I come from a background where it was not encouraged for women to set healthy boundaries. In the nonprofit cultures of my time, very much influenced by baby boomer culture, I saw people literally contorting themselves to make things happen. They had minimal resources to try to accomplish things that did not seem humanly possible. Best of luck if you tried to set healthy boundaries in these cultures. Doing so often resulted in subtle backlash from those that saw themselves as "truly" fighting the fight. Unfortunately, this dynamic quickly led to burnout, resentment and unhealthy work cultures.
Learning to set my own boundaries has been one of the most enlightening things. It has also been one of the hardest. Brené Brown, the world’s top vulnerability researcher, said something very profound once about boundaries. She said simply that in all her research, she’s found that the most boundaried people were also the most compassionate. In her book Rising Strong, she makes the case for setting boundaries and posits that resentment comes from giving up our power unwillingly. If the world’s most renowned researcher on vulnerability is telling us this, then why does it feel so hard to find it in the surf–life metaphor? Can you still be one who goes with the flow and also be a little “square” and set boundaries?
Life is like a wave. Ride it. Expect ups and downs. OK. Got that.
If you don’t like the wave, change your equipment (i.e., your internal surfboard) or get off the wave. OK. Check. Already made that metaphor once.
And, oh yeah: Learn to recognize and set boundaries to have a more fulfilling life. Umm, hold up! Exactly how does that translate into my sea of oceanic metaphors? A buoy? Filling up a plastic pool with ocean water? Isn’t this some Western, man-made, left-brained concept? How do you overlay the concept of boundary onto something that has flow at the core of its philosophy? The more I explored this boundary stuff, I realized even the coolest of cool cultures (e.g., surf culture) sets boundaries ALL THE TIME.
Most surfers go online now to check surf and ocean conditions through sites that list current and predicted surf conditions. These are based on a number of factors like wind, buoy readings etc. When it gets big, as in double to triple overhead in a Northern California report, you often find the reporter ending their summary with the following: “Be safe and know your limits,” a fair warning to surfers that conditions may warrant a particular degree of experience and skill. It occurred to me that when we look at that report, or scan conditions of the ocean ourselves, we are making a conscious decision of whether to go or not to go, taking steps to protect our safety. And that’s when it all made sense to me:
The concept of exercising boundaries is actually more about accessing your own internal wisdom, listening and getting clear with what you are or are OK or not OK with in a situation, or relationship. It’s less about anything tangible at all.
As surfers, we set boundaries all the time (well, at least I do). In a culture where it’s rewarded to keep pushing the boundaries on things, it’s no wonder why we as people have a hard time setting them in normal life. After all, boundaries don’t sound particularly sexy—they are the opposite of edgy. They’re very square. But they are so necessary to living and leading in a healthy way. Even extreme athletes, for all they surmount, have their own boundaries. And they differ from person to person. What’s OK for them may certainly not be OK for me.
OK so how does this relate to you? If you feel resentment towards something or feel too accommodating, perhaps in a relationship, I invite you to look at how you are setting your boundaries. Below, I offer you a few ways to think about boundary-setting.
1. Realize when something is off.
Oftentimes, when we can tune into when something does or doesn’t feel right in a relationship, situation or interaction, that is a sign that we know a boundary needs to be set. Perhaps it is the colleague suffering from a compulsion to make snarky comments that make you feel bad. Or perhaps it’s that friend that always flakes out on a plan at the last minute, leaving you high and dry (and annoyed). Again. If it doesn’t feel right to you, chances are you need to look at it and set a boundary with that person, thing or relationship.
2. Name it.
If something doesn’t feel right or feels off, name what feels off. Is it a value that is being stepped on? Is too much being asked of you? Are you feeling overly accommodating in a relationship? If you can name exactly what it is that feels off to you, then you will be more empowered to know exactly what boundary you need to set. An extreme example: I have a friend who abruptly ends calls with her friends the minute she feels her energy is being sapped. Though this is an example of a more extreme boundary, it’s a boundary nonetheless, and she’s clear with herself what’s not OK for her. (I like to use extreme examples because they are easier to remember).
3. Communicate…or not.
Sometimes, setting boundaries requires clear communication with someone, and sometimes you can set boundaries without having to communicate at all, simply by changing your behavior. My favorite segue I learned from one of my coaches for communicating a boundary is simply to say: “X,Y,Z doesn’t/didn’t work for me. Here’s what does.” Boom - A simple and powerful way to get your boundary across without sounding needy or complaining.
4. Set your boundary.
I had friends that would religiously cancel plans on a whim at the last minute. It would drive me nuts, as I would have blocked off time for them in my schedule only to have them cancel, and it would be too late for me to make other plans. Here’s what I say now: “Just want to confirm our plans for tomorrow. Let me know by X PM if we are a go.” That way, it gives them the out to cancel, and if they do, I have sufficient time to plan something else.
Be kind to yourself. Many of us didn’t come from backgrounds where it was appropriate to state and defend our boundaries, and so it is very difficult and scary for us to do so. If you sense something is up with someone—a partner, employee, friend, boss—don’t be afraid to ask into it, and create a safe space for people to share what’s up. Perhaps you might have crossed an unstated boundary without realizing it. Opening up vulnerable and authentic communication can help you both realize the boundaries that are important to you.
Where have you had to set better boundaries? How did you do it?
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