Thoughts on Building & Maintaining “Good Fences”
By Cassie Jewell, M.Ed., LPC, LSATP
“Good fences make good neighbors.”Robert Frost
When I picture a boundary, I imagine drawing a circle with a stick in the dirt… with me in the middle. I stay in; everyone else stays out. Boundaries are protective; they keep us safe. Without boundaries, you have no limits, no sense of direction. Without boundaries, you open yourself up… anyone can come in, with good or bad intentions.
If you have poor boundaries in a dating relationship, you could end up doing things you’re not comfortable with. Or, another example might be with your boss; if you don’t set firm limits, you could end up taking one extra tasks.
I once worked with a client who regularly violated his partner’s boundaries by yelling, “Phone check!” whenever he wanted to check his girlfriend’s cell. She’d hand it over and he’d review her calls/read her texts. It was a boundary violation for sure. Everyone has a right to privacy. (That being said, your partner never has the right to go through your phone, read your journal, request your social media passwords, etc. Those are all boundary violations; they could also indicate that the relationship is in trouble.)
Another way to conceptualize a boundary is to picture mosquito netting. It keeps the mosquitoes out, but it’s flexible and lightweight. It lets in air, sunlight, a cool breeze… A mosquito net is a healthy boundary. If you were to instead build a brick structure, you’d be doing a lot of unnecessary work and you’d probably still get bit.
It’s best to be up front and honest about the boundaries you set (which requires assertiveness). With your boss, the first time he asks if you can stay late on a Friday, you might end up saying yes. (It’s probably just a onetime thing, right?) Seeing that you don’t say no the first time, he may continue to ask you to stay late or take on extra work. The alternative (boundary-setting) option would be to say (when he first asks), “I’m sorry, although I’d love to be able to, I have a policy against being away from home on Fridays. It’s family night at my house.” It’s unlikely he’ll ask you again because you very firmly (and politely) set a boundary.
On the other hand, if you’re passionate about your career, you could be flexible and stay late (especially if you’re hoping for a promotion or a raise) without feeling as though your boundaries have been violated. The important thing is to know where you stand (i.e. what your boundary is).
Equally important to setting boundaries is adhering to them once they’re established. There are people out there who love to test boundaries. A boundary is useless without follow through. Your boundary becomes meaningless if you say you’re not going to do something and then you do it anyway. If you tell your child “no candy before dinner,” but then finally give in after several bouts of dramatic tears, you’re sending a message. The message is “When I say no, I don’t mean it.” It’s important to be consistent with boundaries.
Signs of Weak Boundaries
- A lack of assertiveness
- Altering your personal values for someone (especially in a romantic relationship)
- Having a sexual relationship with someone when you’re not ready
- Not being able to say “no”
- Trusting others quickly (when it’s not warranted)
- Falling in love quickly or believing an acquaintance is your best friend when you only met the day before
Rigid boundaries, on the other hand, are at the opposite end of the spectrum. A person with rigid boundaries doesn’t trust easily or let others in. It would be difficult to be in an intimate relationship with a person with rigid boundaries.
How to Develop Healthy Boundaries
Firstly, know that it will take time. Be patient with yourself and don’t criticize yourself if you fall back into old habits.
Recognize (and accept) your right to establish and adhere to personal boundaries. Read one of Dr. Cloud’s books on boundaries or Melody Beattie’s Codependent No More. Personally, I like Co-dependents Anonymous’ recovery literature. It’s an easy read (four pages) and you can access it for free.
If you haven’t already, take time to clarify your values. You can do a values sort – there are plenty of free resources online. It’s something I frequently do with my clients. What’s most important to you? Family? Integrity? Kindness? Have unhealthy boundaries affected this value in the past? (If kindness is most important to you, and you identify as a “people pleaser,” consider all the times you’ve been unkind to yourself. Explore ideas for practicing kindness to both others and self.)
Also, deliberate on the behaviors you find unacceptable (in terms of how you’re treated). Looking back on past relationships, I dated men who cheated on me, called me names, were mean to my friends, and yes, even checked my phone. Completely unacceptable. At this point in my life, I have a zero tolerance policy.
When you establish boundaries, especially with those who don’t expect it (i.e. your mother-in-law or the neighbor who regularly lets his dog romp through your garden), anticipate some push back. It probably won’t feel good in the moment.
Practice assertiveness. Don’t back down. If someone is particularly resistant, don’t engage in an argument. You don’t owe an explanation. You don’t even have to respond. Remain calm; walk away if needed. If it helps, pre-plan your exact wording. (“I’m sorry, but I’m no longer able to stay till 9 on Fridays. Unexpected circumstances at home won’t allow it.”) Be concise. Don’t be overly apologetic.
If the person you’re setting boundaries with is a significant other or family member, I’d recommend transparency. Let them know that you’re going to make some changes. Share how unhealthy boundaries have negatively impacted you. (Give specific examples if you can.) Don’t place blame. Talk about how healthy boundaries will positively impact not just you,but the relationship. It may still be difficult. There may be some tension; the relationship might feel strained. (And it’s okay.)
If you set boundaries and find them repeatedly violated; firstly, take a step back and reevaluate the situation. Have you been clear and consistent? If so, you may want to consider spending less time with this person or even ending the relationships. Unfortunately, while you can set boundaries, you can’t force someone to respect them.
In sum, boundaries are imperative. Skin is a boundary that keeps other organs in place; it shields our body systems from toxins, viruses, and bacteria that would otherwise be deadly. It keeps the bad stuff out (and the good stuff in). Healthy boundaries are our emotional skin. If you need a boundaries tune up, it could take some effort, but is well worth it. You’ll experience increased satisfaction in your relationships and will feel more confidence.Your overall well-being will improve; boundaries are freeing – by communicating your needs, it’s less likely you’ll feel angry or resentful. And lastly, you’ll find that others have a greater level of respect for you. “Good fences,” it would seem, are not limited to neighbors!