The space between you and me.
Learning how to understand what’s acceptable to you and how to communicate this to others is essential. Joanna Wright wants you to embrace your boundaries. These are social survival skills that will serve you for life!
We all know the feeling when we’re being pushed by someone. It might start with a bit of confusion or discomfort. Perhaps it’s unsettling, frustrating or just plain stressing you out. All you want to do is move away from the situation, which can also make you feel emotionally drained — like you’re giving something up in each interaction. Sound familiar? We all benefit when we address our boundaries.
CW: mentions abuse
Boundaries sound like walls — built stone by stone to protect you from all the things you don’t want impacting your life. Instead, consider boundaries as something that comes from the inside, out. Life coach Randi Buckley compares boundaries to the framework of a house. This framework sets the terms of the kind of behaviour you will and won’t accept, almost like an “instruction manual to the best version of you.”
“Boundaries are where you stop and another person begins, where your energy stops and something else begins, so that you’re not taking on somebody else’s challenge or taking away their potential to process things for themselves,” Randi says. In this way, boundaries are kind.
Over 20 years, counselling psychotherapist Dr Karen Phillip has helped thousands of couples and families resolve problems ranging from communication conflicts to parenting issues. “When we respect another’s boundaries it represents a consideration, kindness and acceptance,” Karen says. These qualities are critical to building healthy relationships with others.
Similarly, being clear and firm about your own boundaries is a kind thing to do, enabling someone to better understand how you work. Essentially, you have an active role in all of your relationships.
Space no. 1: my Dad’s a bit needy…
“Since my Mum passed away a couple of years ago, Dad is calling and texting me all the time. Sometimes it’s about important things, sometimes it isn’t. But I always feel like I should reply straight away! But I’m often at uni or work and I can’t really be on my phone.”
The situation: When something shifts in a family, it takes a while for everyone to find their groove again. While Aggie has empathy and sympathy for her Dad, she gets frustrated by the constant texts, which result in her feeling pissed off. It’s a sad time, but boundaries will help the relationship be the best it can be, for now and in the future.
Boundary-time: If Aggie can find a way to be honest with her Dad, she will give him a chance to work with her. Simplicity is key: “Dad, now’s not a good time. I shouldn’t be on my phone at uni.” Perhaps it would help if her Dad knew her schedule? The next step — and perhaps the trickiest — will be for Aggie to figure out some ways not to be distracted by the texts, if indeed they do arrive on her phone!
Boundaries are like a guidebook you present to another person: Here are some ways to get the best out of me. I will be less cranky / weird / awkward / defensive around you if you read and respect my guidebook!
Space no. 2: my friend is dragging me down…
“Ali, my friend from childhood, is cross with me when I go out with other friends. I love her like a sister, but I’m also really happy to spend time with new people. When I invite her along with my new group she doesn’t click with them and wants to bitch about them a lot. I feel like she is ALWAYS THERE on social media and comments on everything multiple times. I feel like I’m weighed down.”
The situation: Lin is finding it hard to deal with Ali’s negative behaviour. And Ali is fearful that Lin will ride off into the sunset with her new mates and leave her behind. Lin can make some requests of Ali — ie please stop stalking me on Instagram — but if the old friendship is still important to Lin, then hitting the refresh button on her own way of interacting may help.
Boundary-time: Lin might be irritated, but showing more respect and kindness toward Ali might change the dynamic. As Karen suggests, “Be present when you are with another person.” Put your phone away, listen and “provide them your undivided attention, and avoid overtaking a conversation in words, volume or content.”
If Ali feels like she gets more proper quality time with Lin, her angst might ease and she won’t be so focused on what else Lin is doing.
Space no. 3: my comfort’s more important…
“My manager Enid is overly friendly, always wants to give me hugs, and calls me cringey nicknames. I don’t think it’s a sexual thing, but it is way more than I am comfortable with! I don’t even like it when certain male relatives hug me. I try to send subtle signals or make jokes about my personal space, but she’s not paying attention!”
The situation: We’ve all tried subtle cues to communicate when we’re not comfortable. We do that awkward laugh and slink away, avoiding proximity. Chances are, the other person is a bit baffled or completely unaware. As Karen says, “we’re not mind readers and we don’t know what we don’t know.”
Let’s give Enid the benefit of the doubt; she might have grown up in a super-physically-affectionate family. Or she may have a different cultural background where it’s more common to embrace someone, even if that’s a colleague. Even seemingly minor things, like the “comfortable distance we prefer when conversing with someone” can be different between cultures, says Karen.
Or, perhaps Enid is just not very aware of her effect on others. “We all feel more comfortable when our personal boundaries are adhered to,” Karen says. “Trouble is, others may be unaware of what our personal boundaries are.”
With some people, subtlety may need to be replaced with a sledgehammer. It’s awkward telling someone that you don’t like what they’re doing, but it’s more toxic to always feel like you are sacrificing your own comfort to suit others. As Brene Brown says, “choose discomfort over resentment”.
Boundary-time: Karen suggests reflecting on what you’re personally comfortable with, and what makes you feel distressed. “Share this information to ensure others understand.” Sounds straightforward, but of course it can be hard. Communicating boundaries will vary from person to person. Think about the person and what communication style works best between the two of you. Keep it simple: “Enid, I’m not a physical person, I’m not that comfortable with hugs and stuff.” Matilda doesn’t have to apologise or argue your point. Enid might get defensive or act hurt, but she will survive! As coach and writer Randi Buckley says, nobody else has to approve your boundaries. “Even if they don’t want you to have them, you can still have them.”
A note on harassment.
In a professional context, things can be complicated. Unwanted attention — especially if it is sexual or flirtatious — is awkward and you may worry about being believed, being seen as a troublemaker, or about the professional repercussions brought about by ‘causing problems’. While getting your colleague or manager offside might introduce a bunch of issues, your overall wellbeing is more important. And now, during this #timesup and #metoo moment, awareness is far higher than ever before. It is a FANTASTIC time to speak up about inappropriate behaviour at work. If you’re able to address it with the person directly, then do so. If things are out of hand, talk to someone higher up. There is no shame in protecting yourself, and it’s the organisation’s responsibility to ensure staff are treated with respect. If the company doesn’t help, then it’s best to high-tail it out of that toxic environment.
Space no. 4: I know what I don’t want…
“Things have moved really quickly with my new boyfriend and I love spending time with him, but it feels like he expects me to drop everything and be available. I really love him so it’s very tempting to always say yes. I need to concentrate on my own study, and friendships. He messages late at night when I’m asleep. He wants to sext, which I’m not into because I’ve been burned in the past. He has started being pretty critical of my friends (who also don’t reallllly like him very much).”
The situation: We all want loving, safe relationships with others, but these are vague terms and it can be hard to define. Instead, think about what you don’t want. Yes, getting swept up and letting go of everything else is romantic and fun for a bit, but Evie doesn’t want a relationship where she doesn’t feel free.
Evie can also think long term: in a year, or five years, how does she imagine her life?
“In five years, I want my friends to still be a big part of my life,” says Evie. “I want to have finished uni to give myself the best chance at the career I want.” It’s tempting to ditch everything to hang out with her boyfriend, but to achieve her goals, Evie needs sleep and to pass her uni exams! And that’s the framework — Evie’s boundaries.
Boundary time: If Evie doesn’t want to sext, then she doesn’t have to. Sorting all of this out with her boyfriend — and having him respect her boundaries — isn’t just a positive thing. It is also a safe thing. Yes, Evie’s boyfriend might just be enamoured with her, but there are a couple of red flags here: her boyfriend’s possessive, controlling behaviour; his unreasonable expectations of Evie’s time; and his criticism of her other relationships… These are all signs of a relationship that might become abusive over time.
The reaction someone has when you say ‘no’ to something is important. Evie wants a relationship where she can say ‘no’ to her boyfriend and he will listen, understand, and move on without giving her a hard time about it. If he can’t give her this, perhaps it’s not meant to be.
Boundaries can take a lot of practice, but are a very handy skill that will serve you for life. Hold your head high and start trying them out in simple day-to-day interactions. Over time it will get easier, no matter how challenging the situation may be.
If reading this story raises any concerns for you, there are SO many excellent places you can go for free help. Start with Lifeline for free and confidential info and advice: 13 11 14. 1800 Respect is the National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service.
More on boundaries:
Dr Karen Phillip has a new book, Communication Harmony, about specific communication techniques and innovative strategies to ensure your boundaries are clearly understood and accepted by everyone. And Randi Buckley is a coach, writer, educator and consultant working with women, focusing on the concept and creation of boundaries.