The word boundary indicates a border, an enclosure that restricts access to a space. When we talk about boundaries in our personal lives, we usually mean something similar. We want to restrict unhampered access to ourselves, our efforts, and our energy.
I’m sorry, I can’t meet today.
I don’t answer my phone at work.
I need some alone time tonight.
I can’t help you right now, I’m busy.
I don’t want to talk about politics right now.
These are all examples of personal boundaries. Maybe it’s the current zeitgeist that inspires everyone’s interest lately about setting boundaries. We are overworked, tired, and resentful. We live in a world that wants unrestricted access to our lives. With the advent of social media, our lives are in some ways more accessible than ever.
I recently read a bit by Nedra Tawwab (who wrote this book) in which she talks about how our expectations of people’s availability have changed in the past few decades. Before we had iPhones, we had landline phones. And landlines stayed at home. If you called and the person wasn’t home, you’d have to call again another time. No texts, no voicemails. Nobody expected of each other the degree of availability we expect of each other now.
And so it might seem as no surprise that many are wanting to learn how to set boundaries—and how to keep them. How do I say “no”? How do I ask for what I need? How do I do that when I know it’ll disappoint the other person? What do I do if the other person keeps insisting? What do I do if what’s important to me isn’t important to the other person?
Part of what makes setting boundaries difficult is the fact that we so often think of them as something we have to do to keep people out of our lives. But this isn’t the whole story. We need other people. Relationships are where we get our sense of belonging, recognition, and support.
In another way of thinking, boundaries are about being honest about what you need. And struggling to navigate how to meet our own needs and the needs of others is what relationships are about. Boundaries don’t guarantee freedom from conflict. Setting boundaries will mean asking for something that’s important to you but not to the other person, and standing by what’s important to you anyway. Setting boundaries does mean making your needs known and relinquishing some of your self-sufficiency in admitting that you need support. Setting boundaries will mean that some people get disappointed.
You can know exactly what you want to get across, but still struggle facing the uncertainty of not knowing how your message will land. But the more we chose to accept some degree of relationship friction instead using it as a sign that we are doing things “wrong”, the more our relationships improve. It’s part of the process, a messy one no doubt. The more we accept this, the more we make space for honesty, vulnerability, and authenticity in our lives.