“Ummm, okay, sure, I guess I can drive you to the airport,” I said when a friend called not too long ago to ask for a ride to catch an early morning flight. On the outside I was all agreeable and nice. Inside, though, I was thinking something totally different. My inner voice sounded like this, “No freakin’ way! Remember how you left me stranded at the airport that time after agreeing to pick me up. I’m not OK that you assume I’ll do whatever you want.”
Did I say anything close to that out loud? No. I was afraid of being disliked. So I just drove her to the airport. And then I resented her. I seethed and then responded to my self-loathing with righteous thoughts justifying the fact that I had caved and didn’t set a boundary. I told myself, I’m a good person. It’s no big deal. I’m taking the high road and getting all kinds of karma points. This is what friends do for each other. But I knew she wasn’t a true friend. She wouldn’t do the same for me. Our relationship wasn’t balanced, and I felt like a doormat.
Does this sound familiar? If so, you may want to work on setting personal boundaries.
Setting Personal Boundaries 101
I learned about setting personal boundaries late in life, and now I am enthusiastic about how powerful and enriching they can be. I’ve come to regard them as crucial life skills for everyone. The sooner a person experiences the benefits, the better.
Boundaries can create problems in your relationships in two ways. Overly loose personal boundaries mean you’re not aware of nor are you enforcing a clear sense of self, which can cause misery. People tend to take advantage of people with personal loose boundaries and then disrespect them for allowing it to happen. As a result, you’ll likely feel resentful, like I did, but you might express this bitterness (either verbally or through attitude) in a guilt-inducing, Italian-grandmother way: “Don’t worry about me, the one who took you to the airport. I’ll just pay to fill up my gas tank myself.” One way to tell if you are leaning toward the loose end is if you feel compelled to offer justification for your decision, or an explanation of your actions. Ideally, you can offer a firm but respectful answer and not feel the need to make up or give a reason.
On the other hand, setting personal boundaries that are too strong can strip the joy out of relationships. These are the fun-killing folks you know, and this is not a club you want to belong to. Life is full of opportunities to be spontaneous, and being open means being available for mystery and magic. If your boundaries are rigid and impermeable, you’ll miss the chance to experience meaning and playfulness in your life. Plus, you’ll come across as a curmudgeon.
The trick is balance. Finding this balance is a lifelong practice. Staying open while also being vigilant and checking in with yourself is key. In order to do that, you must pause, listen to what your interior dialogue is, and then actually honor it. Stop pushing the override button for a few minutes and listen to what you feel and what you want, then act on it.
Other people notice when someone has healthy personal boundaries because they don’t have to guess what that person is thinking. If you say “no” and mean it, the interaction feels safe. If you say “no” and feel wishy-washy, the other person may feel compelled to pressure you, or even bully you, into changing your mind.
Practicing skills for creating clear personal boundaries can make a positive difference at work, at home, with friends, and with neighbors. To find your boundary sweet-spot, pay attention to where your edge is. Take time to consider where you choose to be, and you won’t end up where you definitely do not want to be, like driving an ungrateful friend to the airport at the crack of dawn.
If that same friend were to ask me today for that ride to the airport, I would give myself time to think about it by asking her if I could call her back after checking my schedule. Pausing like this is always a good strategy, rather than blurting out an immediate yes or no. Then I would consider how a “yes” would make me feel. If my gut churns and I can feel heat rising in my stomach, up to my cheeks, I know that that a “yes” is an overly loose boundary.
If I try on a “no” and immediately feel guilty, I would examine that a bit deeper. I was raised to accommodate everyone else first and put myself last, so going against that would clearly bring on guilt. Knowing the source helps dissolve those feelings. I would realize I wanted to say “no,” but without a big dramatic scene.
Then I could call her back with a plan. “Shoot, that won’t work for me. But here’s a great Uber driver who will get you there.” Notice the firm response, the lack of an explanation, the respectful suggestion. That’s what a good personal boundary looks like. Now go build your own.
Setting Personal Boundaries: Not Too Strong. Not Too Loose. Just Right.
Below you will find lists of stronger boundaries and looser boundaries. The ideal mixture is up to you, depending on how you live your life and where your instincts, conditioning, and habits land. Every person is different, and playing with this list while creating your own unique balance is how you can take personal responsibility for healthy boundary setting.
Stronger Boundaries look like this:
- A healthy “checking it out” or vetting before embracing something or someone new
- Revealing your thoughts, feelings, and beliefs in increments, checking with yourself and the other person to see if connection and compatibility is happening
- Moving step by step into intimacy, avoiding leaps that will lead to regret
- Respectfully maintaining personal values despite what others want
- Noticing when someone else acts with a lack of boundaries
- Clearly saying “no” to food, gifts, touch, sex, or anything you know you do not want
- Respecting others, not taking advantage of their generosity
- Not allowing someone to take advantage of your generosity
- Not giving too much in the hopes that others will like you
- Acknowledging that friends and partners are not mind readers
- Communicating your wants and needs, and understanding that you may be turned down
Looser Boundaries look like this:
- Trusting nobody, or trusting everybody, black-and-white thinking
- Revealing everything immediately without first establishing a connection; not being incremental in sharing
- Falling in love with a new acquaintance, or with anyone who shows interest in you
- Being preoccupied or overwhelmed with emotion by someone you hardly know; putting projections, expectations, and a whole story on to the new person
- Being intimate and doing things for the other person, not for yourself
- Going against personal values and rights in order to please the other person
- Not noticing when someone displays overly loose boundaries
- Accepting food, sex, touch, or gifts that you know you do not want
- Being unable to say no, or saying a meaningless no that is taken for yes
- Expecting others to know and fulfill your needs automatically
- Falling apart so someone will take care of you