The topic of boundaries comes up quite a lot during discussions about trauma and mental health but even therapists can skimp on the details of how to actually formulate, set, and enforce boundaries! It took me many years to learn that a boundary is not a tool to control the actions of others or to prevent harm from ever reaching me. It is an agreement that I make with myself about how I expect to be treated and what I will do in the event that someone doesn’t treat me that way. Kim is here today to fill in the gaps in our understanding of how to think about and utilize boundaries, hopefully shifting them from something theoretical and foreign to something concrete, simple, and accessible.
Boundaries are magic. They are protective and allow us to navigate our life as empowered and autonomous individuals. Most of us come to learn our boundaries through trial and error, and may not get good support around forming or establishing boundaries in relationships. As we approach a season of gatherings, including those with family we don’t have good relationships with, taking intentional time to reflect on who we’re connected to and how we want those connections to look can be valuable.
Some of the information and reflections in this piece were developed from my work as a therapist. However, this article is not a substitution for therapy, neither is it therapy advice. As I say to friends and family, I’m a therapist but I’m not your therapist. While the rest of this piece has ideas and suggestions for helping you to reflect on your boundaries and relationships, those things are yours to decide what to do with.
In an ideal world, we’d all have full agency to set boundaries but in reality, people may be limited by systems, identities, or relationships. External systems and barriers to boundary setting do exist, and can at times limit the boundaries people are able to set. However, these barriers do not reflect on the worth of the individual, or whether they are worthy of autonomy and respect. My hope with this piece is to give ideas and help you reflect on the changes you can, or feel comfortable making in boundary setting and relationships. I will cover general information about boundaries, ways to communicate a boundary, what can happen if your boundary is crossed, and finally, structured examples for considering your needs in relationships.
Basic Elements of Boundary Setting
No one, unless you decide otherwise, is entitled to your time, your energy, or the skills/talents/gifts you have.
When you set a boundary, people can have a negative feeling like disappointment in reaction, but this should never be used against you. As an example, “I was excited to hang out, but I understand. Let me know if you want to plan for another time.”
The only time crossing a boundary that’s been set MIGHT be okay is if there are concerns that the boundary setter is a serious risk of harm to themselves or someone else. I urge caution with this and would encourage doing what you can to get additional support while empowering the boundary setter to stay safe AND still have choices or be able to say no to things.
People can ask clarifying questions when you set a boundary, but minimizing or dismissing your boundary setting is not okay. For instance, “I don’t understand, can you tell me more” is different from “You’re overreacting.”
Coercion is not an okay reaction to setting a boundary.
You are not required to explain your boundaries if you do not want to.
No is a complete sentence.
Boundaries do not have to be permanent, but unless and until YOU decide it changes, the boundary stays.
Sometimes boundary setting is the easiest part, maintaining a boundary can be ongoing and sometimes exhausting.
Ways to Communicate A Boundary
At many social gatherings, we’re asked questions about work, romantic relationships, hobbies and interests, politics, etc. While most people are well-meaning and curious, you are not required to answer questions or share details about your life. Below are some ideas about how you can respond when someone bumps up against a boundary, especially if you’re feeling the need to engage politely. I hope these examples are helpful, but it’s important to remember to communicate your needs and limits in ways that work for you, not follow a script exactly.
Let’s say you’re asked about something that’s been a difficult part of your life. You might have known it would get asked about, but it’s not something you want to discuss anyway.
A way you can respond would be, “I appreciate you being interested and wanting to know more about [topic], that’s not something I want to talk about right now. Could we talk about [alternate/safe topic] instead?”
If you think it’s something you may be open to talking about later, you can add “I’ll let you know when I do want to talk about it.”
Restating the Boundary
Sometimes a boundary gets forgotten, or there’s a persistent person who keeps asking. If it continues to be brought up, you are still not obligated to answer. You can acknowledge the boundary violation and attempt to continue the conversation, or walk away if you still don’t want to discuss it.
“I understand you want to know my thoughts about [forbidden topic], but that’s really not up for discussion. If we’re unable to connect without talking about it, then I need to take some space and let you know when/if I’m ready to share.”
Taking Space or Leaving
You can physically leave if you need to and are able to. Sometimes the other person won’t respect the boundary you are trying to set without something like “I don’t feel well”, “I need to get home”, etc. Remember you don’t actually have to be ill, and if you are, you are not required to share why (this includes mental health reasons).
“I know you likely mean well, but [forbidden topic] isn’t something I want to talk about. I’m going to leave now.”
*Note: This means physically leaving if you are in person by moving to a different area in the room or going home, or ending a phone or zoom call.
“I’m going to go for a walk just me (or me and trusted/safe person you want to go with you). I plan to be back in [however much time], text me if I’m not back and haven’t updated you.”
“I’ve enjoyed seeing you/chatting with you. I’m going to head out/log off.”
“It’s great connecting, but I’m not feeling well. I’m going to head home/lie down/log off.”
When A Boundary is Crossed: Reflecting on Next Steps
Not all relationships are comprised of two people who engage in mutual respect of each other’s autonomy and needs. Which does mean that even with our best communication and efforts, boundaries are sometimes crossed or violated. When this happens it can create harm and can damage a relationship. The important thing to remember is you know you best, and you are allowed to take space from or even end a relationship.
So how do you figure out what’s needed when your boundary is crossed? Deciding what to do after something has happened can be difficult. Giving yourself time to step back, look at what’s happened, and decide what you need is important. It’s also important to trust that you will make the right decision for you. In taking space, allow yourself to validate your experience and how it affected you. You can get additional information about the relationship from how the other person responds to your request for time and space.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself to help reflect:
What boundary did I try to set?
How did I feel then, and how do I feel now, about that boundary being crossed?
Given what’s happened, do I need space from this person or is this something we need to talk through together?
What is the history of my relationship with this person?
Have they crossed boundaries before? If so, is it this same boundary, and how do I feel about it being crossed again? If so and it’s not the same boundary, how am I feeling about staying connected to someone who does not respect my boundaries and needs?
If I need to, am I willing or able to end this relationship (temporarily or permanently)?
Not all relationships are lifelong, which can mean we need to end our connection with someone. These can be difficult choices to make, but ultimately you feeling safe, valued, and respected in relationships is important. There, of course, are relationships that, for whatever reason, you don’t have the ability to end. In these situations, I encourage seeking support and validation from outside resources and doing whatever you are able to do to support yourself and be protected and safe.
If a relationship ends, end it in the way most supportive of you. Sometimes this is directly telling the person the relationship is over. If so, what could be said is “My relationship with you has been important, and I value that. Right now, I need to have less time with you/step away/end this relationship.”
One thing to give some thought to is what contact you and this person may be able to have going forward from the “it’s over” conversation. Can they contact you on your birthday? Are you going to help each other in hardships or emergencies? Are they not allowed to contact you, until you contact them? Do you need to block each other and be no contact?
Depending on your situation, you may be considering ghosting. First, ghosting is when you stop responding and/or remove yourself from someone’s life. This can include unfriending and blocking on social media platforms among other things. It is typically done without warning or any communication that you will stop engaging. There are absolutely times where ghosting is appropriate. Again, you know you best and if your situation calls for it, it is okay for you to disengage and ghost someone.
If at any time you have concerns for your safety in ending any kind of relationship, please consider doing some pre-planning. This could be talking and checking in with friends or family, seeking out professional services and help, etc.
Structured Examples for Considering Your Needs
Some people tend to do better with understanding information through examples and experiences. While I do my best to be clear and direct, reading can be a passive activity, and sometimes information sticks better if there’s an example to attach to it. The “Traffic Light” and “Ruler of Your Realm” are methods I’ve used to reflect on my relationships and boundaries, and others have told me these methods help them with theirs.
Sometimes we need explicit categories for our relationships and quick ways to check in about how things are going. The traffic light system (green, yellow, red) can be used to reflect on levels of comfort around boundaries. It is worth noting this system is often used in kink and BDSM as it relates to comfort with certain activities.
Using the Traffic Light System for Boundaries
Green Light: Everything is going well. I feel safe, comfortable, and am enjoying myself.
Yellow Light: A boundary has been crossed. I’m feeling uncomfortable, unsafe, anxious, triggered, etc. I may need to do a brief check-in, take some space, or hold off on time with this person.
Red Light: We need to stop NOW. I am feeling intensely unsafe, very uncomfortable, and I am not okay. I need to stop this conversation/activity and need time away or to end the relationship.
Using the Traffic Light System for Relationships
Green Light: This is a safe, supportive relationship. When things come up, I am heard, and if there are differences we can have good communication about potential compromises, each other’s needs, and each other’s boundaries.
Yellow Light: I feel unsafe or uncomfortable with this person. While there are times I can be with them, what we talk about or do is limited. I may not want to, or feel able to have this be a significant relationship in my life. Some of my boundaries might be getting crossed or disregarded.
Red Light: This is an unsafe, harmful, and damaging relationship to me. My boundaries and needs are not at all heard or are completely ignored. I become stressed, anxious, or otherwise upset when I have contact or time with this person. If I am able, I may need to cut them out of my life completely.
Ruler of Your Realm
Many of us feel disempowered and uncomfortable when it comes to setting boundaries, especially if we’re responding to an instance of boundary-crossing. As I’ve reflected on my relationship needs, I remembered I have authority over my own life and autonomy to meet my needs. As someone who has experienced feeling a lack of power, I found it empowering to make decisions about needs and boundaries as though I were the ruler in a monarchy. In reflecting further, I realized many fictional and actual rulers had regions within their lands and general standards for who occupied which spaces. In the same way, I could consider the areas and relationships in my life and where I want my relationships. For my gamers, you might find it helpful to think about the layout of Whiterun in Skyrim.
Generally speaking, kingdoms/queendoms/empires/etc. had several boundaried areas including a castle, surrounding town, and outlying farmlands, not to mention additional allies, threats, and other occupied territories. Within the castle itself were the ruler, their closest advisers, courtiers, and staff. The castle was the most heavily defended and people inside had the most access to the ruler and their resources. These were either people selected specifically to live there by the ruler or necessary for the ruler’s survival. Frequently, even the essential personnel were selected by someone appointed by the ruler, giving further autonomy over who had the most access to the ruler and their resources.
Outside the castle walls was a town, typically with skilled workers or minor nobility. Residents of the town were expected to give some contribution back to the ruler to have the dwellings they lived in and added protection from the ruler (once the castle was secured). Finally, beyond the city walls were the farmers. While they lived on the ruler’s lands, farmers put in the most work to be there. If a threat arose, they might be afforded some protection, but typically only after the other vital areas to the ruler had been protected and defended.
We, as individuals, have so many skills, resources, and things to offer those in our life. Those of us who might identify as people-pleasers have a tendency to put EVERYONE in the castle, giving them full access to us and making great sacrifices to keep them happy, even at the cost of our own well-being. However, not everyone should be able to have this access to us. Looking at the relationships in our lives, we can consider our life as our kingdom/queendom/realm. You as the ruler get to decide who has how much access and what resources/protection/support you give them.
Here are some reflection questions to consider who might belong in which region for you:
The people you choose who get the most access to you and your support/protection, or are essential to your survival.
Who is allowed to be around me when I am at my most vulnerable?
Who do I feel supported and accepted by regardless of how I’m showing up?
Who do I enjoy spending time with?
Who respects my boundaries and listens to my needs?
Who is trusted, safe, and/or comfortable to be around?
Who do I turn to for advice and support?
Who are the people with who I don’t have deep personal relationships, but are integral to my health or well-being (medical doctors, etc.)?
The people in your town are generally good people, equity of support, but other relationships take priority over these
Who are the people I have good support from, but may not go above and beyond for?
Who do I enjoy connecting with, in casual ways?
Who can I have generally good interactions with, maybe sometimes give a little extra to, but know I may need to set/maintain boundaries with?
People in the Farmlands can get support/resources/protection but it’s rare, need a lot of give before they can “take.”
Who are the people I need a lot of investment from to allow to stay in my life?
What am I willing to give to someone who I don’t feel I can trust?
How often is this person in my life?
The beauty of being the ruler of your realm is you get to decide who goes where. Someone living in the castle betrays you? You can move them to the farmlands. A farmer demonstrates above and beyond support? Move them into town. If needed you can exile (cut off contact) with anyone you need to, calling them back if circumstances change. If it helps, think of your boundaries as the physical walls separating the areas of your life and/or your “armed forces” against potential or actual threats.
You rule your realm: How do you want it to look and who do you want where?
A Final Word
Thank you for taking the time to read this through. You and your well-being are worth reflecting on and safeguarding. Because discussions of healthy relationships in many places are still somewhat new, understanding how to set boundaries and ways to consider yours are often not talked about. Boundary work is an evolving self-process, so it’s important to continue to check in with what works best for you. Hopefully taking this time to pause and reflect will allow you to navigate your life as comfortably as possible, knowing you are safe, supported, and respected.
About the guest blogger: Kimberly is a geeky pursuer of many interests when she’s not at work or connecting with her favorite people. She enjoys writing many kinds of things (Poetry, Journaling, and Creative Fiction as examples), but mostly writes for herself. Right now she doesn’t have active projects or places to be followed but hopes to publish more in the future.