How can a boundary that’s essentially a barrier enable you to become closer to someone?
It’s not a riddle, but an enigmatic truth principle.
Avoidance and distance are our natural defense mechanisms built in to eliminate the pain of those who trod on us either emotionally or physically.
But what if there were a better way to communicate?
Many of my clients tell me how strained their relationships are, or non-existent, because (among many scenarios) either a spouse, their parent, or a friend is constantly overstepping his boundaries by asking for money, deliberately undermining their parenting rules, being verbally abusive, using their clothes and not returning them, or constantly being late.
My first response is some of those “violations” are not actually boundary issues but rather expectations.
So how do you sort out a boundary violation from an expectation?
For starters, defining the word helps.
Boundary: a line that marks the confines, limits, edges of an area.
Think of a perimeter line around your body—if someone enters that space without expressed or tacit permission it’s a violation.
Most socialized, civilized behavior respects we don’t go around touching people even in close proximity like elevators or crowds and clearly slugging someone is a violation of a personal physical boundary.
But what about emotional boundaries?
Emotional and physical boundaries are clear definitions of what we will accept and tolerate in our lives and often they need be expressly communicated to those who ignore them and get in our space.
Is asking for money, violating a boundary? Not really.
It might be annoying, but anyone can ask anyone anything. You could tell that person,
“No matter how often you ask me for money, I will not give it to you, so I suggest you ask someone else.”
If, on the other hand, that person stole money from you, it would be a boundary violation of your physical and emotional (trust) space.
A client recently told me about a relative who was stealing from her, and how devastating it was because she had rescued this child from abusive parents and had helped her get her life on track. What gets tricky is when you want to have a relationship, so it’s important to ask yourself what is the cost of this relationship and is it worth it?
Are you also willing to lose the relationship to maintain your values and boundaries? Sometimes the loss is temporary, but sometimes permanent.
Brooke Castillo, a mentor of mine and owner of the Life Coach School and podcast by the same name, describes a boundary as, “A really clear request of somebody else with a really clear consequence. The consequence is something that you will do. It is a behavior that you will take.
She further notes, “The person you’re making the request of can continue to do whatever they would like to do.”
In other words, you’re not expecting the other person to change his behavior; you’re simply advising them what you will do if they use that behavior with you.
Is verbal abuse a boundary violation? Yes.
You can make a request, “I want you to speak to me in a respectful way and if you raise your voice, I will either hang up on you, leave the room, or speak to someone in the HR Department because this is unacceptable. ” Then you must be willing to follow through.
Sometimes clients tell me they’d like their husband to be more romantic or give them more praise, but these are not boundary violations. They are expectations.
Castillo says, “In reality, we want clear boundaries, but we often don’t want to follow through on the consequence part. We don’t want to take the action we say we’re going to take, and that is the most important part of the boundary because otherwise, there won’t be any validity to that boundary. Even though you’ve stated it’s there, you’re not following through on establishing it.”
What most of us do instead of following through with our consequence is we start blaming and resenting those people. We seek listeners to validate our feelings and rightness with long conversations about how wrong the offenders are; but the problem remains. Worse yet we take on those very behaviors we complain about. We become hostile, aggressive, snappy, just to protect ourselves, when what we really want is harmony.
Does it require courage and discomfort to establish a boundary? Yes, and it’s likely the only thing that will move the relationship.
You might have to risk an all or nothing relationship, but at least it will be clear.
Resentment, hate, frustration will diminish. In the absence of those defensive emotions, a space for intimacy and respect can grow. Think of a boundary as a filter preventing only the negative things from entering.
Castillo recommends following some protocol when setting boundaries.
“Here’s how you know if you’re not doing boundaries in a really proper way. If you don’t feel peaceful, it’s not time to set a boundary. If you don’t feel loving towards the other person, if you are trying to manipulate their behavior for your own benefits so you won’t have to follow through on any kind of consequence, if you are blaming and negative and frustrated, if you are trying to delete someone from your life.
She suggests writing down your grievance and getting clear about what you want and what you will do. For example, if someone (mother) is always dropping by unexpectedly to play with your kids and you want that person in your life, but want some boundaries of time established you might say something like this:
Decide what you want: “I love it when you come by and I want you to have a deep connected relationship with the kids.”
Identify the boundary: “But it’s important to me that our schedule is respected. I’d like it if you’d call and ask if it’s ok to come by before you show up.”
Identify the consequence: “If you drop by without calling, I won’t answer the door even if I’m here. I know that may seem harsh, but this is really important to me. I love you and want to have the most respectful and loving relationship.”
Of course, you must recognize you can’t control the other person’s response, only yours. Be willing to follow through, embrace the conversations and stay true to what’s important to you and just then you might see true intimacy develop.