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How and Why to Master the All-Important Skill of Setting Boundaries


Three friends looking over railing at River ThamesHere’s an easy example of why boundaries are important: parenting. Though parenting styles and norms differ across cultures and personalities, all parents enforce boundaries on their children to some extent.

That’s because a complete lack of boundaries results in an unsafe environment for your child.

You may want little Xavier to experience life to the fullest, but eating the shaving cream or playing with the sharp knife cannot–safely–be part of that experience. I’d venture to say, in fact, that the little phrase, “No, you can’t,” is just as powerful and poignant an expression of parental devotion as “I love you.”

Our kids may not feel that way about it, of course; but one day they’ll look back, realize how many trips to the ER we saved them, be thankful to possess most of their limbs and senses, and breathe a quick word of thanks to us before they run to grab their own toddler, who is climbing up the bookshelves again.

How Boundaries Work

Say you’ve just committed to a job. Or a monogamous relationship. Or airline tickets to next month’s vacation spot. Or a particular time and place to meet your friend for a n ight out.

In each case, your commitment (C) to a particular course of action (A) equals a denial (D) of all other courses of action (O).

Hey, look, a formula: (C)(A) = (D)(O)

I’m sure there’s a better way to formulate this concept, probably even make a graph, but I’m no mathematician. Feel free to work something up and send it to me.

In much simpler phrasing, minus the mathy parts, your Yes to one particular option is your No to the other particular options, at least this time around.

The Limits of a Boundary

Active couple balancing on low fenceA boundary is not an eternal commitment and it’s not a universal commitment. The duration varies, based on the type of decision (the what’s-for-lunch decision has a pretty short turn-over, for example). And the scope, or extent, varies as well.

Not all decisions deny all other courses of action. You can be committed to a relationship and to a job. You can choose to go on vacation to Bermuda next month and meet your friend for drinks tomorrow night. You can dye your hair purple and learn how to speak French.

You have a wide, rich, deep set of categories in your life that give you lots of options, and most of those options don’t mess with each other.

There’s only one decision you make that affects all of your life–every option in every category.

The Ultimate Boundary-Producing Decision

Decisions create boundaries because of these two factors: 1) our particular human limitations and 2) time.

While many decisions impose boundaries due to our human limitations (silly things like not being omnipresent or unable to multitask), there is one decision you make regularly that always affects all of your life categories. It messes with everything. It imposes boundaries on all the options in a very equal-opportunity sort of way.

That decision is this: How Will You Spend Your Time?

You might make this decision on a moment-to-moment basis, or in big blocks of time, or by segmented appointments and scheduled activities, or by virtue of nondecision, a.k.a, going where the moment takes you. (That idea of “nondecision,” is, by the way, still very much a decision with resultant boundaries created.)

Each choice you make of how you’ll spend your time–for this moment, or this hour, or this decade–triggers an unavoidable ripple effect into your entire life.

When you’re spending time on Z thing, you are, by decision and by default, not spending time on A-Y things.

Sure, yeah, multitasking. You can listen to Bach while brushing your teeth. Exceptions always exist. But the fact that you can only focus your attention on one particular thing at a time is a neurological truth. When you choose what you’ll spend your attention on now, which is to say, how you’ll spend your time, you’re choosing to deny all the other options available, at least right now.

Why Boundaries Are So Important

Two friends sitting in a coffee shop and talkingThe need for boundaries is not new.

A couple thousand years ago, Seneca said this:

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.”

Humanity has been dealing with this limited-attention thing for a long time, along with the second-guessing and attempted multi-tasking that come with it.

Two factors make our particular time perhaps more desperately in need of boundaries than before. The first factor is the terrible, wonderful flood of information we encounter every single day. (I don’t need to tell you all about it, because you’re living it, but here’s a lovely, closer look at it if you’re interested.)

The second factor is the terrible, wonderful level of accessibility we’ve attained. The boundaries of space and time (space-time?) are blurry to the point of dissolution. I can talk to a friend in Hong Kong as easily as I can to my next-door neighbor. I can live-stream my kids to their grandparents a few states away. This is our world. It’s amazing. It’s miraculous. It’s removed so many boundaries we thought were immovable that we are left reeling, unsure, scrambling to adapt our localized social norms to our global accessibility.

How do you choose what to focus on when the entire world is an option? How do you navigate the choices? How do you pay attention to any particular thing when there are so many amazing potential things to do?

If you’re like me, then, on a bad day, you end up glutted with information and overwhelmed by possibilities, listlessly scrolling through Facebook or Netflix at 1 a.m., wondering why you’re still awake. On a good day, you struggle against the lure of easy (if pointless) input and try to focus on something meaningful, limit yourself, and get something tangible done.

The only way to benefit from this blessing of information and accessibility is to learn how to set boundaries. Consciously chosen, thoughtful boundaries can preserve your sanity and help you focus on what is important to you, right now.

Life Without Boundaries (It’s Not Pretty)

Business people using laptops, side view, upper half (differential focus)What happens when you don’t set and maintain good boundaries? Oh, a lot of things, but here’s a quick list of the most common consequences:

  • You collect a metric ton of pseudo-information that doesn’t really add helpful, useful knowledge to your life but does make you feel like you understand things well enough to be really, really angry whenever you encounter someone who doesn’t understand them in the same way.
  • You maintain a metric ton of pseudo-relationships that don’t really add meaningful interaction to your life but do make you feel fleetingly popular, or, the poor man’s substitute, at least like you might be the cause of fleeting jealousy for some other poor sap who is similarly employed in wasting their time and attention on meaningless, shallow, social pretend games.
  • You accrue a metric ton of pseudo-accomplishments that don’t really add creativity, useful ideas, practical help, beauty, or meaning to the world but do make you feel as if you’ve leveled up in some way or another, which lasts until you step away from the pseudo-work long enough to realize that plugging in another row of skewed numbers, or handling another person’s unnecessary drama, or adding another category to your digital folder of things you’ll never do, or unlocking the next made-up ability in a virtual reality, or flawlessly following a set of arbitrary rules leading to the accumulation of praise from a pseudo-authority whose own merit is questionable, at best, is not really the same thing as actual accomplishment.

Pseudo-living has nothing to do with digital versus “real-life” and everything to do with depth, intent, and meaning or a complete lack thereof. Some of my best friendships have been created/are maintained via the beauty of the Internet, while some of the “real-life” folks I encounter daily necessitate the most stringent boundaries. This beautiful digital glut of information and accessibility enables me to make my living at home, with my kids, with far more flexibility and independence than have been possible for most women, in most cultures, ever. I’m happy about these things.

The potential for greatness has never been more apparent, more available, to all of us. The potential for waste, the ability to easily waste our lives on pseudo-living, is also part of our reality. It always has been. The pseudo-living that most of us do when we don’t consciously pay attention to healthy boundaries can happen in any context.

Question Your Boundaries

Young woman and man studding together in libraryBefore we can establish thoughtful, healthy boundaries, we need to take a look at the boundaries that already exist in our lives.

Societal and personal boundaries abound because without them we have chaos. All too often, we honor these inherited boundaries without thought. It’s not that we assume they have merit; it’s that we don’t bother realizing that the boundaries are not inherently part of life, but are constructs placed upon life. Sometimes these constructed boundaries are helpful and useful; sometimes they’re awful. Racism, classism, and sexism are examples of the latter. Failing to examine our inherited boundaries, due to apathy, ignorance, or fear, is to condone the terrible, damaging, and often violent effects of those boundaries.

We need to do two things. First, we need to start taking inventory of the boundaries that already exist in our lives. Second, we need to ask some questions and seek honest answers about those boundaries. Questions help us determine which boundaries deserve a place and should stay, and which boundaries need to be dissolved.

  • How long have I had this boundary?
  • Where did this boundary come from?
  • What am I keeping out with this boundary?
  • What am I letting in with this boundary?
  • What is the effect of this boundary?
  • Is this boundary useful and helpful?
  • Does this boundary create/allow negative or positive forces into my life?
  • Do I want this boundary?
  • What reasons justify this boundary?
  • What would happen if I took down this boundary?

Once we’ve inventoried and questioned the current boundaries, it’s time to do a second inventory. This time, we need to look at the places in our lives that need boundaries but don’t currently have any effective ones in place.

Look for Unprotected Spaces

We all have unprotected spaces in our lives; don’t feel like you’re a failure if you find a lot of gaping holes where negativity, inefficiency, distractions, drama, or other pseudo-fillers are stealing your attention and time. Your upbringing might have left you with the belief, for example, that polite people never say No to social invitations (that’s one from my Southern mama). It can take a while before you realize that’s not necessarily true. (It’s usually somewhere between the third birthday party and second wedding in June that you begin to see this glorious light of freedom.)

You might determine, then, that your calendar needs some boundaries to keep it from being overrun with social obligations. Saying no to a social invitation, by the way, does not mean that you a) don’t value it or b) don’t think it’s important. It just means that, in view of your entire life (including family, work, and personal well-being), you’ve determined that something else (perhaps a nap or an entire day with nowhere to go) is more valuable and important this time. Maybe you’ll make it for next year’s St Patricks’ Day Cabbage Eating Extravaganza.

Be Conscious and Consistent

Group Of Friends Meeting In Coffee ShopIn order for a boundary to be useful, you have to be conscious of it and implement it consistently, for two reasons. First, you need to train yourself to be aware of what you’re valuing and protecting from pseudo-life. If you don’t stay aware, you’ll default to old habits: harmful boundaries or unprotected spaces with the resultant damage and waste.

The second reason to be conscious and consistent is to train other people what they can expect from you. If your drama-prone friends have always been able to get your attention and sympathy, they’ll be surprised when you don’t agree to another coffee/”listen to my drama” date. You can decide whether or not you explicitly explain your new boundary. The key is to be conscious of what you’re doing and stick with your boundaries consistently.

Boundaries Are Not Rules

Boundaries essentially function as rules, but I prefer not to call them rules. We tend to think of rules as inflexible, unyielding, universal, timeless (even if they’re not).

Boundaries, on the other hand, are meant to flex.

Appropriate boundaries for a two-year-old, for example, would be terribly limiting, inappropriate boundaries for a twelve-year-old. Set boundaries and use them, but don’t assume that they should be there, as is, for the rest of your life. Evaluate your boundaries regularly to determine which are still serving a positive purpose and which ones need to be replaced.

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