You ask Jane to help you set up a social event for your church. Jane says she can’t because she needs to study, but insists that she would love to help out another time. Jane has good boundaries.
Next you ask Mary. She pauses and gives you a bemused look.
“I can’t,” she says in a huff. “I need some time and space for myself. I refuse to commit to something that I know will leave me feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. I’m going to maintain good boundaries here and tell you no.”
BOUNDARIES VS. BATTLEMENTS
Mary doesn’t have boundaries, she has battlements—high castle walls from which soldiers pour boiling oil, scalding any would-be invaders on her time and energy. You know this because you suddenly feel like a jerk for asking her to help. Mary could have just said “no thanks,” but instead she made you feel like you asked her for a kidney.
Before we’re too hard on Mary, let’s consider a few reasons someone might have battlements instead of boundaries. Usually, that person has been taken advantage of in the past, and he or she is afraid of it happening again. You might end up catching some heat that’s really directed at someone from the person’s past.
It’s easy to get annoyed when you encounter someone with battlements instead of boundaries, but try to give them some grace – and a second chance. If a person throws up a battlement, say something like, “Sometimes I feel that you get upset when I ask you to do something, so what would be the best way to approach you?” If you put your cards on the table, your friend will be more likely to let down his or her guard.
People with poor boundaries are more difficult to spot. You might not realize you’re in a relationship with such a person, because they’re easy to get along with … at first.
One version of poor boundaries is saying yes too much: over-committing, over-agreeing, and over-accommodating. Eventually, this gets someone into trouble. If you have friends who flake out on you a lot, they probably have poor boundaries. One of my best friends from high school is a great guy with lousy boundaries. He’ll make plans to do something with me days in advance, and then he shows up hours late because someone asked him for something at the last minute. People like this are laid back and accommodating, but they have a hard time keeping commitments. They’re seldom held accountable, however, because they’re so fun and easygoing once they finally show up.
Poor emotional boundaries cause a different kind of trouble. People with weak emotional boundaries get too close, too fast and reveal too much, too soon. They create chaos in relationships. You’ve probably met someone who shares details that make you a little uncomfortable – like the person who cried over past hurts on a first date.
These folks have what psychologists call “poor ego strength.” Ego strength helps us contain our emotions in situations where letting them gush might be inappropriate. Vulnerability and authenticity are great in the right context, but unloading on someone you don’t know very well isn’t a good idea. It can make people uncomfortable and even come off as disrespectful.
THE BOUNDARIES TEST
Defining boundaries that are too weak or too strong is easy. Identifying healthy ones is harder, mainly because different relationships require different types of borders. Your boundaries at work, for example, should be different than those at home. While hard to define in every situation, here’s a good test for identifying healthy boundaries.
Draw a series of three concentric circles (it should look like a dart board with three levels). In the inner circle, write the names of people you trust the most. These are the people with whom you’d share most anything. You’d keep their secrets and trust them with yours. In the second circle, write the names of good friends. You wouldn’t share everything with them, but you’d cry or get angry in front of these folks without being embarrassed. On the third level, write the names of your “regular” friends. You enjoy spending time with them and they know more about you than acquaintances, but they don’t know you intimately.
The outer circle should have the most people in it. The middle circle should have less than half the number of the outer circle. The most important circle, however, is the one in the center. It should only contain one or two people. If there are more than a couple, you’re either unusually blessed or your boundaries are a little too loose.
The Message translates the Golden Rule like this: “Here is a simple rule of thumb for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you; then grab the initiative and do it for them!” (Luke 6:31). Combine God’s Law and the Prophets and this is what you get.
I think we can apply this to setting parameters. Boundaries can be a gift to others as well as protection for your time and resources. Telling someone no can be a sign of trust and respect. Setting boundaries with others gives them permission to do the same.
- Let your no be no. Don’t make excuses or prevaricate. The easiest way to do this is to make “no” the first word out of your mouth. For example, if someone asks you on a date and you don’t want to go say, “No. I enjoy our friendship but I wouldn’t be comfortable going on a date.”
- Let your no be no, again. If someone persists past your initial no, say, “I feel like you didn’t hear me. I said no and I’d like you to respect that.”
- Focus on your boundary, not their reaction. Some people feel that they must justify their boundaries. It’s not your job to persuade someone that your boundary is OK; it’s their job to respect it.
- Make the person’s persistence the problem. Instead of making a case for your boundary, highlight the person’s forcefulness. “I’m feeling a bit disrespected right now,” you might say. “I’m not sure why you’re being so persistent.” If that doesn’t work, politely inform them that the conversation will have to end unless they change the subject.
Excerpted from the Winter 2010/11 issue of Collegiate magazine.