What is a boundary? What are they and why do we have them? A common answer is “a physical barrier.” Very true. Now what purpose do they serve? The question is the same and so is the answer. They keep people outside a comfortable and appropriate space from you. Whether in front of your house or at the lunch table at work a boundary is a line that cannot be crossed without permission, if ever. Some people hold their boundaries in very close to themselves, some much less so.
Some people I know are routinely approached by total strangers while in line to pay for their groceries. These strangers would dump their life stories at the feet of another stranger without so much as a “hello, my name is…” When I was still working in community mental health, there would typically be 2-3 people who would raise their hands and say “Yep, that’s me.” They would also be unsure why this was happening and they were not always comfortable with these interactions. Something about their energy indicated they were not going to slam the door as soon as a stranger opened up to them. It was also common for many of these individuals to share they had difficulties with boundaries within their intimate relationships. Approaching total strangers with your life story could be, at the very least, unwanted and at worst triggering and traumatic depending on the content of the life story.
These group members tended to benefit most from the group because they were able to realize their boundaries needed to be worked on, according to what they were comfortable with. Some people are comfortable with strangers laying their life stories on them in random public places, but many are not. Where I have noticed people struggling is when boundaries are inconsistent or porous. Boundaries must be consistent otherwise they are merely suggestions or guidelines, both of which imply that adhering to them is optional rather than mandatory. Solid boundaries are necessary for healthy self-esteem and personal agency.
A common line of thought in mental health circles is “we teach people how to treat us.”
How boundaries are communicated to others is also important. If boundaries are enforced too vigorously the situation could potentially result in some sort of aggression. Delivery is a key component, which brings me to communication styles. We have three main styles of communication: aggressive, passive, and assertive. There is a fourth style of communication that I will address later in part two, simply because it usually comes up in discussion.
It is my observation that most of us learn aggressive communication first. This is unfortunate. It comes at us from school, work, and many different types of media. It also comes at us within the home when we are very young. Simple examples of aggressive communication are yelling, name calling, and include body language, such as banging on tables or slamming doors. This is viewed as a win/lose situation because the aggressive communicator gets their needs met by stepping on the needs of whomever they are addressing. Passive communicators do not get their needs met because they lay down and do not advocate for themselves. An example of this is agreeing to something you feel is unfair or unreasonable, because you want to avoid confrontation. This is viewed as a lose/win because the passive communicator does not assert themselves.
Assertive communicators get their needs met without taking away from the needs of others.
Our third communication style is assertive communication. Assertive communication gets it’s own paragraph because I feel its most important. Assertive communicators get their needs met without taking away from the needs of others. I view this as win/win because everyone involved gets their needs met without taking from the needs of the other. This is tricky because we don’t teach this very well as a culture. If we are lucky enough to come from families who teach this early, we find the people we go to school with do not know how to communicate in this way, and much of the teaching from home goes by the wayside. A lot of us learn assertive communication later in life. A great many of us do not learn to communicate assertively until we are well into high school, or even later when we begin our first jobs and have to work closely with others. Assertive communication reflects The Golden Rule, i.e. treat others the way you would like to be treated.
Healthy boundaries lend themselves to assertive communication. If you don’t enjoy someone talking down to you, you won’t talk to others that way. Assertive communication and healthy boundaries work together in that one builds off of the other. They feed each other in a positive way. A common line of thought in mental health circles is “we teach people how to treat us.” I believe this is true and no matter how assertive we are in our daily lives, occasions will arise wherein we will need to clearly define (or redefine) our boundaries to someone in a given situation. The ability to do this clearly without escalating into conflict is crucial.
This is done by clearly stating the issue and the boundary in question. For example, your room mate is eating your food (a lot of us have been there.) State clearly what the issue is. “You are eating my food.” Next, state a remedy: “I expect you to replace the food you ate within the next 24 hours.” Lastly, state what consequences will follow if your boundaries are not honored. “If my food is not replaced within 24 hours, I will put a chain and padlock on the refrigerator.” (This is an extreme example, but please continue to follow along.) The essential component here is that the consequences MUST follow consistently, exactly as described. If they are not, the boundaries are not boundaries and thus ineffective. This is the most difficult part of maintaining boundaries with most people. Sometimes boundaries are violated accidentally and it is an honest mistake. Sometimes they are violated deliberately and that is when enforcement becomes crucial. Unfortunately, we cannot count on everyone around us to observe common courtesy.
Healthy boundaries lend themselves to assertive communication.
Boundaries vary from location to location and are frequently situational. The boundaries we observe in the grocery store are different from the boundaries we observe in an elevator. We rely on our environment to dictate our boundaries. For example, the expected social boundaries in Japan differ from those in the United States. When unsure about what boundaries are appropriate for the setting you are in, observe what others around you are doing. This is sometimes known as “reading the room.” Another option is to simply ask. “Do you mind if I do this…?” This can go a long way in getting along with those around you.
Please keep in mind these are standard pre-Covid 19 boundaries. Dealing with a pandemic has forced us to modify our boundaries on global basis. This is another example of the environment dictating the boundaries. Remember, boundaries are a combination of clear communication and expected social norms. Boundaries are not suggestions or guidelines. If you feel your boundaries need improvement, an easy solution is to mimic the boundaries of someone you know and admire. You might like the way they handle themselves and emulating them is a great place to start. You could also practice improving your boundaries by scripting. Physically write out the scenario, as described above. Include the problem, the proposed solution, and the consequences if not followed. Best of luck in your practice!