We live in a culture that is constantly testing, pushing, and obliterating our bodies. From the littlest ages when toddlers are made to kiss Great Aunt Gretchen who they’ve ever met before to teenagehood when many kids don’t feel like they can say no to people or situations that make them uncomfortable, to adulthood where we are pressured to keep our phones on at all times and be constantly responsive to email–never mind the epidemic of sexual violence in this culture–we aren’t taught how to set good boundaries. In fact, we often aren’t even taught that we have a *right* to good boundaries. I don’t know a single woman who hasn’t been harassed or accosted by some creepy stranger and then been yelled at or followed when she politely turned down his advances. And the thing is, you shouldn’t feel a need to be polite when some dude licks you on the bus or tells he he wants to fuck you like an animal, but women are taught from a very young age that we must be NICE above all else. If we can’t even set firm boundaries with the creepy guy on the bus who we will never see again, how are we supposed to set boundaries with our parents/partners/bosses?
At my old job one of the things I did was facilitate workshops on boundaries/consent/healthy sexuality for young people. I’ve distilled the major lessons around boundary setting into this post with the idea that it might help folks who are doing really hard, sacred work around body image and love but are surrounded by people who think they get to weigh in on their bodies. But it’s also accessible, useful information for literally every person ever.
There are five major components to having healthy boundaries: understanding the need for them; recognizing how/why/when they’re being breached; identifying the boundary to be set; actually setting and maintaining the boundary; and revisiting your boundaries.
1. Boundaries keep us safe–physically, mentally, emotionally. They let us get what we need to do done while still having the time to do what we want. They let us have healthy relationships based on shared values, respect, love and safety. They are an act of profound self-love, and an act of love to another. They are a recognition that we can’t do everything, we don’t want to do everything, and martyring ourselves for others is an unkindness to self and not a healthy expression of love to others. They are a recognition and enactment of self-worth.
2. Now, this part is best done interactively, but that’s okay. The way I teach identifying when boundaries are being breached is bodily (it involves string, personal zones and people you don’t know very well standing too close to you. It’s fabulously effective!). Think about a stranger standing too close to you, and feel what your body does. Maybe you stiffen, have shivers down your spine, feel slightly nauseous, breath shallowly. Now think about how you feel when emotional boundaries are crossed. Maybe you’re irritable, feel disrespected, slightly nauseous, tense all day, can’t sleep, can’t concentrate.
The how varies wildly. It can be unrealistic demands on your time, energy, abilities. It can be asking you to shoulder an emotional burden you’re unable or unwilling to take on. It can be consistently asking you to work too many hours. It can be talking about things you don’t want to or don’t feel comfortable talking about–such as your body size, your eating habits, or your exercise regimen. These are all things that other people can do to us, but also things we can do to ourselves.
The why is usually down to either unclear boundaries, poor boundary setting, or the fact that we live in a culture that neither teaches us nor respects healthy boundaries. Sometimes it’s because the other person just doesn’t respect our boundaries. In which case, the same rules apply to you, but the last step may be extricating yourself from the situation, relationship, whatever.
3. This part can be really hard, if you’re not used to establishing boundaries. You may be very good at identifying, in some manner, that your boundaries are being pushed or even bowled over but not sure what boundaries actually need to be set. When I’m struggling to identify what boundary needs to be set I ask myself “what do I need to do to feel safe/okay/respected?” I react physically to emotion, conflict, unease. So when I’m trying to figure out what boundary I need to set I’ll see how the idea literally feels to me. Does it make my stomach hurt less? Do my shoulders relax a little bit?
Another part of figuring out which boundary to set is figuring out what you’re willing to do, what feels non-negotiable. Even within the non-negotiable, there are ways that you can set boundaries. For example, you will attend x to support your partner, but you need an hour in the morning beforehand to go for a run, or you will see Aunt Sally but there can be absolutely no weight-talk. The details are unimportant here, what’s important is the understanding that it’s your right (and, not to get too heavy-handed here, your obligation, if you’re committed to a healthy, equitable relationship) to ensure that the things you’re doing feel okay for you.
4. This is the really hard part: setting the boundary. So the model I like to suggest is called the Gentle Refusal Model. It’s something I use in doing support work, something I use with my family, with my friends, with my lovers, and with myself. There are three parts: Reflection, The Refusal and The Offer.
This has two purposes. The first is to make sure both you and the other person are clear on what they’re asking from you. If you’re misunderstanding them they can clear it up, which may change the boundary you thought you had to set. If you’re understanding them correctly, by reflecting their request you are both letting their needs be heard, and being clear that you understand what you’re being asked and what you’re refusing.
This is the hard part. The way I like to do it is with an “I can’t/wont’/don’t want to x because y”. This way it’s about you, not them, and you’re giving them an explanation rather than just a no, which is often enough to make people both understand and respect your boundary.
This part is somewhat optional (with certain requests no offer can be made, or should be made) and can take a lot of different forms. I like to use it for a couple reasons. One, it ends the conversation on a positive note. Two, it makes the other person feel like you care and are willing to do what you can for them.
Example 1: I come to you and say “I know it’s super short notice, but can you take care of my cat for the weekend? I got called away on business. Also, can you bake her a birthday cake and decorate it with a feline pastiche?” You say, “I know that you’re going away and need someone to take care of your cat (refection) but I’m afraid I can’t do that because I’m allergic to cats(refusal). If you want, though, I can call my friend Janet who loves cats and professionally catsits (offer).”
Example 2: My mother comes to me and says “I’m really concerned that you’re eating ice cream every day! Dr. Oz says you will get the ‘beetus and die if you don’t start snorting ylang ylang!” So I respond with “Mom, I hear that you’re concerned about my health (reflection) and I appreciate that, but I don’t talk about my health or diet with anyone but my doctor (refusal). I’d love to start walking together on Sundays, though (offer).”
Sometimes the offer can be as simple as wishing someone good luck, or letting them know you care about them.
This model can feel a little stiff at first, somewhat scripted, but it becomes natural as you use it, and you’ll start using it a lot and without being conscious of it. It’s gentle, kind, honest and effective. And if you have a friend or other trusted person that would be willing to practice it with you that would be great! One other thing to note is that sometimes you have to revisit. For example, you set your boundary and I say “okay, no cat-sitting, but what about the cake?” so then you go back to reflection and refusal. If the other person is really refusing to respect your refusals, you can outright say “I’m setting a boundary here, and I really need you to respect it.” It doesn’t often come to that, but some people really, really don’t want to respect the boundaries of others and having it said explicitly puts them in a place where they essentially can’t keep pushing you. If they still aren’t respecting your boundary you may need to walk away–either literally in the moment, or in a broader sense from the relationship (probably not over making a cat’s birthday cake, but over larger and ongoing boundary violations).
5. Boundaries change. With time, new knowledge, different dynamics, etc. what used to be a perfectly reasonable boundary may not be appropriate anymore. (For example, the diet talk you used to engage in with your friends now makes you feel really shitty.) Don’t be afraid to revisit boundaries, and remember that maintaining them is an ongoing process. Figuring out what boundaries are still necessary and what needs to change will help you see how positive having healthy boundaries is, how they allow space for everyone’s needs to be met, and how they allow healthy relationships to flourish (or can be used to mitigate the harm of less than healthy relationships/situations you can’t get out of e.g. family).
Finally, know that you deserve boundaries. You deserve to be happy and to be healthy, and the people who love you want you to be both of those things. It won’t be easy at first. You may not be used to doing it, some people aren’t used to you doing it, so when you start refusing to do things it may not be received so well. You’ve just got to push through that, be firm, and know that you’re doing it as self-love. Plus, I think establishing clear boundaries with those close to us is an immensely trusting and intimate act. It’s saying “I want you in my life, and I trust you enough to respect my needs so I will show them to you rather than closing up and running away or sacrificing myself because I don’t think you can handle it.”
You (yes, YOU!) are a profoundly beautiful human being, and you deserve to be happy, safe and fulfilled.
If you have questions, want clarification, etc. etc. please feel free to ask!
Happy boundary setting everybody!