Acknowledging and respecting boundaries and limits is healthy and gives us power, yet I notice often folks seem to set boundaries in ways that are ineffective and self-defeating. Or we set boundaries but then fail to support them. All of this leads to frustration and dissatisfaction in relationships.
What helps me think about boundaries is to start with the most immediate and tangible one: my skin. My skin is a boundary between my body and the external world. It keeps things together. It is somewhat permeable. It delimits that for which I have responsibility and authority. Violating this boundary has immediate consequences and causes me pain. Your skin is your boundary.
Subtler psychic and interpersonal boundaries are not the same but ideally arise similarly from our own center and experience. All I really have control or responsibility over is myself, and even that comes from a process of expanding in consciousness and capacity for responsibility.
Responsibility, power, and consequences all play a role in boundaries. A boundary is not about controlling other people’s behavior; it’s about communicating my expectations and enforcing the consequences. Here’s an example: “I appreciate when you invite me over, but I can’t eat certain foods. When you ignore that, I get sick. I’ve told you my food sensitivities a few times, and every time you ignore them, I feel less interested in having dinner with you.”
This describes a situation in which the person with food sensitivities has been disrespected and endangered. This boundary is communicating both the personal consequences—I get sick—the good faith efforts to work with the other person, and then the interpersonal consequences—I don’t want to come over for dinner. The latter are the consequences that often we find hardest to enforce, but from this frame, there’s actually nothing to “enforce.” I’m simply letting you know how your behavior affects me and listening to my feelings. You can decide what to do with that information.
This isn’t an ultimatum or a threat, and doesn’t need to be stated that way. Ultimatums or threats come from the belief that I can coerce you to do what I really want, which is sometimes successful in the short-term but rarely in the long-term. It’s a statement of self-observation. It’s listening to and respecting your self and not enabling others to disrespect you.
“What if they keep making food I can’t eat?” Then you listen to yourself and stop going over for dinner, or if you absolutely cannot stop then you can unapologetically make accommodations for yourself. For some, setting and enforcing boundaries brings up guilt and shame. That happens, but if you’ve told this person what you need and they proved unwilling to listen or adjust their behavior, you’ve done due diligence. It is painful and sad to recognize that people we want to be important to us are not behaving with respect. We can’t control them or force them to change. It is quite vulnerable to decide we are going to behave as though we’re worthy of respect, even if parts of us don’t quite feel that way. But threatening consequences that never happen only diminishes the power of our words.
Your primary responsibility to the other person is to communicate your expectations and the consequences. In many cases, once you actually begin to have and respect your own boundaries, the folks who are used to disrespecting you will act out and try to guilt, coerce, or force you to continue accommodating them. Yet you owe them no further explanations or compromise. You can reiterate your expectations, or tell them what you need to see to rebuild trust, but you don’t need to sacrifice your health or dignity.