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At one point not that long ago, I literally thought I had this boundary thing all figured out.
I set boundaries appropriately with the people in my life, especially in romantic relationships. I knew what I wanted, I knew what I needed, and I communicated it appropriately. Boom. I’m killing it. Right?
“A lot of people find it easy to state their boundaries, but fewer people are willing to follow through and act on their boundaries. And a boundary isn’t actually a boundary unless it’s enforced through your actions. If you say you won’t tolerate drama, or disrespectful people, or liars, or cheaters but you stick around after someone continues to create drama, or disrespect you, or lie, or cheat, then I’m sorry, but you actually do tolerate those things.” ~ Mark Manson
Mark Mason is like my personal hero. I identify so closely with his views. So when I read that quote from him, I was like, oh sh*t. It hit me hard. Turns out I didn’t have it figured out. At all.
I didn’t ever really enforce my boundaries when I needed to the most. In hindsight, it makes sense why I usually found myself feeling frustrated, taken advantage of, and wanting more in relationships. I literally taught people that sure, you can actually run over my boundaries with no consequences. It went a little something like this:
Me: Don’t lie to me. You can tell me the truth. Even when it’s hard. I’m pretty understanding.
Him: Okay. I won’t lie to you
He proceeds to tell a lie at some point. Betrayal type of lies.
Me: That’s not okay!
Him: You are right. I’m sorry. I love you. I won’t do it again.
Me: Okay. I understand. No one’s perfect.
Put that on repeat about 10 times.
That pattern was me teaching him that it actually is okay to lie to and disrespect me, regardless of my telling him it absolutely is not. Ouch. Actions speak louder than words right? Well, my actions of absolutely no consequences spoke volumes.
This is a pattern I can now recognize in myself in a lot of my past relationships. Different boundaries, different offenses, but almost always resulting in feeling disrespected, resentful, and—honestly?—flat-out pissed. I didn’t do much about it except get really mad.
What are boundaries, anyway? Jenn Kennedy, a licensed marriage and family therapist, defines it well: “Boundaries are limits that give a sense of agency (control) over one’s physical space, body, and feelings.”
Sounds healthy right? It is. Very healthy. And strong personal boundaries are a solid basis for all healthy relationships — not just romantic ones.
Every human is entitled to set boundaries for:
>> Personal space
>> Emotions and thoughts
>> Time and energy
>> Values, culture, and religion
Basically, anything that is important to us. We have the right to have our boundaries respected. And we also have the right—obligation, even—to enforce them. None of that makes us unlovable or less valuable.
Read that last line again.
Not holding true to our boundaries has a name. It’s called self-abandonment. I tended to self-abandon my feelings, emotions, and thoughts. I’m a recovering people pleaser. That means that I put other people’s feelings and needs before my own. I thought I could fix anything or anyone, that I could do or say something that would make us all happy. Spoiler alert ! I got used to sacrificing needs and wants. I did find validation in making other people happy though. Oh, look everyone needs me. Awesome. (It wasn’t really).
I made other people’s problem my own. I made other people’s happiness my responsibility. I actually once believed that that trait made me strong. Insert laughter here. I realized in time that it actually doesn’t. It does the opposite. People pleasing left me feeling unaligned and gross. So yeah, boundaries are good. Self-abandonment is bad.
So, the question is, how do we set boundaries and how do we enforce them?
Define what’s important to you.
What are your rights and what do you value? Make a list. Value free time? Then it’s important that you maintain that in any relationship. There should be a boundary here. Lots of communication? Sleeping in? Your closet space? Boundaries can vary based on the relationship, so you can do this exercise for any of them in your life—friends, family, romantic, and even professional.
Trust your instincts.
What is your gut telling you? It’s important to check in with yourself while you are identifying boundaries. How are you feeling—emotionally and even physically—when you think about someone crossing the line? If it’s not good, you probably know where the line needs to be drawn.
Okay, great. Now you have an idea of what your boundaries are. People will test them both intentionally and unintentionally. Now what?
Learn to say no.
No is a powerful word, but it can be scary to say. “If I say no, will they be mad at me?” Guess what, most of the time they won’t be. They may be shocked if they are used to hearing you say “yes” all the time, but that shock will wear off. If saying no when you mean no does make someone angry, too f*cking bad. You can say, “Thank you for thinking of me, but no,” if you’d like, or (one of my favorite things),“I’m not available.” But, really, no explanation is needed. No is enough. We don’t necessarily need explain any more than that.
You can be assertive and firm without being aggressive. “I” statements are effective. You are taking ownership of your feelings (not blaming people) and stating what you need. It’s healthy AF. “I” statements can be hard to do in the heat of the moment when we have all sorts of hurt, anger, and sadness going on, but we will get much better results if we try to control these emotions.
An “I” statement goes something like this: “I feel (insert emotion here), because (explain why here, but try and avoid using “you”). I need/would like (explain what you need/how you would like things to go down).
Personally, these “I” statements don’t come natural to me at all. It’s not what I want to say when I’m mad or hurt and handling all my big emotions. So, know that it definitely does take some practice. But, our choice words won’t do anyone any good. They may temporarily relieve us, but they’ll do nothing for the long-term.
So now you know your boundaries and you are practicing enforcing them. F’n awesome. It’s not easy. It takes practice, thoughtfulness, self-love, and self-esteem to get here. So be proud of that. And also remember that boundaries are not concrete walls. They are more like those old cardboard blocks that look like bricks, the ones we played with when we were kids. Sometimes they can be flexible, they can be picked up and moved closer to you or further away. But that decision is completely yours.