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  • michelle m. davis

Building Boundaries

The term “building boundaries” does not evoke warm, fuzzy feelings. Quite the opposite, as when we hear this phrase, we often envision barriers, walls that shield us from others. However, boundaries are necessary, for without them, confusion and pain can result.

Masks and social distancing are excellent examples of boundaries. Using face shields in public indoor facilities helps create a barrier of sorts, hopefully preventing the spread of Covid-19. The same is true with keeping a physical distance between ourselves and others. This intentional space is meant to keep people healthy.

But boundaries are not only important during pandemics, they are also critical in our day to day lives. Yet, many people struggle with setting appropriate boundaries, failing to properly express their needs and desires.

Why do we need boundaries?

Perhaps we feel it’s selfish to share our requirements with other. And, it can be awkward to tell someone that their behavior is unacceptable. However, as tricky as it may be to set these limits, doing so pays off in the long run. Because without boundaries, we can damage relationships and lose those that we love.

Just like kids and puppies, adults want to know their parameters. Having the knowledge of what is and is not acceptable gives us a sense security and can prevent us from crossing another’s line. For example, suppose I consistently text my friend early in the morning. Unless she asks me not to text before nine, how do I know that my friendly communications are actually annoying, perhaps waking her if she sleeps by her phone? Yet, if she establishes a clear framework and tells me when she prefers to communicate, then I can adapt my behavior and avoiding a schism in our relationship.

How do we create healthy boundaries?

Setting boundaries is not done by building walls which separate us from others. Nor are they formed by drawing a line in the sand, forbidding others to cross it. Such an “It’s my way or the highway” attitude is always detrimental to our relationships.

The key to establishing healthy boundaries is clear communication. If we want positive interactions, it’s important that we inform others of our needs. We cannot assume that they already know or will eventually figure out what we require.

Telling someone that their words upset you, they’ve crossed the line, or they’ve taken you for granted may seem harsh, but expressing these feelings can prevent further damage from occurring. For example, if I don’t tell my husband and kids that I require two hours of solitude because I have a deadline to edit my book, I shouldn’t be upset with requests for my time or attention during this time period. How would they know what I need? They aren’t mind readers. But, if I establish boundaries, share that from nine to eleven each morning, I must focus solely on editing, then they’ll most likely understand, especially if I am thoughtful in how I tell them.

Are there different levels of boundaries?

There are most definitely different levels of boundaries as all relationships require limits. Yet, it is often easier to state needs and expectations with co-workers and casual acquaintances than with loved ones and treasured friends. After all, I wouldn’t discuss a personal issue with another author, nor would I expect him or her to have those conversations with me, unless, of course, we are also personal friends. That would be crossing boundaries. Most people understand these limitations and respect them.

However, it’s with those closest to us that we often fail to set boundaries, and this can lead to severed friendships and family rifts. In the kinship of sister or brotherhood, we might be prone to declare that we will always be there for the other person, that no favor’s too big to ask, or that we’re always available to listen. But is that really true? Do we mean what we say, or are we just trying to be nice?

What happens when someone expects you to provide space for them when you are not available, physically or emotionally? They may feel hurt, and you might feel guilty. Similarly, if someone asks you to watch their kids at an inconvenient time, will you say, “Sorry, that doesn’t work for me,” or will you begrudgingly comply, put your plans on hold, and then become resentful?

Yet, if we don’t set boundaries, can we really be upset with people for crossing them? They may have different ideas of what “anytime” is. Or, maybe what we view as an imposition is no big deal to them.

Still, the most difficult boundaries to set are with those we love most, especially, when boundaries have been absent. Whether this is with a child, a sibling, a parent, or a spouse, it’s challenging to establish limits. But doing so is healthy, creates respect, and enables others to understand your needs, ultimately leading to healthier relationships.

I needed to establish some boundaries with our kids regarding their using my phone charger. I don’t like them to use it unless there’s an emergency. After all, we each have our own charger. Sure, I understand that it’s easier to use mine, especially if their charger is elsewhere and my phone is at one hundred percent. But it is my charger, not ours. At times I want to yell, “You have yours, so use it.” Of course, my hard limit should not be screamed or said in a demeaning manner. It’s best for me to speak in a matter-of-fact tone that does not cast blame but is clearly understandable. While this example may seem silly, it’s often the little things that trigger us the most.

How do we determine and respect others’ boundaries when they aren’t clearly set?

The above is a simple example of boundary setting. Yet, with family and close friends there are more sensitive limits that need to be established as well. For example, I can’t just assume that when I want to see my sons that they will be willing to leave their lives to visit us. I can hope, ask in advance, but I must respect their boundaries, understanding that they may not be able, or willing, to change their plans to meet my needs. If we are not clear with challenging issues such as these, miscommunication can occur, and feelings may be hurt.

Clear boundaries are what make relationships thrive. Once we understand another’s boundaries, we are better able to enjoy the individual and the relationship that we have with them. We know what topics not to discuss. We understand their triggers and are better able to avoid upsetting them. And, we are aware of their pet peeves, even if we view them as quirky.

Loving another does not mean that “anything goes.” The healthiest relationships are those that have a space between. At first, creating boundaries may seem selfish, even shutting others out. But in reality, having clearly defined limits only strengthens our interaction, allowing everyone to be themselves without fear of hurting those they love.


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