"Boundaries are anything that helps to differentiate you from someone else, or shows where you begin and end."
If you own a parcel of land you know precisely where that property begins and ends. Equipped with that information you know what you are responsible for and act accordingly. Just as important, the person who owns the property on the other side of that line is also aware of their responsibilities. This common understanding provides the basis for good neighbors.
However, in our relationships and interactions with others we often lack such signposts and clearly delineated indications of who is responsible for what. Have you ever been invited out to dinner by a friend and then when the check arrives there is that awkward moment of who is responsible for the check? Also, who’s paying may change what you choose to order. If you’re paying you might order the steak and a drink, if your friend is paying maybe you’ll go with the pasta and water. This is a trivial experience of how uncomfortable a lack of boundaries can be, but unfortunately most situations involving boundaries are much tenser. Henry Cloud, author of Boundaries, believes that “Any confusion of responsibility and ownership in our lives is a problem of boundaries.” He believes that through setting “mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual boundaries” we can alleviate the angst that often accompanies relationships and expectations.
"...boundaries are a way to describe our spheres of responsibility: what we are and are not responsible for. While we shouldn’t take on the responsibility of others’ feelings, attitudes, and behaviors, we do have certain responsibilities to each other."
Boundaries are often helpful solutions to solve a problem. Do you have a colleague who always calls for a last minute favor? A relative who guilts you into agreeing to a family party you would rather eat cough drops than attend? A friend you can never tell no, regardless of your availability?
Clearly communicated, and enforced, boundaries can help in each of these situations. Boundaries help communicate who is responsible for what including feelings, attitudes, and behaviors. Boundaries are not absolute, just as a fence has a gate to allow a flow of things to enter and exit the boundary. It is important to note when setting boundaries that you are setting boundaries for yourself. You cannot set boundaries for another person. A boundary is a decision that you make beforehand of what you will or will not do.
A boundary could be as simple as the word no, letting that colleague know that you will not be available to help last minute so they will need to find someone else. Another boundary could be that nothing interrupts family dinner time or that you will leave the office every night by 5.
School Your Feelings
"If you are angry... it is your responsibility to do something about it."
Cloud explains that feelings act as a warning system indicating that you need to take action. First, you need to accept that you are responsible for your feelings. If you believe that your anger is another’s problem you will wait some time before they notice; if they do, and once they do, they are unlikely to do much to solve the problem. This kind of boundary is empowering because if you are in charge of your feelings then you can do something about them—you are not held hostage by the whims of another. If you don’t like your feelings, since you are responsible for them, you can do something about it. You have the opportunity to change.
Second, if you want others to know your feelings, you need to tell them. While this sounds obvious, think about the number of times you have thought someone knew what you were feeling from the look on your face and then become upset when they somehow got a different message. Boundaries have to be communicated to be of any real value. You don’t exist in a vacuum and boundaries are only useful as they relate to others. It is important to remember: boundaries you set for yourself will impact those around you.
Give Yourself a Time
"Work will grow to fill the time you have set aside for it. If a meeting does not have an agenda with time limits, discussion could be endless. Allot time for certain things, and then keep your limits."
Things usually take longer than we anticipate. Furthermore, when no timeframe is provided delay is inevitable. This is why “clean out the garage” will sit for months on a to-do list with little hope of completion. The nebulous someday schedule has no end in sight.
Setting time boundaries is not intended to turn you into a clock watcher. Instead, a boundary with your work is intended to provide focus. If you know you have 30 minutes for a meeting and everyone else knows that you will physically get up and leave when that time is up, people are more likely to stay on task. Cloud believes that setting boundaries and sticking to them, with your work, will result in working smarter.
I’ve learned that setting boundaries relies heavily on communicating. When trying to be more open about my thoughts or feelings I felt like I was over communicating with others. However, I learned that it was exactly what was needed to help others understand. When I am frustrated it is much more efficient to explain “I am frustrated because…” instead of waiting for someone to divine “Hey Jake, you are frustrated. Let me guess why.” Writing this sounds obvious, but it is amazing how many times such an obvious answer went unused.
I found that setting boundaries can also be uncomfortable; telling that friend no is more difficult than saying yes and grumbling about the results. However, once in place, the boundaries help to make clear expectations and the next time I have to say no the result is less awkward silence and more understanding and more importantly, a much healthier friendship.