Resources about valid boundaries
October 21, 2021 10:49 PM   Subscribe

Articles, books, media, thoughts about boundaries. Specifically, how to identify your own boundaries and what are "reasonable" boundaries.

For brief background, I recently reached a point in my relationship where I felt done (this question resonated a lot). I felt numb, and just an overwhelming desire to get as far away as possible. Reading on the internet I was struck by an article that said numbness can be caused by hopelessness. I realized this was absolutely true and I had zero hope that important aspects of the relationship would change in meaningful ways. That was very important for me to realize that I had given up hope. I was then talking to my therapist and they validated for me that a certain negative experience was objectively unpleasant and that my perspective was very valid. This really reframed things for me and gave me back a feeling of agency and also a feeling of frustration that I was dealing with what I was dealing with. As part of this my therapist said it's not fair to me if I need to work so hard to set boundaries. Which was helpful for validating my experience and feelings but also made me realize that I was not doing as good a job as I could at setting boundaries.

Something really clicked and for the things that were bothering me I decided enough was enough and I was going to ruthlessly defend my boundary. I started actually sticking with my boundaries. Previously I would either give up/retreat and feel resigned to compromising, get angry and fight to hold my boundary with both of us leaving upset, or experience her retreat/resign and feel guilty and resentful that she was making me feel bad about my boundary. For the first time I actually had confidence in my boundaries and stated them clearly when they came up, didn't give in, and explained clearly and compassionately why I wasn't going to give in. To my partner's complete credit she is taking it well and is hearing me even though she might not hear me right away or still push back against my boundary as her first reaction.

My mind is blown! These are boundaries over small things yet they're making such a world of difference to how I feel. It's only been a week or two but the effect on my experience is so night and day that I'm really amazed. She has the same initial reactions to my boundary setting but because I feel confident in the boundary, don't give in and stay compassionate and present we both leave feeling relatively good.

I realize that a core issue is I didn't think of my boundaries as boundaries. I thought of them as preferences (and in my head clearly the other person has a stronger and more valid preference than I do). "I prefer to leave Sunday afternoons to decompress and prepare for work", "I prefer to not talk for too long on a weekday after work", "I prefer to not meet this week and just sleep and relax". So to build on this discovery I would like to read more about how to think about boundaries vs preferences. When am I setting a boundary and when am I just being an asshole who only does what I want to do? I'd love to hear any and all thoughts! Something you thought was a silly preference that you later realized was a valid boundary? Examples of people over-setting boundaries? Good books, articles, media about navigating that balance?
posted by aaabbbccc to Human Relations (18 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Boundaries are something YOU set and hold; they can choose to respect them or ignore them, but it's up to you to enforce them.

Anything YOU decide you need or want, especially for your wellbeing, is a boundary.

Over-setting a boundary really isn't a thing. Just people who accuse you of it so they can justify stomping all over your boundaries because they find them inconvenient.

A hint: if a person does this, or if they claim/appear to change for a short while, then returns to the previous behavior - don't be surprised, just give up and get out. It's not your mental health issue, at that point, it's theirs - and your low boundaries are almost certainly from being a victim of someone like that in the past.
posted by stormyteal at 11:04 PM on October 21, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Nedra Tawwab

I have learned so much from her Instagram account alone. I’m looking forward to getting her book from the library but may actually buy it myself…
posted by nathaole at 11:07 PM on October 21, 2021 [9 favorites]

When am I setting a boundary and when am I just being an asshole who only does what I want to do?

The criterion I use to judge this one personally is that expecting and/or requiring others to perform unavoidable work that I actually could be doing myself - especially in cases where the need for that work is a consequence of something that I have chosen to do - is a clear sign of drifting over into asshole territory.

For example, if I were to decide unilaterally that cooking dinner entitled me to leave the kitchen in a filthy state with unwashed pots piled up all over, and then I translated that into a boundary where any time one of my housemates complained to me about the state of the kitchen on my cooking night I would take that as ingratitude and walk away from the conversation, then in that case I would be the asshole.

Other than that kind of thing, then provided you're also negotiating your share of necessary labour in good faith and keeping your promises to the best of your ability, there isn't actually anything inherently wrong with only doing what you want to. Ideally everybody should be able to do that.
posted by flabdablet at 2:35 AM on October 22, 2021 [3 favorites]

I don’t know if setting a boundary really makes someone an asshole (unless as someone said, you’re expecting someone else to do work that you could/should be doing), but if a boundary you set makes someone in your life feel their needs are not being met, that could be a challenge. Eg: If my partner needs to spend five nights a week together to feel connected and the max I’m willing to spend is two, that could be an issue; if I have a boundary around oral sex making me uncomfortable while a partner needs it to feel loved, that could be an issue, etc etc.
posted by cultureclash82 at 3:56 AM on October 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think of boundaries as your needs and preferences as the means to meet them.

Boundaries/needs are fixed and unyielding - in your case a need for solo unstructured time, without which your overall well-being takes a hit. (I am you 100%!) Preferences are the habits we've developed and scripts we fall back on to get those needs met (avoiding the phone weeknights, blocking off Sunday afternoons). Preferences are open to negotiation and all the relationship stickiness that goes along with compromise.

So when you're second-guessing yourself about a boundary, follow it back to the core need it's meant to address and go from there.
posted by headnsouth at 4:15 AM on October 22, 2021 [7 favorites]

Yes, people in relationships discovering that their current boundaries are incompatible is certainly a thing that happens.

My internal principle for dealing with that has always been that things I need the other person to avoid doing (e.g. inflicting physical, verbal and/or psychological violence) are in general less negotiable than things I need them to do, and that if incompatible boundaries simply can't be renegotiated into compromises that both parties can live with then the relationship needs to be wound up - preferably amicably, in mutual recognition that incompatibility between two people doesn't imply anything wrong with either.
posted by flabdablet at 4:20 AM on October 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think maybe there's a point at which some boundaries can become walls that keep people away. This article talks about rigid boundaries vs healthy boundaries and quotes someone saying "Boundaries should be firm enough that you feel emotionally [and] physically safe and comfortable, yet permeable enough that you allow love and intimacy to flow between you and another person."

I would feel like my needs weren't being met in a relationship if my partner repeatedly said "I don't want to meet this week." I think a lot of people might feel that way, and most people expect a long-term relationship to eventually get to the point where you live together- how would you have boundaries about having this much space in that scenario? Maybe there are ways that you can become more comfortable with spending more time with your partner (or another partner, if this isn't the right person for you).
posted by pinochiette at 4:22 AM on October 22, 2021 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Also, it should go without saying that "reasonable" boundaries are exactly those boundaries that you and your partner are both willing to accept, no more and no less. Reasonableness is a property of the interaction between boundaries and relationship, not of the boundaries themselves.
posted by flabdablet at 5:53 AM on October 22, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: So one really crucial idea is: make sure that your boundaries are rules you set for yourself, not for other people.

Telling someone, "Please don't talk to me that way, I don't like it because it feels disrespectful," is not a boundary, it is a request. This is a good and necessary thing to say to someone, but don't confuse it with boundaries.

Telling someone, "Don't ever do that again/ That is unacceptable / You aren't allowed to speak to me that way," ARE all ways to set a boundary but these are ineffective (and potentially harmful) boundaries, because you're making rules for other people and thus giving them responsibility for, and power over, what should be your own business. I would suggest that you avoid saying anything like this to someone else.

Promising yourself that the next time they speak to you that way, you will say, "Let's continue this conversation when we're both calmer," and walk away for at least 30 minutes --> that's a good, effective boundary because you're making a rule for yourself which means you have complete control over whether your boundary will be respected. In addition, when you stop making rules for other people, that tends to give the relationship a better chance of overcoming the dysfunction, because healthy relationships are rarely built on a basis of telling others what they should do.

And as a bonus, if you tell someone, "Next time you speak to me in a disrespectful way, I am going to walk away from the conversation until you are calm enough to talk without disrespect," that is .... almost always going to be unproductive. Unless you are speaking in a warm and loving tone, unless the person you're speaking to is extremely reasonable and feeling warm towards you, unless your relationship is strong and mostly conflict-free --- in other words, all the conditions that are unlikely to exist in the scenario you are describing --- your words are going to be understood as a hostile statement, as a threat of punishment.

In fact your words will likely be understood as an attempt to make rules for the other person - as a passive-aggressive maneuver to dictate rules to the other person while technically not, in order to give yourself ass-cover/ the high ground.

So I'd really advise you to keep the boundary setting conversation entirely between you and yourself. You don't have to announce to anyone what your boundaries are. Set your boundaries and enact them, the end.
posted by MiraK at 6:30 AM on October 22, 2021 [20 favorites]

Unf*ck Your Boundaries is a simple, straightforward guidebook. I really like the companion card deck; it gives you scenarios to respond to as well as reflection cards to guide you into more introspection on your personal needs and wants.
posted by assenav at 8:14 AM on October 22, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I learned almost everything I know about boundaries by reading Captain Awkward's advice. There's a boundaries tag in the word cloud if you want to focus specifically on those kinds of questions.
posted by tuesdayschild at 8:51 AM on October 22, 2021 [6 favorites]

Harriet Lerner's The Dance of Intimacy has a lot of good material on boundaries, and not just regarding romantic relationships. I have a quote from this book in my phone Notes as something to come back to: "As we become more self focused, we define a responsible position in a relationship, based on our own values, beliefs, and principles rather than in reaction to how to other person chooses to define the relationship."
posted by thoughtful_ravioli at 9:24 AM on October 22, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Some books:

Anne Katherine has two books on Boundaries: Boundaries: Where You End And I Begin: How To Recognize And Set Healthy Boundaries and How to set healthy boundaries every day.

These books go over the types of boundaries, for example, financial, spiritual, physical and other boundaries and what to do if someone tries to force through. This includes when people are well-meaning as well as when they do awful things.

If you're Christian, I'd recommend Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life. It's a good book either way, but there's a Bible verse on most pages so that may be off-putting for some.

When I Say No, I Feel Guilty: How to Cope, Using the Skills of Systematic Assertive Therapy may also be of interest but I haven't read it yet.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 9:30 AM on October 22, 2021 [4 favorites]

I too found therapy helpful in my individual case. A piece of advice that I think may resonate with you was "give them the chance to surprise you" - even if you are worried they will dislike a request, make the request.

And, I also learned a lot there about pushing back on, like, my feeling that their disappointment was a problem I had to solve. Come from a place of love, but a place of separation. You're sad they're disappointed! You'd like to find a way to help them be less so but it has to also be a solution YOU are happy about. Since it sounds like that is part of your challenge you might find it useful to look at self-help books around healthy communication in relationships. (Not just setting the boundary but how to figure out what plans will make you BOTH happy, how to disagree in a way that leads to a good outcome, etc.)

I don't even want to recommend one book, because I think the key principles go through so many of them. What I did & have found useful was just to skim through, like, a dozen of 'em at the library. But really any one well-regarded book will help too.
posted by Lady Li at 10:26 AM on October 22, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: All of your examples are things where you are expressing interest in less time or engagement with your partner:
"I prefer to leave Sunday afternoons to decompress and prepare for work"
"I prefer to not talk for too long on a weekday after work"
"I prefer to not meet this week and just sleep and relax"

This seems to me more like a conflict in the amount of time you spend with your partner and perhaps a conflict over different levels of interest in life integration.

It sounds like you've made a decision and been firm in that, and that sounds healthy. But it may also be that your partner wants/needs a partner who is more available, and that is an inherent relationship conflict. So, setting boundaries, as you've said, is great, but the bigger relationship issue might be about what you each need. It sounds like you need more time alone. It sounds like your partner needs more time together. Is there a way you can think of your partner as a true partner and you can work to meet both your needs? This would require you both to be honest with yourselves and each other.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:48 AM on October 22, 2021 [3 favorites]

I came here to second Ms. Moonlight's recommendation of "when I say no, I feel guilty". I have read it, and it gives concrete examples on how to set and enforce boundaries. An oldie but a goodie...
posted by skunk pig at 1:32 PM on October 22, 2021

Response by poster: Thank you all for your excellent answers! I'm really enjoying Nedra Tawwab's Instagram. It was helpful to reflect on the answers here. The guilt of having boundaries is huge for me. It is so difficult to have a boundary that the other person is unhappy about. So hard for me not to think "can't I just be more flexible? Is it really worth losing this person over this?" So hard for me to respect my preferences and desires as also valid (even if that maybe means the relationship/friendship isn't a good match). Figuring out how to mesh that in with the idea of having firm but flexible boundaries will take a lot of inner work and practice.

I really like the framing that boundaries are for ourselves and not rules for others. I find that makes it much easier to focus on what my needs actually are and to not be as affected by the other person's reaction.

Thank you all!
posted by aaabbbccc at 10:22 PM on November 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

So hard for me not to think "can't I just be more flexible? Is it really worth losing this person over this?"

Personally I recommend spending a lot of time pondering that very question before committing to a serious intimate relationship. Because when it comes right down to it, it's a really useful lens through which to examine the process of learning to recognize the difference between actual needs and mere strong and/or habitual preferences.
posted by flabdablet at 6:54 AM on November 8, 2021 [1 favorite]

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