Boundaries

boundaries Feb 23, 2021

Have you ever noticed how much difficulty most people have with setting boundaries? And when I say boundaries, I am talking about physical, emotional, sexual, financial, energetic, and time boundaries. Maybe I am taking the whole subject a little too far, but I think boundaries are everything, especially when it comes to personal freedom and living life on your terms. Even if you don't consider yourself much of a people pleaser, you probably give others more of your time, energy, effort, and attention than you truly want to. And it doesn't have to be that way. But you do have to have the guts to risk someone, maybe even a lot of someone thinking that you are rude, or selfish or at the very least "not nice." If that thought is utterly intolerable to you, we aren't going to make much progress in the boundaries department. Just saying. 

So, just to make sure we are literally and figuratively on the same page here, let's go over a specific example. You are sitting in your office, working on an important report. Your client needs the information today, it's already 3:45 PM and you're only halfway done. As you reach for your coffee cup, your phone starts to buzz with an incoming text and you glance at it to see that it's a close friend and the message is "Got a minute?" You feel a mix of emotions, from mild excitement (someone thought of me...) to annoyance ( I really don't have time for this...) to resentment ( Doesn't she realize I'm busy right now?) and guilt ( I really haven't reached out to her lately, I hope she's OK...) 

What choice do you make? Do you pick up the phone and call your friend, hoping it won't eat up too much of your rapidly disappearing afternoon? Do you ignore the text and call on your way home, apologizing for the delay? Do you text back, indicating you're bearing down on a deadline, but will call asap after work? Or even wait until tomorrow, thinking "she didn't say it was urgent"?

Do you recognize that this is a boundary issue with your time, your focus, your energy, and your mental effort? Are you feeling just a little stressed right now, because you don't know what the "right" answer is? So, you see what I mean? Boundaries may not be the only thing that is important, but they are definitely an important thing. 

Or how about this scenario? You just got a new job and with it came a nice office. You want to get to know the other people in the company and give the impression that you are friendly, warm and approachable, but you also need time alone to think and have difficulty focusing on detailed projects due to the level of noise in the office. Do you leave your office door open and hope you can concentrate or do you shut it, and trust you don't give off an unfriendly vibe? Once again, a boundary issue.

You might decide to create a system to let your colleagues know when it's OK to come in your office and when you would prefer that they don't, but in order to do that, you need to make some choices about what you need your boundaries to be before you try communicating them to others. Most people don't give much thought to boundaries, at least until they feel that other people are crossing theirs. The ones they didn't even realize they had and probably never let anyone know about. 

This is actually where most people get themselves into trouble on the issue of boundaries. They don't want to take the time to figure them out and they really don't want to have to communicate them to people. They are worried that their boundaries aren't "right", that they are either too loose or too tight. They wonder if they are being overly strict or letting others take advantage. So they don't say anything and just expect people to figure it out. You and I both know this just doesn't work. Nobody is a mind reader, especially about your boundaries. And even though there are many social norms about boundaries that many people agree on, there are no boundaries that 100% of people agree on. 

For example, when you meet someone new for the first time, do you just say hello or do you shake their hand? Would you ever give them a hug? What if they were the close friend of a close friend? Would you hug them then? What if they wanted to hug you? Would you allow it or not? Now maybe you think it depends on whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, whether you come from an Italian family or a German family or whether you are a touchy-feely person or a standoffish person, but I promise you, the issue is your personal boundaries. And you kinda need to know what they are and how to communicate them, both verbally and non verbally to live in this world. Unless you are a hermit who lives in a cave. Then you can just forget this whole boundary subject and stop reading. 

If you are still reading, I assume you are not a cave dweller, so let's continue. There's another thing about boundaries that is kind of important. We wish we could just set them and forget them, but it doesn't work that way. Boundaries are like a living thing. They are dynamic and need to change over time. Sometimes, they are set by one side and the other side simply has to decide whether to accept, reject of challenging them. 

Other times, boundaries are negotiated between two or more parties. It sounds more complicated than it actually is. Here's an example to clarify. When my kids were younger, like elementary school age, if they called me, I always picked up, immediately. Children need lots of guidance at that age and if we were not in the same place and they needed me, that call instantly became my priority. If I was in a meeting, I would quietly step out and take the call. I would even interrupt my teeth being cleaned. My boundary with my dependent children was clear. I was available on-demand without question. 

As they got a little older, the boundary shifted and we renegotiated the terms. There were some trial and error, where they would call me when it wasn't really necessary and we talked about it. The new rules were that they could call me anytime outside of my work hours, unless I had specifically asked them not to, like if I was having a massage or taking a yoga class for an hour. And they could also call me during work hours if it was an emergency or they needed immediate information or assistance and there was no other adult available. They are now all grown and living in different cities. If they want to chat, they text me and ask when is a good time. The boundary has shifted yet again. 

When I am working with a new coaching client who says they have trouble getting things done because of other people, I know we will be working intensely around the setting, communicating, negotiating, and sometimes defending boundaries. Boundaries are absolutely necessary to living an empowered life, a life that is built around what matters most to you, your values, and your goals. They are worth thinking about and crafting intentionally.

Our lives are made up of time and energy. Without boundaries your time and energy are not your own, they are up for grabs to anyone who decides to take them. You can get better with boundaries and believe it or not, you can even get so good at them that other people don't even recognize you have set them. What would it mean to you to reclaim all the time and energy that you are donating to other people's problems, needs, and agendas and using it for your own?

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