Musings: On Setting and Accepting Boundaries

A compassionate reminder about maintaining and strengthening relationships when it’s uncomfortable to do so.

Boundaries are often painted in a somewhat negative light. They are portrayed as something that keeps people separate from one another, that indicates a disconnect in a relationship, or creates a limitation in interaction. “Oh, I just can’t talk about politics with my family.” “I can only spend time with so-and-so in a group setting.” “I’d love to hang out, but I don’t want to be around drinking.” There’s a general sense that the boundary is due to an offending party or to a personal weakness, that it’s a way to manage a difficult person or avoid an undesirable situation.

However, I would like to offer an alternate perspective. People set boundaries because they WANT to be close to you; they simply also want to do so in a way that is healthy for them.

If someone informs you of an experience or a behavior that is problematic or hurtful for them, if they offer a solution in the form of a boundary, it’s actually a sign that they value the connection they have with you, they want to make it work alongside their personal needs and preferences, and they are willing to take an emotional risk in order to maintain and improve the overall relationship.

It’s often so much easier in the moment to choke down something that worries or upsets us, to avoid making a fuss, or to try instead to keep from making someone else feel uncomfortable by staying quiet or letting things slide. There’s a lot of fear that goes into expressing to the world how we wish to engage and be engaged: fear that we won’t be understood, that we’ll be seen as needy or complicated, that others won’t be receptive or will no longer wish to “deal with” us (these are just a few of my personal fears; there are as many variations, I’m sure, as there are people to feel them).

The thing is, a lot of our sensitivities and injuries, our beliefs and standards are completely invisible to others. People can’t just look at us and see our whole set of experiences, nor could they be expected to know which of those experiences have left us scarred or freshly wounded, which of our held values are non-negotiable. People we care about deeply will, from time to time, accidentally prod at bruises they don’t know are there. They may unknowingly step on toes. We will also sometimes ourselves be the people doing the bruise-prodding and the toe-stepping.

I’ve spent a lot of my life not voicing my ideals or desires, not expressing what feels right for me in the moment, not speaking up when certain behaviors or actions have been hurtful. And I’ve likewise, myself, been ignorant of being hurtful or problematic to others until it was too late. The outcome of both of these scenarios has ultimately been the loss of a relationship or a distance that has naturally settled in. Folks tend to want to avoid being hurt. And if you don’t communicate what hurts you, you may find yourself instead avoiding an unwitting source of pain, which may be someone close to you who you’d rather not lose.

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It is an extreme act of vulnerability for someone to convey a boundary. It implies that they trust you enough to be open with you, that they value you enough to confront the fear of speaking up, and that they are invested in their relationship with you and wish for it to grow or remain healthy. It also communicates a reciprocity, conveying the wish that you, too, be able to openly express if and when they may be the accidentally injurious one.

It’s the uncomfortable communication that makes relationships continue to work and strengthens the bonds between people. Setting a boundary may be uncomfortable in the moment for both parties, but it’s important to know that it’s not a personal attack or an indictment of your friendship or an act of aggression or a slap on the wrist or anything like that. What a boundary really is is someone saying, “I like to exist in a particular way, and x, y, or z isn’t in line with that, and I hope that you can respect what I wish to cultivate in my life and remain a part of it.” That’s all. And by listening to a boundary that someone sets, what you are really saying is “I care about you, and I want you to exist in the way that allows you to feel the happiest, healthiest, and most comfortable, and I respect you enough to do my best to contribute to that as best I can.”

I don’t know about you, but I want to be sure that I’m treating my loved ones the way they want to be treated, and if that means from time to time, I have to confront the fact that I’ve hurt someone I love, or I have to come to terms with an aspect of our interaction needing to change, so be it. If it means being uncomfortable and even feeling momentary guilt or shame, at least I know that moving forward, I can be more mindful and work to love that person in the way that they best respond to and strive to avoid hurting them in the ways that are most painful for them. I don’t have to personally understand why or how or what they feel in response. But if I know that bringing up a certain topic is painful for a friend, I won’t be so inclined to bring it up in their company. If I know a certain activity makes a loved one feel cared for and feel good about themselves, I’m going to find myself inclined to engage with them there instead.

I think that’s what it all comes down to. When someone sets a boundary with you, they are doing so with the hope that you don’t want to hurt them and that you, knowing something is problematic for them, will be willing to engage with them in a way that is more beneficial to their well-being.

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And as it is the season for all sorts of difficult relationships to be at the forefront of our minds and interactions, try to carry this forward: Boundaries are acts of compassion, both in setting them and in accepting them. Some are universal for all of a person’s relationships. For me, I can’t handle any kind of emotional manipulation from anyone close to me. Some folks may know why, but I would hope that anyone I care about who I expressed that to, with or without an explanation, would be compassionate in accepting that fact. Others boundaries are relationship specific. For example, there are folks with whom I can speak about differing religious beliefs with no problem whatsoever, and there are others that, because we find mutual value in our relationship and wish to keep it healthy, involve a boundary that we simply don’t discuss religion with one another.

Boundaries are about keeping relationships. And they are really hard to address. But they are very much so worth the time and energy it takes to establish and learn to work within. It can easily mean the difference between having someone important in your life and not. I learned this lesson particularly painfully this past year and am adamant about being more open and honest and perceptive and accepting in my relationships here forward.

So please, trust your loved ones to want to take care of you the way you hope to be cared for; set the boundaries you need to make valued relationships work. And please, also be the loved one who proves that trust well-placed. And let’s all try to get through the holiday season with an abundance of compassion and respect and love for one another.

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Multidisciplinary artist and human-shaped stained glass window. Equal parts vulnerability and sass.

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