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Say More: The "B" Word (Boundaries)

Updated: Dec 5, 2023

a street corner with a stop sign, sidewalk, and black metal fence

I talk and write about boundaries a lot. Boundaries are an integral piece of my personal practice, as well as my work with coaching clients. I've noticed, though, that the word boundaries makes some people uncomfortable. And the idea of setting boundaries? That gets the amygdala preparing for fight or flight in a lot of us. Why is that?

As you're reading this, what words or images come up for you when you think about boundaries? I ask this question in groups fairly regularly, and I get some interesting answers. The most vivid response: an electric fence. More than one person has said that, so it's not the outlier response you might think it is. Other responses I get: difficult, awkward, vulnerable, meaningless, sadness, abuse. On the other hand, I hear people say things like necessary, safety, self-care, protection, vital, and trust. How can one word evoke such an array of ideas and emotions, and how do those ideas and emotions impact the ability to set and maintain boundaries?

If you're one of the people who gets knots in your stomach thinking about setting boundaries, it's ok. All feelings are welcome here, and we consider them data. What if two things can be true? Can boundaries be difficult and awkward, and simultaneously be necessary and vital? What if they don't have to be an electric fence?

The most common obstacle I hear from people when it comes to setting boundaries is that doing so feels mean or selfish, or it might make the other person mad. I'm going to focus on that one today. First, let's define boundary. I like Dr. Brené Brown's definition of boundaries as, "What's ok and what's not ok." For me, that starts to shift the image in my mind away from a brick wall and toward something like guardrails. Those guardrails don't just protect me from the cliff on the other side, but they also keep me in my lane (my integrity) so I don't drive into the field of wildflowers on the other side and harm the wildlife.

My other favorite definition of boundaries comes from Prentis Hemphill: "Boundaries are the distance at which I can love both you and me simultaneously." Read that sentence again. Boundaries aren't a way for me to isolate from other people or to punish their unacceptable (to me) behavior. Boundaries are love in action. They let others know what they can expect from me and what I need from them.

Does this mean setting and maintaining boundaries is all sunshine and rainbows? Of course not. It's hard work, and we're all going to get it wrong sometimes. That doesn't feel good; sometimes getting it right doesn't feel good. It's all data, and every moment presents an opportunity to use that data to begin again.

Hungry for more? Check out our new on-demand course, Small Bites: Saying No, here.

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