Boundary Basics 101

Good Boundaries = Self Love 


One of the topics I am often asked to write and speak on is healthy personal and professional boundaries and ethics. It is one of the most important topics I teach to my clinical clients and the therapists I supervise.  

In fact some of my most popular exercises in "The Creative Clinician: Exercises and Activities for Clients and Group Therapy" have to do with creating healthy boundaries.

However, the topic of boundaries is often misunderstood by folks. My "Mari-ism" or golden rules on boundaries have to do with self responsibility.

It is up to you to: Know, Name and Maintain your boundaries. For example:

1. You need to know what your boundaries are. If you don't know what your boundaries are, you cannot expect others to magically understand them. I hear clients say all of the time, "Well common sense should have told that person not to x,y,z..." OK, maybe so. Maybe that person who crossed your boundary should have known better. But every human being is made up of unique life experiences and challenges; not everyone will think exactly like you do or respond in the same way. 

2. You have to name your boundaries. No one can read your mind. It is up to you to clearly and kindly state your boundaries. Consistency is key with this step. If you are wishy washy on stating your boundaries, don't blame others for feeling confused. If you tell your boss you are available Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 9 AM - 5 PM and then you work late, or come in on the weekends, or contact the boss on Tuesdays and Thursdays, you send a confusing message to that person which indicates that your boundary has changed. 

3. You are the person responsible for maintaining your boundaries. If you allow for boundary collapses (i.e. one day you assert a boundary, the next day you do not, the next day you break your own boundary, the next day you reassert, etc.) then you are not showing up for yourself, and cannot expect that others will honor what you do not do for yourself. You don't get to be angry with a person who is following your lead on how you manage your boundaries.

Tip: People generally want to respect another person's boundaries, so if you are flaking out or sending confusing messages regarding your boundaries, and we are all "guilty" of this now and then, resenting that person who may unintentionally be stepping over boundaries, or mis-reading your signals is not healthy or productive for you or that other person. 

Blurred Boundaries: The Story of Two Siblings

Here are two hypothetical examples of blurred boundaries and conflicting boundary messages:

Joe and Jim are brothers who get together for a weekly basketball game and beers. Joe is trying to cut back on his drinking and shares with Jim, "Hey buddy, no more beers for me, I'll be drinking iced tea or water from now on." Jim, to his credit, says, "Great, no problem, hope you don't mind if I still have a beer" and Joe says, "Sure, I just don't want to drink anymore." This lasts for a couple of Sundays, and then Jim notices that Joe is having beers again. He doesn't want to give his brother a hard time, Joe is an adult after all and he is not his brother's keeper.

However, a month later when Jim offers Joe a beer, and Joe blows up, "Thanks for the great support man, I told you I'm not drinking any longer!" Jim is confused and immediately adopts the disowned shame and frustration that Joe is feeling about not honoring his commitment to himself, muttering, "Oh sorry bro, I guess I misunderstood!" Later, Jim feels resentment and anger toward Joe, "How am I supposed to read his mind? What do I have to be sorry for here?"

This could apply to any situation, but the point is, it is up to Joe to name and maintain his own boundaries. If he had been consistent and clear, and Jim had still pressed beers upon him, then Joe has every right to assert himself. 

Sometimes people feel ashamed because they are not able to preform to a standard they have for themselves. So they disown their hurting parts and project that onto the other person, making that person somehow responsible for their pain and boundary confusion. 

Other folks struggle with perfectionistic thinking, unrealistic expectations, or have a hard time with reflection or correction (i.e. even the kindest criticism feels harsh). So, in an attempt to save face, they accuse others of the very thing they are doing. Often times the person who they are angry with has been walking on eggshells doing their best to keep up with the boundary confusion. Here is an example of that kind of interaction:

Julie and Joanne are sisters. Julie is a successful business owner who works outside of her home with a boyfriend of 4 years and no children, and Joanne is a busy stay at home mother of two twin boys and a husband of 10 years. Julie has asserted a boundary that she would prefer Joanne not call or text her before 9 AM on the weekends as this is her time to catch up on sleep. Joanne has let Julie know that it is difficult to connect on Tuesdays and Thursdays when she has the twins at home all day.  However, Julie will often send Joanne a text, email or make a call to her on Tuesdays and Thursdays and Joanne will accept and interact with Julie on those days. And Joanne will sometimes text Joanne before 9 AM on the weekends, and Julie will interact with Joanne. Neither sister is maintaining their stated boundaries, and this results in confusion and resentment.

One day Joanne notices that Julie seems short and curt. She isn't sure what she has done. After a week of this, she calls Julie on a Saturday at 8 AM to talk it through. And...Julie has a lot to say to her sister! She tells Joanne all about Joanne's horrible boundaries, her selfish ways, and begins to assign ulterior motives to why Joanne has been boundary busting. It is clear Julie has been rehearsing this and building her case for a few weeks. Joanne is stunned, confused and ashamed. She stammers out an apology, lets Julie know that she has also felt disrespected, and neither sister feels safe. Julie attempts to lighten the mood with humor, and Joanne, though the timing is off, does her best to follow Julie's lead, and chuckle...even though there are tears in her eyes. Joanne then attempts to connect by sharing a happy update, and is met with icy silence and Julie stating she needs to go. The call ends in hurt feelings and neither person feels heard. 

As a therapist, I would venture to guess that there was a part of Joanne that envied Julie's life style without children, her ability to sleep in, and her successful business. And, I would suppose that Julie might have wishful feelings of having more time with her sister and her twin nephews, thus the calls on the days the children were home. 

A boundary collapse usually stems from underlying and unexplored feelings that informs the interaction. It is never as simple as one person not respecting another person's boundaries. Or one person being the "bad" guy/girl and the other being the poor trod upon victim. As the saying goes, it takes two to tango!

Assumptions are not Healthy

A good thing to remember, when someone has been crossing boundaries with you, don't immediately assign negative motives to that person. In fact, don't assume anything, simply ask them if they understand that they have crossed your boundary kindly and clearly. However, if they continue to boundary bust after you are consistent and clear, then you have a right to self advocate per the boundary basics above.

That said, if someone in your life is traditionally a heathy and safe person, and has recently been boundary busting, a good step is to ask yourself is this, "Have I been sending mixed messages to this person?" If you have, no shame in your game, just gently re-state your boundaries and consistently maintain them. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to follow a maze of ever changing boundaries with someone! You are doing your very best to follow along, while managing your own busy life, and then suddenly, out of no where, you are suddenly in the hot seat for crossing a boundary.

If you find that boundaries have been blurred, and that you have contributed to this, rather than blaming self or the other, it is often wise to send an email that might say something like this for example, "I don't think I have done a good job of clearly sharing my times available for babysitting lately. I notice that you often contact me to see if I am available for babysitting on Friday evenings, unfortunately, while I would love to support you, I am not available on Friday evenings because that is my time to catch up on homework for the week. But, I am realizing that I have sent conflicting messages because I need the money, and because I value you as a client, and because I care, so I have allowed myself to take on hours that don't work well for me. This is not your fault, as it is up to me to be more clear about my time boundaries. Moving forward to respect your needs and my schedule, I want to be more clear and consistent, so here is a plan I think will work well: If you do call or text on a Friday evening, I won't be getting back to you until the next day, and I will not be available to babysit on a Friday evening during this semester. If this boundary changes, I will be sure to let you know. I'm available during other evenings in the week, specifically Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday, but not on Fridays. As a college student, I really appreciate the work you give me, and I thank you for understanding that I need to honor my commitment to my homework. My apology for not being more clear and consistent in expressing this before, and for being a bit impatient with you in my text responses."

Using passive aggressive silence,  curt texts or emails, or building up resentment and then blowing up at the person who may have no idea that they have been overstepping boundaries is an unhealthy and passive aggressive way of communicating. Remember, the other person is not responsible for reading your mind or maintaining your boundaries. If one Friday the babysitter above responds to text messages and requests, and the next Friday she does not, or sends a curt message, or simply uses silence as violence, that leaves the other person feeling confused and hurt. No bueno!

Thus, if you are a person in business for yourself, having clear hours of operation is paramount to maintaining good boundaries. I see therapy clients Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 2-7 PM and facilitate group therapy from 7-8:30 PM. I work with coaching clients on Monday and Friday mornings. It is not up to my clients to maintain my schedule, it is up to me. A client may ask to meet earlier or later, on another day, on the weekends, holidays or you name it. If I can accommodate their request on occasion, I will be happy to do so. If I cannot, I simply refer them back to my clearly stated hours of operation. This allows me to be flexible when I am able to, as well as demonstrate clear and consistent boundaries about the times I am able to meet with clients. If my schedule changes, then I must convey this clearly to my clients.

Tips for Chronic Boundary Busters

If you find that you are challenged in respecting the boundaries of others  (and some folks are), then it might be wise to get assistance and support in building insight into why you are a chronic boundary buster in order to create healthier interactions.

And if you cross a boundary accidentally, (and guess what, we all will at some time or another, sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally), and someone lets you know this, then simply own it, make an apology, repeat what you understand the boundary to be, and move forward. If that person has crossed a boundary with you, let them know this clearly and kindly as well.

Important note: If that person begins to assign ill intention or motives to your accidental boundary bust, or begins to question you in a way that feels disrespectful, this is also boundary busting behavior. You can listen to what they have to say, you can apology for your contributions to their feeling state, but you do not have to own what they are projecting if they are coming from a place of assumption. You can let them know that it was a misunderstanding and that you are not willing to be placed into a role of villain (especially if that person was sending you mixed signals). And, you can ask that they specifically write out what their request and expectation is so that you have this clearly in front of you. I am a big big fan of putting things in writing so there is no confusion. If that person is unwilling to do so, and frequently changes their boundary stance, as in the example of the brothers and the baby sitter, you are not to blame for their inability to maintain boundaries. However, if they have been very clear and consistent over time, and you choose not to respect this, than you need to own it!

If you tend to send out mixed messages, or have unrealistic expectations that folks should know when your schedule changes, or when your boundaries have changed, or you tend to assign the worst motives to a person, it may be time to stop, take a breath, and think about your responsibility to heal, mature and grow as a person. 

Some reasons for chronic boundary busting might include:

  • Anger (aggressive, passive or passive agressive)
  • Holding a Grudge/Retaliation
  • Trauma Reenactment 
  • Lack of Insight
  • Fear
  • Negative Attention 
  • Loneliness
  • Was the Norm in your Family of Origin
  • Jealousy
  • Resentment (their life is better, they are making more money, they have more flex time, excitement, etc.)
  • Doesn't seem important to you (a form of narcissism)
  • Assumptions

If you are identifying as a boundary buster, there is no need to feel shame, just reach out for support and start learning the tools you need to develop healthier boundaries and to respect those of others. And if you have been sending mixed signals with your own boundaries, don't blame or shame others, own it, be clear, be consistent and move forward.

Kindly and in support,

Mari A. Lee, LMFT, CSAT-S