Learning the difference between healthy, empowered boundaries and false, manipulative ones will make all the difference in your relationships with others – and your relationship with yourself.
What are healthy boundaries anyway? A physical boundary is something that delineates the borders of a space. Interpersonal boundaries are a bit slipperier to understand, and many of us are confused about exactly what they are. People mean different things when they use the word “boundary.” Some people may say “I have a boundary about that” when describing simple preferences (often accompanied by a subtle or overt threat of displeasure). Other people use the term when what they are really doing is offering ultimatums meant to control other people’s behavior. These are often especially unpleasant to be on the receiving end of. No one likes to be given an ultimatum. These are all examples of false boundaries.
On the flip side, people with healthy boundaries may seem to have a very clear idea for themselves of what they mean, but they don’t talk about them much. That’s because healthy boundaries are fundamentally for you, and you are the one taking the actions. The purpose of a healthy boundary is to take care of our own needs for ourselves. That means we don’t actually need to communicate them to others unless we want to, and when we do, it is without anger or resentment.
This post is meant to clarify healthy boundaries for you, separate them from the manipulative, false ones, and show you the basic steps to putting healthy, empowering boundaries in place for yourself when you need them.
The first thing to know is that healthy boundaries have a fundamentally different purpose and come from radically different emotions than false ones. We use healthy boundaries to protect ourselves out of love and compassion. False boundaries come from anger, resentment, or blame. Their goal is to try to control other people so that you can avoid feeling bad. This doesn’t work for several reasons. First, adult humans have free will. You cannot actually control someone else (short of serious threats of violence, and er, we’re not going there, right?). Any supposed “boundary” coming from anger, resentment, or an attempt to control someone will typically get a defensive response (or be ignored). Now, we’ve all lashed out and tried to control people with ultimatums — it doesn’t make us horrible people. But it does not help our relationships and virtually guarantees our disappointment. It’s also one of the most disempowering things we can do. We have given the other person the power to decide how we will feel, and regardless of what they choose, we’ll feel awful. If they choose our preferred option, we’ll always wonder whether they only did it because of the threat. If they don’t do what we want, we will take it as a rejection. Lose-lose. Yuck.
Here’s an example. Let’s say that I have a friend who is often late for our lunch dates, and sometimes forgets them altogether and also forgets to text me. I am tired of sitting in restaurants by myself, wondering if she’s going to show up. I have built up thoughts about being wronged and associated feelings of hurt and anger. Now I am once more sitting in a restaurant waiting for her, but this time, I am seething. She eventually arrives and I tell her that I’m not going to sit around any more waiting for her, that if she cared about me she’d at least text to tell me she’s running late. I tell her if she does it one more time, I’m never having lunch with her again.
That is an ultimatum, not a boundary. It is coming from anger and it’s meant to threaten her into behaving the way I want her to. Even if she does it, I will not feel happy, because I “forced” her into it. I also may feel guilty about how I showed up and blame her for “making” me angry (hint: it was me who made me angry by stewing about being “wronged.”)
Let’s contrast this with another option. The situation is the same. But while I’m waiting, I ask myself what I really want out of the situation. I decide that I am okay with sitting quietly by myself for about 15 minutes, which I actually find relaxing, but after that, I don’t want to do it anymore. I’d prefer to order, eat, and go, or just go and get lunch elsewhere after 15 minutes. I also remind myself that I love my friend, she is allowed to have human failings, and the relationship matters to me. So now when she shows up, I am calm. I am not angry. I can say with all honesty and caring for both of us: “Hey, so I know you have a hard time with appointments sometimes and I still love you. But I am not willing to wait for longer than 15 minutes. So if you’re going to be later than that, feel free to text me and ask if I’ll stick around a bit longer, but I reserve the right to go ahead and eat or leave anytime you’re more than 15 minutes late.” That is a healthy boundary. The only person I am requiring to take action to follow through on it is myself. I’m the one who will eat or leave. She gets to do whatever she chooses. But she has an option to see me by either being on time, or letting me know in advance she’s running late. And I still respect myself enough to give myself the option to say no.
Healthy boundaries are harder than ultimatums and threats. There are three reasons for this. The first is that they require us to accept reality of other people’s free will and not live in the fantasy world where we get to imagine we can control people. They also require us to accept responsibility for our own emotional well-being. The last reason is that healthy boundaries require us to value our own decisions. We take responsibility to follow through, even if we’d rather not. For example, if you set a boundary for yourself that if your sister calls you certain names on the phone, you will leave the conversation—well, then you have to actually leave the conversation when she calls you those names. Because you can’t actually control her actions, you will need to accept that sometimes she may follow the pattern she always has. Now, the good news is that reasonable people will often try really hard to respect boundaries you set to care for yourself, if they are delivered with love and respect for the other person too. You’re much more likely to get agreement that way than you are with ultimatums delivered in anger and blame. But there’s no guarantee. Accepting that you may very well have to follow through and then respecting yourself enough to do so takes practice. It’s also an amazing way to learn how to have your own back. Try it.
Here are the steps to setting healthy, empowered boundaries:
1. Release anger and blame for the other person, and any for yourself you may also have.
Accept that we are all imperfect human animals doing our best, even if that “best” isn’t always very good. This step may take a while. That’s okay. You don’t have to agree with their behavior, or forget it, you just need to release your own anger so you’re not punishing yourself by carrying it around. This will allow you to make cleaner decisions for you.
2. Consider what you really want out of the situation, what your deal-breakers are, and what truly matters to you.
Consider how you want to show up in your life. Who do you want to be? What is important to take care of you? Then make decisions about what you will do if the person continues the behavior that you’re finding problematic (scenario A) and what you will do if they don’t (scenario B).
3. Decide whether you want to tell the other party and make the request calmly.
You don’t have to. You can have a boundary that remains silent, where you’re the only one who knows how you will respond to scenario A or B. If you do decide to tell them, remember that all you can do is make a request for them to choose scenario B. Open up the conversation when you are feeling compassion and respect for both of you and can speak calmly. Wait until this occurs. Don’t rush it and do it while you’re mad. You don’t need to know exact words you’re going to say in advance. If you’re coming from compassion and respect and you know your decisions for both scenarios, you will do great.
4. Follow through on your decisions no matter what, even if you worry you’re being “mean” and even if you’re uncomfortable about it.
Let yourself feel the discomfort and notice that the world has not ended. This is the discomfort of learning to have your own back and trust your own decisions. The less often you’ve done that in the past, the harder it will be at first. It gets easier.
Healthy boundaries are the foundation of true self-care and the bedrock of deep connections with others. When we trust ourselves to care for ourselves, we don’t have to worry about what life throws at us. When we trust ourselves, we can take risks and have wild success. When we trust ourselves, we can become truly kind to others without resentment. everyone else.