Boundaries. This topic is about as popular to discuss as negotiation, and it’s easy to see why. Most people aren’t comfortable with negotiating, just as too few of us take the time to set the boundaries we need and want.
Negotiations and boundaries aren’t mutually exclusive. Successful negotiators establish their goals, determine their non-negotiables (and bottom line), and are clear about the rules of engagement before they begin bargaining. This is a healthy approach, so why are boundaries perceived so negatively?
Someone once said, “A lack of boundaries invites a lack of respect.” If that’s true, shouldn’t we think about boundaries differently? Shouldn’t limits be an essential part of every relationship? Shouldn’t setting boundaries be a priority in our lives?
I’d respond to each of these questions with a resounding yes, but boundaries are more complicated than that. Boundaries are fighting against centuries of culture, societal expectations, and our own human nature, none of which are easy to overcome.
If we choose to get curious and learn about what boundaries really are and how they can create transformative change in our professional and personal relationships, maybe we’ll think about them a little differently.
The truth is, boundaries are all around us. The yellow line dividing a road, the fence around a playground, and our own front doors. These are all boundaries, and we can agree they play a positive and necessary role in our lives.
Many of these boundaries exist for our physical safety, so it’s hard to argue against the importance of them. Boundaries in a relationship protect something that’s just as important: our emotional and mental well-being.
For that reason, you probably already have boundaries in some of your relationships. For example, there are topics you’ll chat with a friend about that you wouldn’t discuss with a parent or colleague, and vice versa.
Why? Because you’ve decided what you’re comfortable talking about with various people in your life and how you want to show up for them. You know what you need to do to protect your heart and mind. And yet, many people still regard boundaries negatively.
Are boundaries really bad?
While boundaries aren’t in and of themselves bad, they do have a bad reputation. When someone says, “I’m setting a boundary with you,” you might feel rejected. While their delivery of the message might be questionable, the boundary itself is anything but.
At the core, setting a boundary is about prioritizing your needs and wants to protect your mental and emotional health. Unfortunately, putting your needs before the needs of others simply isn’t looked upon favorably.
While your instincts may tell you this prioritization is selfish, myopic, and a way to push away the people around you. I would argue, however, that boundaries do the exact opposite.
The basics of boundaries
Think about the safety announcements when you travel on an airplane. The flight attendant instructs you to first help yourself before assisting anyone else. This ensures that those equipped to help children and the elderly are in good shape to do so, if needed.
Boundaries are no different.
When you set boundaries about when you’ll answer your phone, how often you’ll go to your parent's house, or how many times you’re willing to go out in a week, you’re serving yourself, so you’re able to be there for others in a real and meaningful way.
Without boundaries like these, you’re at the mercy of others, which is especially dangerous for people pleasers. Pleasers often struggle to set boundaries, and the lack thereof can cause burnout and weigh them down.
Pleasers want to make those around them happy, so they do everything they can to fulfill others’ needs, wants, and desires. The problem is, pleasers give without limits, which means they take less for themselves and are forced to compromise on what they really want from life.
The result? People pleasers can end up resenting being asked for what they freely give. They send the message that they don’t value themselves or their boundaries. And ultimately, the lack of boundaries hurts them and their relationships.
Your relationships don’t have to be this way. You can have fulfilling, meaningful relationships if you first set boundaries to honor yourself. When you care for your needs, you’re happier, more fulfilled, and have the wherewithal to be there for those you care about.
Understanding the benefits of boundaries
Brené Brown says, “When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated.” Of course, no one wants to feel this way, and by establishing boundaries you won’t have to.
Boundaries are an exercise in self-love and care. They’re a way you can show compassion to yourself and an all-important reminder that you’re worthy of respect.
Even more than that, having boundaries demonstrates how much you care about others around you. You value your relationships so highly you’re willing to set boundaries to maintain them in a healthy way and preserve them far into the future.
The irony of this isn’t lost on me. Yes, one of the chief misconceptions about boundaries is that they selfishly prioritize your needs and wants over others. But nothing could be further from the truth.
There’s nothing greedy about self-love. When we accept that, everything changes.