We all know enforcing our boundaries can be difficult.
This last week on the blog and on my Facebook page, I’ve discussed several of the reasons why enforcing boundaries is difficult, especially for those of us who grew up believing we’re not worthy of having or enforcing strong boundaries.
But an issue almost as difficult as enforcing boundaries, is determining what your boundaries should be in the first place.
What is a boundary, really? It’s essentially saying “no” to something. It’s setting a limit. It’s declining to do something, either in thought, word, or deed, that is not in our best interest. Setting boundaries means setting limits that keep us safe and healthy, and not allowing our priorities to get steamrolled by other peoples’ needs or preferences.
But how do we know it’s time to set a boundary? How do we know if we have the “right” to set a boundary we think we may need to set?
Because the truth is: you don’t have the right to set any boundary you feel like.
Not every limit you feel like setting is a legitimate boundary.
There are some situations in life in which we surrender at least some of what would otherwise be our appropriate boundary-setting privileges.
For example: however we feel about our jobs, we can agree that when we agree to work at a place, we’re surrendering our right to say “no” to at least some of what our bosses may ask us to do. If our boss asks us to do something that is clearly in the realm of our job responsibilities, and if we’ve agreed in advance to take on those tasks as part of our job, then we don’t get to suddenly decide to say “no.”
It’s on us to live up to reasonable requests made by legitimate authorities.
That said: many of us have also been in the position where a boss has asked us to do something that we hadn’t previously agreed to; or maybe to do it in a time frame that is unreasonable; or to do a task without the appropriate resources to get that task done.
That’s when it has become a serious boundary issue.
It becomes even more of a boundary issue if the consequences for not meeting an unreasonable demand start to outweigh anything approaching a reasonable consequence. For example, if your boss makes an unreasonable demand, gives you less than adequate resources to fulfill their request, then threatens you with getting fired should you fail.
It’s most certainly a serious boundary issue at that point.
Many people would look at that situation and say, “Well, obviously that’s a boundary issue. Why would anyone consider NOT setting a boundary at that point? Why would anyone feel weird about it, since they’re so obviously being treated unfairly at that point?”
The reason is simple: when we’re inside the bubble like that, when we’ve been conditioned and beaten down and convinced we don’t have the right to set clear, appropriate boundaries, when we’ve been brainwashed into thinking it’s really our fault if we fail to meet others’ expectations, however unreasonable, we lose a great deal of perspective on what is and isn’t fair.
This is why it’s vitally important that we all, very regularly, take the time to step back from our personal and professional lives to take stock.
To look at our lives and projects from a bit of a distance.
To take a deep breath, clear our heads, and look at what we’re doing with fresh eyes— so we can ask ourselves questions like, “Have I been fair with myself about when I choose to speak up and set boundaries? Or have I gotten sucked into caving on my boundaries, ground down, worn down?”
These questions can only be answered from an objective distance.
Understand, many people in your life don’t want you asking those questions.
They would much, much prefer you not question where and when you’ve chosen to set boundaries.
If you begin regularly taking a step back and objectively, cooly, calmly asking whether you’ve been setting reasonable boundaries, and specifically whether you should begin setting more or firmer boundaries? They know that you’re very likely going to conclude that you’ve missed opportunities to set boundaries that are important to you— and inconvenient for them.
As a rule, if there are people in your life who would be irritated that you began stepping back and asking yourself serious questions about your own boundary-setting, then it’s particularly important that you begin doing so— because you have people in your life who are exploiting you.
Seeing where we need to set boundaries can be complex. But if we’re willing to take a few steps back, take a few deep breaths, and be honest and courageous with ourselves— they have a way of becoming crystal clear.