Until I was well into my 30s, I really didn’t know what my boundaries were. As a child, I was molested by my stepbrother and often left to my own devices. My low self-esteem and fear led me to act out, pretend, lie, or try to be as lovable as possible. Into my teens and early adult years, I allowed people, mostly men, to take advantage of me and to treat me with little respect. I had no idea how to say no or how to ask for what I wanted. All I knew was that I was ‘broken’ and not “enough,” and the only way to be loved and included was to say yes to a lot of things I didn’t want.
This is my story. We all have our own stories about how others have violated our boundaries, or how we have violated others’ or our own, and why we did so. The consequences vary, but the lessons learned are universal. Boundaries are the key to healthy relationships with others and with ourselves. Without them, we either live very small lives, with little risk, or we live recklessly, battered and bruised by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
Bowling with bumpers
When my children were young, we loved to go bowling. My daughter and I had the bumpers up so we could avoid the inevitable gutter balls. We could gleefully chuck the ball down the lane and knock over at least a few pins. After several trips, though, we wanted to see if we could get the ball down the lane without bumpers. We failed a lot at first, but eventually we learned to bowl without them.
I often reflect on this experience when I am talking with clients about the importance of boundaries. Boundaries serve a purpose, and they are meant to be tested. With the bumpers up, I was able to enjoy bowling and to practice my release without the frustration of never knocking over a pin. Over time, I learned the angle and force I needed to keep the ball from banging up against the bumper. Eventually, I could bowl without the bumpers, learning to keep my ball in the lane between the gutters—the new boundary. The risk went up, but so did the reward.
Why don’t we set boundaries?
People fail to set boundaries for several reasons, but fear is the root of all of them.
- Fear of conflict: Telling someone no or something else they don’t want to hear can invoke pushback, defensiveness, even aggression. Of course, it is natural to want to avoid these reactions.
- Fear of rejection: We might avoid telling someone we love or respect something that will invite their judgment. We all want to be accepted and belong, so we might decide to go along to get along.
- Fear of disappointment: It can be downright painful to disappoint someone else. Especially when it comes to my children, I find it hard to set boundaries that will limit their happiness, even in the short term.
- Fear of missing out: How many times have we stayed up too late, drank too much, or did something foolish because we were afraid of missing out on all the fun?
- Fear of being wrong: We may feel strongly about something, but we are afraid to admit we might be wrong. We don’t want to be embarrassed.
What happens when we fail to set and respect boundaries?
Relationships without boundaries are doomed to fail. The consequences are far-reaching and potentially generational.
- Resentment: Failing to set boundaries causes us to feel resentful. We find ourselves agreeing to things we don’t want, but never expressing our desires openly. Over time, we begin to harbor grudges, distance ourselves, and play the victim.
- Passive aggressive behavior: The heart wants what it wants. If we don’t get it and we are unable or unwilling to ask, we find other unhealthy ways to express our desire.
- Misunderstandings and assumptions: Our inability to be honest about what we want and need leads us to make assumptions about others’ motives and leads to miscommunication and hurt.
- Emotional outbursts: When our resentment and hurt boils over, we can often surprise others with our anger and frustration. Too often, they had no idea they were violating our boundaries, leaving them feeling confused, wounded, and angry.
- Lack of authenticity and honesty: There is no way we can be fully ourselves without identifying our boundaries and communicating them.
Setting boundaries takes experience and practice.
As parents, we can ensure our children are independent and accountable only if we set boundaries and adjust them as they grow. They will test them—that’s how they know where they are—and we need to be comfortable with enforcing the consequences of overstepping the boundaries we set. In the end, our children will learn to balance risk and reward. They will feel safe and loved and able to set their own boundaries.
In the workplace, boundaries are equally important. Respect and trust are the coin of the realm at work, and without boundaries, they are at risk. Perhaps in no other social setting are the complexities so great: culture, gender, and values differ wildly. Kindly and explicitly stating our expectations and needs is critical to building a community of people who understand and respect each other. Without that, misery increases and productivity tanks.
As partners, we cannot expect our mates to read our minds, or to not push against what they perceive to be our boundaries. We need to be clear with ourselves about what is okay and not okay with us, and we need to start early with sharing those with our partners. This takes a great deal of vulnerability and courage, especially for those of us who did not learn early what healthy acceptance, love, and safety looks like.
True connection begins with boundaries.
When we set, reinforce, and respect boundaries, we set ourselves up for an authentic life full of meaningful connections. The bumpers can be high or low, wide or narrow, but within the lane we find a way to balance the risks and rewards of living among other human beings, and we make it possible for others to do the same.