The post I never published - I started writing this in 2016, but never had it quite where I wanted it. It’s time to admit that the edits I wanted to make just aren’t ready.
Boundaries have been coming up as a topic, pretty much every time I sit down right now.
I spent some time recently digging into and starting to process a painful story from my past… where setting boundaries might have helped if I’d known how.
I stomped on my own boundary in the name of efficiency, trampling my intention to be a Good Supervisor who coaches her staff in overcoming problems and just Taking Over when that staff was underwater.
I weathered a visit from extended family - always pleasantly exciting, but also a real boundary workout. Family is.
We’re also approaching the three year anniversary of the toughest boundary I’ve ever set in my life - one I’m still holding today. It’s a silent anniversary, but I feel it coming every year.
All roads lead to boundary setting.
The boundary definition I like the most for its easy memorability is Brené Brown’s: “Boundaries are what’s OK and what’s not OK.” That’s simple, easy to remember, and a pretty good measure for decision making. It’s not OK to change plans on me last minute and expect me to drop everything to make it happen. It’s not OK to use shame to criticize how I’m spending my cash. It’s not OK to gaslight people I care about and teach smart young women to ignore their instincts about danger.
Brené says in the Gifts of Imperfect Parenting that how children see their parents holding boundaries is how they learn to hold them. That appears, for better or for worse, to be a result of her work interviewing teens and young adults about their families, but I wonder what it means for we who were children in the 1970s and 80s, when “boundary” meant the invisible line between my state and yours, my country and yours.
What I learned about boundaries growing up was that no meant no, as long as it was said by someone in authority. Without that authority, no didn’t always mean no. Not when it was inconvenient; not when it could be used to teach something instead. It was a learning opportunity more than a boundary, a lesson in consequences. Children who said “No” to dinner went hungry. Teens who asked to be taken seriously got a lesson in taking themselves too seriously.
What I learned about boundaries growing up was that they are something that people with power get to hold against people without. I could close the door against my younger brother if I chose; I couldn’t ask my peers or parents to stop teasing me.
Brené’s work also shows that the most compassionate people are well-boundaried people. For good reason - they guard their inner resources well and are fully enthusiastic then they commit to something. Having good boundaries helps them avoid blame and resentment when “what’s not OK” is crossed.
How to play along
Because safety is a core value for me, I am asking that comments in this space avoid all the ugly things: shame, blame, judgement. I am asking that disagreement and discussion be polite, respectful, generous, and open to vulnerability.
Because community is healthy behavior, I welcome you to comment, to share your thoughts and responses and discuss this with empathy with me and with each other.