Boundary Setting 101
My friend, Jackson, is a ranch manager here in Colorado. He lives the romantic but solitary life of a cowboy, living with his dog, Chuck, a few horses, and several hundred cattle on 2000 acres of remote pasture. Jackson is the kind of guy you count on to help you move a couch, pull your car out of a ditch, or fix a broken pipe. He’s the kind of guy who shows up when you need him.
But sometimes Jackson shows up when you don’t need him. It’s lonely on that ranch. So he might swing by the house spontaneously around dinner time with a chicken, some potatoes, and a sheepish grin. He might show up unannounced at my office in the middle of the day with a couple of cokes, just to hang out and chat it up. Jackson’s combination of kindness and neediness is sometimes confusing. I find myself saying yes to his dinners and cola breaks only to feel trapped and resentful soon after. I was planning on a quiet dinner with my wife. I have work to do. But he was nice enough to bring chickens and potatoes. He was nice enough to buy me a cola.
My irritation comes out in strange ways. I might snap at him for what, I’m sure, seems like no reason—“can you please park across the street and not right in front of the house?!” I become critical and mildly argumentative. I offer unsolicited advice. I obsess over his frequent social lapses—whether they involve me directly or not. Then I feel guilty for, well, being a bit of a jerk.
One might think that as a mental health professional I would not fall prey to such obvious double binds and boundary violations. But the wounded healer myth, it turns out, is no myth at all. I’m a sucker for pity and enmeshment and hero complexes and other dysfunctional ways of interacting. Fortunately, though, I’ve had some very practical professional help addressing these issues. I’ve learned some simple tactics for identifying and establishing appropriate boundaries that, with practice, have made a real difference in how I deal with Jackson and other friends and family members.
In the past, I might have reached a point of frustration with Jackson that would have led to the end of our friendship—either through a blow up or a gradual retreat. But the following principals have helped me salvage and even deepen this tricky friendship by ending my own cycle of guilty acquiescence and resentful acting out.
If you have a Jackson in your life (most of us have at least one!), here are a few practices to cultivate—ideally with the help of a skilled therapist:
Tune In: When you feel drained, angry, or stressed, check in with yourself. What relationship or situation seems to be causing these feelings? Is there a theme here? If a certain person or situation routinely causes you distress, it may be time to practice boundary setting. Review both your emotional state and your physical state—how does this discomfort manifest in your body? What are the triggers?
This kind of mind-body awareness is a helpful first step in understanding your own ideal boundaries and is a key element of dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) and other “mindfulness” oriented therapeutic approaches. Effective boundary setting is based on a clear understanding of your own emotional needs for privacy, safety, well-being, friendship, belonging, solitude, etcetera. So it’s impossible to establish healthy boundaries until you understand your personal preferences in these areas.
Be Proactive: It’s easy to keep saying “yes” to people and commitments well past your emotional threshold. When this happens, you may find yourself feeling suddenly reactive, violated, used, exhausted, or resentful—even though those feelings have likely been building up for some time. You’re unlikely to set effective boundaries at this point because you’ll already be in fight or flight mode. Once you’ve learned to tune-into your own feelings and needs you can practice anticipating uncomfortable situations that might escalate. This will allow you to identify and set boundaries proactively, well before there’s a problem—“hey, Jackson, we’d love a call before you come by for dinner to check our availability.”
Be Clear: Effective boundaries must be clearly articulated, concrete, and practical. Clear communication ensures that the boundary is understood; concrete expectations ensure that the boundary is achievable; practicality ensures that the boundary is reasonable and has a specific desired outcome—“Jackson, if you give me a buzz in the morning I can usually carve out a 15 minute break in the afternoon to hang out. That way I won’t get stressed about falling behind in my work and I can focus on our chat.”
Be Positive: Aggressive or demanding boundary setting isn’t usually necessary or helpful. It’s more typically a reactive way of expressing our own emotional discomfort and dysfunction than a way to proactively improve a relationship. Setting boundaries ideally happens before there is resentment, anger, or frustration, and is done in a positive manner. If a boundary has to be set after the situation has advanced to a point of heightened negative emotions, visualization exercises—initially with a skilled therapist—can help deescalate these feelings, allowing you to communicate boundaries clearly and calmly.
Seek a Win-Win: Effective boundary setting generally seeks a win-win situation for all parties. Setting boundaries is a negotiation of your needs with those of others in order to create a harmonious and sustainable relationship. Whenever possible, set boundaries in a manner that acknowledges the needs and wants of other involved parties and that engages their cooperation. This doesn’t mean that your fundamental boundary needs are negotiable, but the way you get them met might be.