because we may not want to let them down or look like a jerk for standing our ground, especially if the goal is to prevent awkward silence in bed that night.
Why We Struggle Setting & Keeping Boundaries
The closer we are to someone, the more blurred our boundary lines become. There are several reasons why we trip up in our boundaries when it comes to friends, family or our significant other.
Codependency. The fact is, our family of origin is where, or whether, codependency is learned and is usually a part of a larger generational cycle. There’s much more to blurred boundaries than ‘just’ codependency, but this is one area to consider.
If your boundaries were violated as a kid where you never had your own privacy, or your sister kept taking your favorite sweater without asking, this dynamic is carried with us into adulthood — where we may feel guilty for saying anything, especially saying no.
If addictions, compulsive behavior, or toxic habits are also involved, then codependency can become a recipe for disaster within a family or with a significant other.
Another problem with codependency are feelings of worth. Most who battle with codependency also battle with feeling worthy with those closest to them. They may constantly seek approval or reassurance for the simplest things like what brand of coffee to buy — but may especially turn to others when there’s larger decisions to be made (and, thus more reassurance riding on it).
Because of this double-edged sword, on one hand, they want to establish their independence and firm boundaries, but on the other hand, they’re bound by codependent thoughts and behavior which keeps them feeling unworthy and seeking reassurance.
…enter, vicious cycle.
Fear of Abandonment. While this is tied into codependency, it deserves its own place regarding boundaries, and why they can be tougher to keep with some people in our lives. For example, John Gottman discusses three common betrayals that ruin relationships which don’t include actual ‘abandonment’, but impact a relationship nonetheless. They include emotional cheating, withdrawing emotionally, and conditions of worth regarding ‘love’.
For example, if you battle with a fear of abandonment, you may be prone to people-pleasing behavior at the expense of your own boundaries. If your significant other is putting their friends before your relationship, becoming indifferent or distancing themselves, or ‘loving’ you when you do for them, these things may trigger a fear of abandonment — and people-pleasing behavior that violates your personal boundaries.
When boundaries are violated, the flip-side is usually a sense of entitlement in play with the person who violated the boundary.
Limited Self-Awareness. The fact is, if we are unaware of who we are or struggle with recognizing or building our own self-identity, this can keep us locked into a cycle of codependency and people-pleasing behavior. Just because we may want solid boundaries in our lives, it doesn’t guarantee it will happen until we start setting the parameters for it to happen.
A solid sense of self-awareness is necessary in order to build firm boundaries. If you aren’t sure what you are feeling, or are out of alignment with your thoughts, feelings and behaviors, you can’t establish firm boundaries.
Passive-Aggressive Behavior. Another reason we may ignore our boundaries could be based on passive-aggression, or even revenge. Yup, you read that right. If someone is angry with you and they know you need something from them (help with a bill, or a ride home from the airport) they may choose to say ‘no’ not so much to maintain their boundaries, but to piss you off.
Passive-aggression is about simultaneous control and withdrawal. A person who is acting passive-aggressively is attempting to control the situation — in this case, by overstepping your boundaries, while at the same time they’re withdrawing and becoming emotionally shut down where they’re impossible to talk to or reason with.
Self-awareness is your best friend when it comes to recognizing your needs, establishing your boundaries and maintaining them, because some people will be tougher than others in maintaining your boundaries, especially if you’re emotionally closer to them.
By fine-tuning your self-awareness, you begin recognizing how your thoughts, emotions and behavior react when you’re feeling overstepped or are having your boundary trampled on. For example, you may start recognizing how certain people, certain situations, and even certain environments can trigger you into feeling uncomfortable, angered, your stomach in knots, or emotionally violated.
Identifying specific types of boundaries is a necessary part of both self-awareness and establishing boundaries for yourself. Each step builds on the previous one in helping you create and maintain your boundaries. For example, boundaries can include physical proximity, personal space, your own sense of safety or comfort level, or even your opinions or thoughts about things.
If personal space is a big-one for you, then your boundaries may include knocking before entering, not taking something without asking, or respecting your right to privacy in your bedroom or home.
Because setting boundaries often feels uncomfortable at first, one of the biggest predictors on whether a boundary will stay in place is how comfortable you feel practicing it. Give yourself permission to establish your boundaries, and give yourself permission to have a learning curve as you continue practicing with consistency — and reaching mastery.
Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Cullen, J., & Carr, A. (1999). Codependency: An Empirical Study from a Systemic Perspective. Contemporary Family Therapy: An International Journal, 21(4), 505–529.
Gottman, J. (n.d.). https://www.gottman.com/
This post was previously published on Medium.com.
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