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Boundaries 101: Creating Space

Published:
December 20, 2023
November 20, 2023
Read this article for tips to set healthy boundaries in relationships and provide you with peace of mind in future interactions.

Ever found yourself trapped in the cycle of waiting for that perennially tardy friend, organizing celebratory events for coworkers you're not close with, or becoming the designated target for prying questions at family gatherings? The answer to breaking free of these situations lies in establishing healthy boundaries — a concept frequently touted but seldom accompanied by guidance on initiating the process.

It would be convenient if boundaries materialized effortlessly, like the clear road marks on an online map after typing in a destination. However, the reality is that building healthier boundaries involves a more gradual and nuanced approach. Announcing at a family gathering that you're no longer putting up with everyone's nonsense might be a great dramatic moment, but it’s not the most effective long-game strategy. Instead, consider these subtler steps to cultivate boundaries incrementally for long-term sustainability.

Create space using your words

One of the rookie mistakes we make when we’re young is feeling like we have to give an absolute answer right at the moment. This often leads to overcommitment, resentment, and constantly feeling like we are letting someone down (including ourselves). So what’s the best way to respond to unexpected invitations, surprise requests, or intrusive questions that catch us off guard? Grant yourself breathing room by responding with phrases like, "I would love to consider that opportunity," or "Thanks for thinking of me; I'll need some time to think about it." If you fall back on the habit of blurting out an answer too quickly, you can say, “I misspoke just then. I’m actually not available on the 4th due to a previous engagement.” And if the question is something you would never consider answering, a simple yet firm response such as the following is enough: "That's a topic for me and my doctor [partner, accountant, boss, etc.] to work out, but I appreciate your concern and prayers during this time.”

Create space using your body language

Your physical presence can communicate volumes. You’re not a little kid anymore, so you don't always have to opt for the lowest seat in the room. Stand tall when engaging with someone known for dominating conversations. Ensure you are by the door when speaking to a family member or coworker who invades personal space. Give yourself the ability (and permission) to physically walk away from a conversation violating your comfort zone and causing you to go into fight, flight, or freeze mode. 

Create space by deciding when you will be available

You're not obligated to answer every email, text, or call immediately. Create a healthy space by returning communication on your terms. When you receive an angry email or voicemail, give yourself the freedom to process and return the communication from a level-headed and calm place. Make phone calls to persistent relatives when there are natural guardrails you can rely on for support: "Hey, I'm walking to a meeting across town and have fifteen minutes to catch up. Let's chat now." And then, yes, end the conversation cordially when you reach your destination, even if the other person ignores you and keeps talking. 

Create space by deciding where you will be available

If a friend consistently becomes overly intoxicated at the local bar every Friday when you meet up, choose a different venue or suggest alternative plans. This subtle shift communicates that specific environments are non-negotiable. The always-late friend you still value? Makes plans where being late will have minimal impact on your day and your ability to have a good time. For example, schedule lunch at a convenient location when you have no appointments afterward and bring remote work or your current read-along. That way, no matter what’s going on (or not going on in their lives), you are not resentful for being made late to something or trapped without the ability to enjoy yourself. It’s also okay if you don’t schedule one-on-ones with people you feel disrespect your time. They may just be the friends you catch up with at church, the local soccer league, or the water cooler.

Create space by being okay with someone else's confusion, disappointment, or anger

This can be challenging, but it's crucial to acknowledge that setting boundaries may not always end in a pleasant emotional experience. It’s okay for a friend to be disappointed that you can’t go out and it’s healthy for that friend to express it in a non-judgmental way. It’s an unpleasant experience for both of you to feel that disappointment, but it also means you both care and you’ve just made space to honor and endure the truth of your emotional experience. However, a word of caution, some individuals may attempt to guilt-trip you or use emotional manipulation when you start to create space. Standing firm just means not caving in. You don’t need bigger speeches or better reasons. You just have to stand your ground and be okay walking away in certain seasons if that friend or family member keeps violating your space.

A few final pieces of advice…

Don’t give up: We establish boundaries not because we think everyone else around us is a manipulative ogre waiting to take advantage of us. We develop personal boundaries because, for most people, it’s just a matter of good communication. Everyone’s limits are different! What is an easy lift for Betty may be a hard pass for Paul and vice-versa. Only you know your strengths and weaknesses and which ones you want to lean into at any given moment.

Let go of guilt and shame: Having boundaries doesn’t mean you are not doing the hard work of growing in virtue and strength over time. It will never be okay for Aunt Margaret to ask how much you make at work. Sure, over time and with practice, you‘ll be able to endure trickier conversations for more extended periods, but only by learning how to establish healthy parameters in those conversations. 

I wish I could tell you this will all fall into place with a snap, but it takes time, and establishing space is the first step. The key is consistency — the more you hold the line, even just for this little bit of space, the more respect you'll garner over the long haul. Eventually, this space evolves into a robust boundary, much like a comforting hedgerow or pleasant picket fence with lovely little gates you can open and close when you decide. 

Creators:
Amelia Ruggaber
Published:
December 20, 2023
November 20, 2023
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