Your boundaries refer to your verbal, and sometimes non-verbal communication with the world and the people in it. It indicates where I end and where you begin. Boundaries determine how we are treated, and protect us from overwhelm, that is linked to daily stress and power dynamics. In short, boundaries are our own personal limits.
Unsurprisingly, all of us have moments where our boundaries are put to the test. This often happens when someone oversteps our expressed boundaries, or where we struggle to explicitly articulate or defend our boundaries. A recent experience led me to once again question whether I am as in tune with my boundaries as I think I am. About two years ago, I agreed to support a particular group with their work. I was clear that I agreed to this request because it was linked to my own passions and commitments to changing the world. Even though I was clear about the scope of my involvement, from the beginning, I found myself in a situation wherein my boundaries were becoming blurred. Despite having negotiated the parameters of my involvement, the situation and what it required kept on changing. With every instance it changed, I found myself moving further and further away from my initial intention. I dismissed these moments of boundary blurs because I thought (quite naively) that I could still support and make a difference in the space. The period of my intervention extended from six months to two years. I was still in the space, hobbling along, hoping that my presence and engagement was helping resolve and move things forward. The last straw for me was when others who were newer in the space, started demanding I show up in ways that they needed. It was leading me to a moment where I was about to take on this request, thinking that I should do it since I was in the space.
I found a moment of pause, and I finally had to admit to myself that I had long ago missed all the signs of how my boundaries were being eroded. I continued tolerating a scenario that was way beyond what I desired. I had gone from being clear of what my strengths and skills are (and my intention), to being at the mercy of what I thought were long-dealt with internal patterns of trying to please and fix things. This then coalesced into a situation where I felt deeply disillusioned, unhappy and a bit resentful.
Taking a close look at myself and the situation, I realised that I felt guilty at wanting to move forward with my own projects and interests. Especially because the group was not yet in a state I had wanted to leave it at. I had also over the period lost touch with what I wanted. In the process, I was causing harm not only to myself, but also to the situation, and the group, due to my reticence to take decisive action. I had to acknowledge that my guilt stemmed from privilege and power, and was manifesting in ways that were neither helpful nor empowering for anyone involved.
I finally made the decision to re-center myself. I grabbed hold of courage and took a stand for my personal values of doing work that is joyful and meaningful. Once I made my decision, I expressed my desire to exit from the space. I was confident that the group would find their own solutions to continue in whatever ways felt right to them. I also expressed that if they needed support that was specific to the ways that I was willing and able to provide, that they could reach out.
This particular incident, once again, reminded me to be aware of unconscious patterns that may shake my confidence, well-being, and peace of mind. I acknowledged that despite having done a lot of work on myself, there will continue to be situations that might trigger my insecurities, and that these may cause me to erode my boundaries.
Here are some tips on how to reaffirm your boundaries should you find yourself in a similar situation:
1. Get to know your boundaries
Sometimes the only way we learn about our boundaries, is when someone steps on it or when it becomes blurred. We need realistic boundaries around how much time we allocate to people and projects, when and where we relate to, and with who, and what kinds of interactions we are open to. This approach ensures that we clearly speak our expectations, hear the expectations of others, and then respond to the actual capacity of all parties, instead of what is imagined. Boundaries allow us to prioritise, which in turn allows us to perform well and not spread ourselves too thin.
When we are aware of our boundaries, we begin to effectively and compassionately communicate with others. It helps us carve out our own space without alienating or offending the people in our life. We can practice saying ‘No’ and face the feelings that come up. Being intimate with our own emotions and knowing our emotional capacity, allows us to create a space of safety for ourselves and others.
2. Address boundary violations early
The longer you ignore boundary violations, the greater their impact and acceptability become. Once boundary violations become habitual, there is far more resistance to changing them. In addition, stating your boundaries and expectations early makes them part of how people see you. Remember that people will not know what your boundaries are until you explain them. It is not fair to expect them to read your mind or to suddenly change the rules with no prior warning.
3. Don’t see boundary violations as character flaws
Setting your boundaries should address someone’s behaviour rather than point out their personality flaws. Instead of calling someone inconsiderate and disrespectful for their actions and expressing how their behaviour is affecting you, rather express how you would like them to do it differently.
4. Boundaries related to power
Our experiences of unequal power and oppression continue to exist. It has mutated and evolved over time. It expresses itself through microaggressions and acts of appeasement in our daily interactions. Unequal power dynamics mean that everyday personal moments are therefore political. This approach offers a doorway into creating a daily practice of resisting forces of oppression (inner and outer). I often find that to support one in addressing these types of boundary violations, requires solidarity and support networks. Find out where such mechanisms exist and how you can access those.
5. Lean into your support team
Setting boundaries is tough as it often goes against many social conventions, disrupts power dynamics and brings up uncomfortable feelings. Being able to check in with people who know you, value you and have addressed similar challenges can help you feel less alone and “unreasonable”. In addition, knowing you have the back-up and understanding of those who hold some power in a situation can go a long way towards standing your ground.
6. Trust yourself as your own authority
Trust that your feelings are true for you and are alerting you that something is not right. Go with your gut. Does something feel wrong no matter how much you and others try to talk you out of it? If something feels wrong, there is a reason for it and ignoring your discomfort will not make it go away. If you approach your feelings, thoughts and intuitions with care and authentically communicate with others, more clarity should come about what is right for you.
7. Let go of perfection
Our relationships often unfold in systems of high stress, unequal power, unresolved histories and fragmented understandings. Setting and maintaining boundaries in these conditions can be tough, especially as few of us are exposed to examples of respectful clear boundary setting. Be willing to get it wrong, and see it as a practice rather than something you should just be able to do.
If you would like further insight on learning how you can get back in control of your life and reaffirm boundaries, feel free to get in touch with me.