Boundaries

Dear Tasshin,

I have good news, and I have bad news.

The good news is that this year, you’re going to make a new friend. Her name is Jane. She’s going to email you, telling you she really liked your post about IFS. You’re going to ask for her Twitter handle, and start to follow her.

Jane is going to become one of your best friends. She’s going to be like a sister for you—a sister you never had, always wanted, always needed. She’s going to be there for you in good times, and she’s going to be there for you in hard times. And you’re going to learn a lot from her.

Jane is going to demonstrate something to you that intrigues you. Many things, actually, but one thing in particular will fascinate you very deeply. She’s going to demonstrate that she is extremely skilled at something that you are going to learn, that you’re going to need to learn.

The bad news is that you’ve really badly needed this skill. It would have been great if you could have learned it earlier. A lot of situations that went poorly would have gone better if you’d had it earlier.

What’s this skill? Boundaries. Discerning your boundaries, sharing them with others, enforcing them if need be. Honoring others’ boundaries.

I know you have mixed feelings about that word. I know you’ve seen people use “boundaries” before, and I know that’s often been confusing and painful for you. I know it usually seems unnecessarily harsh and divisive.

Here’s the thing. The way most people talk about, and honor their boundaries, isn’t the way that’s going to be useful for you to look at them.

Jane’s boundary-setting is going to feel different: so loving to herself, and so easy to respect. You’re going to wonder, “What is this magic? How did she discern her boundaries? How did she establish and enforce them so lovingly?”

Jane’s example is going to show you that boundaries can be empowering, connecting, loving. And you’re going to need to wrestle with this topic, in your own way, time and again, in situation after situation.

But as you learn about it, this skill is going to help you so much. It’s going to help you love yourself more deeply. And rather than pushing people away, it’s going to bring you closer to the people you love.

Good luck. I love you.

Tasshin


I remember the first time I tried to set a boundary. I’d heard other people talk about boundaries, and I was curious about the concept. I was in a room with a friend, and he was making a joke that I felt very uncomfortable about.

I asked him to stop making the joke. He didn’t. I got angry that he “wasn’t respecting my boundaries” and left the room.

This experience was disconnecting. Both of us left the situation feeling angry and alone. I felt disrespected; looking back on it, I imagine he felt imposed upon, controlled.

When I met Jane several years later, her example felt different. Jane has set a number of boundaries during our friendship, but every time she does, I feel closer to her. It’s a connecting experience rather than a divisive experience.

I realized that I needed these skills years before I met Jane- that many of the difficulties I’d experienced in my life were due to unintentionally ignoring or disrespecting boundaries, whether my own or others’. I wanted to make up for lost time, and set out to learn these skills for myself.

As is often the case when I get curious about something, I searched for a book or a blog post about boundaries to read. The primary book that I found on boundaries was written in a Christian frame, which I respect but isn’t for me personally. I found lots of different tidbits here and there about discerning and setting boundaries, but no comprehensive guide.

Without a resource to read to answer all my questions, I turned to Jane’s example and friendship. I paid close attention to how she talked about and set her boundaries in our friendship. I had her on my podcast to learn more (video, audio). I tried to implement what I saw her doing. When I ran into trouble, I asked her for guidance. Jane generously answered my questions and gave me advice time and again.

Gradually, I came to understand what I sought. I learned how to find my own boundaries, and how to set and lovingly share them with others. With each attempt at setting boundaries, with each mistake or success, I learned something new.

I had to learn that having boundaries isn’t in conflict with the bodhisattva vows I’d taken or with the brahmavihārās—with my desire to love and serve all beings. Instead, having healthy boundaries as an individual makes it truly possible to love all beings—some of whom need to be loved at a healthy distance.

I also had to learn how to respect others’ boundaries, how to receive them gracefully and supportively.

This post shares everything I’ve learned so far about boundaries, and what’s worked for me.

This is just what’s worked for me. It might not work for you. And I’m still learning.

Boundaries are complex, contextual, emergent. Your boundaries depend on you and your situation. Who you are and what you need changes from day to day, year to year, situation to situation.

My boundaries might not work for you. Your boundaries might not work for someone else. One person’s boundaries in one situation might not be the same as someone else’s in a similar situation. You’ll need to be aware of your own context, and decide how you want to implement boundaries in your own life.

What are boundaries?

Boundaries aren’t impositions or expectations you use to control others to meet your needs and preferences. They shouldn’t require any action or behavior change from anyone else.

Instead, boundaries are actions you take that help you to meet your needs and to stay in loving connection with yourself and others. Boundaries can be with people, situations, or experiences.

More poetically, Prentis Hemphill defines them as “the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.”

Like a physical distance, boundaries are dynamic. You can come closer or farther away, as many times as you need to, to feel safe, happy, and connected.

In this way, boundaries are less like fortress walls and more like the shoreline, visibly receding or advancing day by day. At the same time, there are visible patterns and recurring tendencies.

For me, if I feel good and happy in myself, if I feel loved and close to others, I need fewer boundaries, and can be closer to others. If I feel unhappy, if I feel unloved, I need more boundaries, more distance.

When you don’t enforce your boundaries, people will take advantage of you (often unwittingly), and you will feel resentment.

On the other hand, when you know your own boundaries, and are willing to set them clearly, there comes a sense of ease, safety, security, self-love, and empowerment.

What are some examples of boundaries?

Say a friend calls you on the phone out of the blue, trying to speak to you. You’re tired and emotionally exhausted, and don’t have time to speak with them.

When you get a chance, you can send a text message saying something like, “Thanks for calling! I’m feeling really tired right now but I will try to call you back when I’m able. Or we can set up a time to talk that’s good for both of us.”

If you never replied to your friend’s phone calls, they might wonder why you didn’t talk to them. But instead, you acted on your boundary—not speaking on the phone when you are physically and emotionally exhausted—and explained it to them in a way that left open the door for connecting at a time that works for both of you, and showed them that you care about them.

Here are some examples of specific boundaries that I’ve personally set:

Anger is really hard for me. I often feel physically and emotionally unsafe around anger. I’ve found that I can care of myself and give myself a sense of safety by implementing the following boundaries:

  • If someone yells at me, I will request that they stop. If they don’t, I will leave the room.
  • If they are violent or physically aggressive with me, or I feel physically unsafe, I will leave the room.

Knowing that I have these boundaries around anger, and acting on them, proves to myself that I love myself. I’m telling myself—”I know what it takes to help me feel safe, and I am going to act on that and protect myself, no matter how other people are acting.”

I don’t need other people to avoid feeling angry, or to avoid being angry. I don’t need to control their feelings or behavior. I can simply know what my own needs are, and act accordingly.

People frequently ask me for help in all kinds of ways. Sometimes these are people I know, and sometimes these are people I don’t know. Sometimes I’m able to help, and sometimes I’m not. Sometimes I want to, and sometimes I don’t. It can make me happy to help people, or it can be draining and exhausting.

I’ve found that it’s good to be clear with myself about the ways I can and cannot help people, am willing to and unwilling to. For example:

  • By default, I’m not willing to get on a Zoom call with someone I don’t know, don’t know of, and haven’t talked to beforehand.
  • I am willing to direct them to a resource where I’ve already written about the topic they’re interested in.

On my podcast, I always ask my guests if there’s anything they don’t want to talk about on the podcast. Some people are happy to talk about anything, but a good portion have one or several topics they don’t want to discuss.

There are a few topics I won’t discuss on the podcast, either—if I think those topics might come up, I’ll tell them in advance. This gives us both the opportunity to set boundaries on the conversation, and to feel safer in connection.

On Twitter, I mute words, topics, or people / accounts that are repeatedly emotionally triggering or activating for me in a way that I cannot currently resolve. I block people who are cruel to me or others. And I only like tweets that I actually like, enjoy, approve of.

I love sex. Sex is one of the most delightful experiences of physical pleasure, emotional intimacy, and play I’ve experienced in this life. It’s even been a place of spiritual exploration for me. But sex is also powerful, consequential, important—worthy of respect and care.

I’ve found it helpful to reflect on various physical, emotional, and ethical boundaries I have around sex. If my needs aren’t met, I will simply not have sex with someone. For example:

  • I will only have sex with people I trust + think are ethical, act ethically
  • I will only have sex with people who are having sex with people I trust + think are ethical, act ethically (in polyamorous contexts)
  • I will only have sex with people my body feels good, safe, at ease, relaxed, comfortable around (both in the moment and more generally)
  • I will only have sex with people I feel safe and comfortable talking about sex, relationships, STD’s, protection etc. with
  • I will only have sex with a woman if I would be willing to have + raise children with her
  • I won’t have sex with someone if either of us are emotionally triggered (angry/sad/afraid etc.)
  • I will only have sex with someone if all parts of me are consenting to have sex with them at that moment—and it seems to me that all parts of them are consenting, too (see Exploring Internal Family Systems)
  • I won’t have sex with someone if they are intoxicated on drugs or alcohol

Because boundaries are fluid and context-dependent, the boundaries I’ve found and needed to set probably aren’t the same ones that you might need to set. Often, boundaries are also fairly private, so I haven’t shared all of mine here!

How do I find out what my boundaries are?

Consider a recent social interaction. How did you feel afterwards? How did you feel about the other person? What thoughts were you thinking?

Did you feel happy? Did you feel good in your body? Did you feel close and connected to the other person? Did you feel energized, enlivened?

Or did you feel tired, drained? Did you feel angry or sad? Did you feel disconnected and alone?

If you didn’t feel good, why? Is it the person you were with? Are they good for you to be around? Or is it the way you were behaving around them? Do you need to do something differently?

There are all kinds of signs that you need boundaries. Here are some that I’ve noticed:

  • if I don’t feel good around someone when I’m with them
  • if I don’t feel good after an interaction, or find myself ruminating about it afterwards
  • if I don’t want to spend time with someone in the future

In person, you can say something; you can set up a boundary that allows you to engage with a person that feels good for both of you.

You can walk away, taking space temporarily, or in a more prolonged way – seeing them less or not at all.

This applies to social media, too. How do you feel when you read/listen to/watch what someone shares, when they interact with you? Do you feel good in your body? Do you come away energized? If not, why not? Do you need to do something differently?

Online, you can say something, unfollow, mute, or block. You can do so temporarily or permanently. It’s all good. It’s all available to you.

You can also practice discerning your boundaries using fictional situations in movies and books. How would you handle the various situations the characters of a story find themselves in. How would you express your emotions? How would you express your boundaries? How would you act ethically in a given situation?

How do I set boundaries in a loving, kind way?

When I asked Jane about this on my podcast—how to set boundaries lovingly and smoothly, so that they are well received—she said this:

When I try to set boundaries, I try to come at it from a place of love. At the end of the day, this is about loving ourselves and loving other people. Boundaries are how we protect ourselves so that we can keep the love flowing as much as possible, so we can give and receive as much love as possible. We have to have good boundaries to be able to do that and I think making that the focus of the boundary setting…is what makes it typically go smoothly when setting a boundary… [I aim to] keep the focus on self love and love for the other person.

Before you ever set a boundary with someone else, it helps to recognize that setting a boundary is a loving act. A good boundary helps you to love yourself more fully, and it also allows you to love other people. It’s not a selfish action, it’s one that takes care of yourself so that you can continue to be connected to and love others.

When you set a boundary with someone, it’s helpful to frame it in terms of your behavior rather than theirs—”when I’m spoken to like that, I leave the room” rather than “Don’t speak to me like that!” That’s because you can control your own behavior but not others’.

You can’t expect others to change who they are, or how they act. You can ask them to do so, but that’s a request, not a boundary (KC Davis / @domesticblisters).

It’s often helpful to explain your boundaries to others clearly—both what they are, and why you have them.

Interpersonal drama and confusion is uncomfortable for most people, and explaining yourself and your boundaries helps set people at ease. If it feels safe and ok to do so, it’s a kindness to explain your boundaries as you set them or act on them.

On the other hand, it’s not necessarily required. You don’t have to make your boundaries legible. You can just act on them. And they don’t have to be reasonable (Lulie).

How do I enforce my boundaries?

It’s natural that the first one or two times someone encounters your boundary, you might decide to explain what’s happening or why. But if you repeatedly find yourself stating your boundaries, advocating for them, you may need to leave!

Of course, it’s not always possible to leave. A role you’re in or obligation you have might require you to stay. For example, you might need to stay at your job in order to keep supporting yourself financially. Or you may not be able to walk out of a family situation, even if it’s uncomfortable or challenging.

But if it is practically an option for you in a given situation, leaving a room or situation can be a simple and effective way to enforce your boundaries.

How can I accept others’ boundaries lovingly?

When you respect your own boundaries enough to find them and set them, it’s natural that you’d want to honor and respect others’ boundaries, too.

Everyone has boundaries and needs and preferences, but not everyone will conceive of them that way, or share them explicitly. Listen for others’ explicit or implicit expressions of their boundaries.

If someone seems to be implying a boundary, you can simply honor their implied preference or need, or ask for clarification if that would help you understand or respect their needs.

If someone expresses a boundary explicitly, know that it isn’t a criticism of you or your actions. They are sharing their preferences and their desire to stay connected to you, to stay in relationship with you.

Revealing boundaries is a vulnerable act of intimacy. Someone could simply leave the room or situation instead, which honors their needs but closes off connection. Instead, by expressing a boundary, someone is saying that they want to stay connected to you. You can meet them in their vulnerability and desire to stay connected by listening to and honoring their boundaries. Doing so is a way to express that you also want to stay connected to that person, to keep relating to them.

Make sure you understand it. Ask for clarification if need be. And thank them for knowing what they need.

If someone has taken the time and had the courage to express a boundary with you, try your best to remember what they say. If need be, check in with them to make sure that your behavior is respecting their needs. But don’t do this unnecessarily, which can come across as performative or clunky. If it’s simple and straightforward, just do what they ask! They’ll appreciate that you remembered their needs.

It’s very possible that you may have a difficult or negative emotional reaction to someone expressing their boundaries. If so, that’s totally normal. It happens to me a lot! At the same time, it’s not someone else’s responsibility to take care of you emotionally after they establish a boundary with you. If you can, process your negative emotions and feelings on your own.

If you can’t, it’s possible that you’d need to have further conversations. There’s a degree to which boundaries can be negotiated in a given situation, or adapted to meet your needs, too—but this is not required on the part of the other person and you can’t expect them to do so to meet your own needs. All that you can guarantee changing is your own behavior.

If you need to process your emotions and feelings interpersonally, consider asking for permission before sharing your own thoughts and feelings. You could say something like “Hey, could we talk about how I’m feeling? I have some stuff coming up.”

When you know someone has good boundaries, you can trust that they will know and hold their own boundaries. You don’t have to do the work of anticipating their boundaries, you can simply trust them to speak for themselves. When this feeling is mutual, it creates a shared sense of understanding, goodwill, and love that’s only possible between people with clear and kind boundaries.

Conclusion

Learning about boundaries, and implementing them in my own life, has been deeply empowering. I’ve found that my relationships with friends, family members, partners, and collaborators have been saner, healthier, and happier. I thought it would separate me from others, but instead honoring my own boundaries has made it possible to safely and deeply connect with the people I love and the world at large. Above all, my relationship with myself is happier, because every boundary I find and honor is an opportunity to express to myself that I love myself.

You are the expert on your own boundaries, not me. You know yourself, your needs, situation, and relationships better than I do. Your boundaries won’t be the same as my boundaries, or anyone else’s. And this formulation of boundaries might not even resonate or work for you.

But if it does, I hope that learning about boundaries and implementing them in your own life will be as empowering and enlivening as it has been for me. May you have the wisdom to discern your boundaries and the courage to honor them.

Further Resources

Thank you to Jane Miller for inspiring me with her boundaries practice, for kindly supporting me in implementing my own boundaries practice, and for all her generous help bringing this post to life.

Thank you to all my Twitter friends and mutuals for their many bits of wisdom on boundaries. Additional thanks to Malcolm, Loopy, Mary, and Brent for reviewing this post and offering feedback and suggestions.

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