I hear clients often happily declaring that they have ‘set their boundary’ by telling somebody else what they need. For example, telling a friend to be on time because it’s upsetting when they’re late; telling a spouse not to yell when they’re angry; or telling a parent that their house is too triggering so they need to remove all the sugar and alcohol before they come over.
This may sound like an empowering step, and if it’s about finding your voice and speaking it up it may be. Unfortunately, these are not examples of boundary setting. These are examples of expectations and, in many ways, quite the opposite of boundaries.
What I mean by that is boundaries are an inside job. Boundaries are set by us, for us. No one is responsible for following through on our boundaries but us. No friend, spouse, parent, colleague, or anyone else will ever be able to know or understand fully what works or does not work for you. You, however, will work on being attuned with yourself at any given moment and are, therefore, in the prized position of knowing what works, and doesn’t, at any time.
With boundaries, we need to be aware of what works and does not work and be prepared to take action to follow through on that for ourselves. For the examples listed above, you must be prepared to leave at a comfortable time if your friend is late, disengage from the conversation and even leave the home if needed if a spouse is yelling, and meet in a neutral, safe environment if a home is triggering rather than relying on others to live their lives differently. We cannot make that demand of others. If you are motivated to change and do something different, then do it. Don’t let others hold you back.
When we consider boundaries as an inside job, this means that verbalizing them is optional. If you do state that it bothers you when someone is late, or when they yell, or their home, this cannot be done with the expectation that they will do something different next time. If you can verbalize your feelings and plan of action without being attached to them doing different, then go ahead. If you’re unsure or recognize there is attachment to them doing something different, then stop. Continue on with the recognition and action of enforcing your boundary but do not communicate this to the other person as it will set you up for disappointment and resentment.
I encourage each of you to take time to check-in on your feelings to identify what you need and what works and does not work for you and start practicing following through on action to support these needs. You are worth it!
Paige Abbott is a Registered Psychologist in Calgary, AB specializing in Addiction Psychology.