Every so often, there’s a psychology topic that gets a lot of attention on social and popular media. Right now, the topic of boundaries is having a major moment. And as a psychologist, I’m 100 percent here for it. But lately, I’ve noticed that something important is missing from the boundaries conversation. Its absence leads people to be confused about what boundaries are and how the heck the go about setting them. So I’m setting the record straight on boundaries, telling you what almost no one else will.
But first, let’s get clear on what we mean when we talk about boundaries. Simply stated, boundaries are limits that you set to protect yourself. You can set boundaries with others, with yourself, with your time, and with your energy. Anything that’s precious or important is worthy of boundaries. And if I had to name one word that’s almost always used in conjunction with boundaries, it’s the word “setting.” Setting boundaries. We hear these two words together all the time. Setting boundaries is the act of putting a limit in place. And generally speaking, setting boundaries is acknowledged as a hard thing to do.
Setting boundaries might involve telling someone you care about that they can’t continue a behavior around you. It might be telling your boss that you won’t answer emails after hours. It might mean telling yourself that you won’t spend more than a certain amount of time on social media each week.
These are all examples of setting boundaries. And they’re difficult, because they’re aimed at changing something. And well, change is hard. So drawing that line? Acknowledging the behavior that must change? Sure, that can be tough. But what people don’t realize about boundaries is that setting them isn’t the hard part. Not at all. The hardest part about boundaries isn’t setting them; it’s holding them.
Holding boundaries means sticking to the limits that you set. It involves enforcing consequences and not backing down, no matter how much resistance or push back you get. (And for the record, you’re definitely going to get pushback!) So this is where the hard part comes in. The part that no one talks about. Holding boundaries.
Let me give you an example. I’m the very proud mama of an energetic two-year-old. He is constantly exploring and learning about the world and all the things in it. One of his newest discoveries? The incredible way his milk flies out of his sippy cup if he bangs it on his high chair tray during mealtime.
A few moments after sitting in his chair, the banging starts. In my calmest and most matter-of-fact mom voice, I say, “Hey buddy, cups are for drinking, not for banging, ok? If you bang your cup again, mama’s going to take it away until breakfast is served. He nods enthusiastically, hearing my boundary. But then two seconds later, what do I hear? Bang bang bang! The milk flies in the air, and he quickly looks up at me.
Here comes the hard part. “Hey buddy, I said if you banged your cup again, I was going to take it away until breakfast. So, mama is going to take your cup now.” His grip tightens, his eyes widen, and as I take the sippy cup out of his hands, the crying begins.
My son was quite calm when I set the boundary, but he was very unhappy when I held it.
Imagine opening a package of Oreos and telling yourself you’re only going to eat two cookies. You set your boundary saying, “I’m only going to have two Oreos.” But after you eat those two cookies, and you see that entire sleeve of Oreos, perfectly lined up in the package and calling your name? That’s the hard part. Saying you’re only going to have two Oreos is the easy part. Sticking to it, is the hard part.
I don’t think we make the distinction between setting and holding boundaries enough. And this creates an unrealistic expectation. It suggests that you’re going to set your limits, draw your line, and then that’s it.
But I’m going to tell you right now, it’s very unlikely that people will immediately and fully respect your boundary. If that were the case, you wouldn’t have had to set it in the first place.
So, when you set a boundary, know this. You’re going to get push back. You’re going to get judgement. And you’re not going to get the magically supportive response you hoped for. Setting the boundary is an important first step. But it’s not the hardest. And it’s not the most important. Holding that boundary, staying firm on what you asked for? That’s the hard part.
When you set a boundary, your toddler might yell. Your friends might give you a hard time. Your boss might try to pressure you to work just a few more hours. This pushback? It’s what happens when you set healthy boundaries. So now? The hard part? And the real work. Holding firm on that boundary, no matter what pushback you get.
If you are working on boundaries in your life and in your relationships and you’re wondering why they’re not magically working. Why they’re not being respected? Let me remind you, boundaries is a complex process, and its about a lot more than the setting. So set that boundary and then be ready to hold it. Be ready to receive some pushback and some criticism and some temptation. But know that if you’re experieicng that, it means you’re doing something right. You’re tolerating short term discomfort for a longer term goal. And that is so dang worth it.
Set those boundaries y’all. And then be ready for the hard part. Holding them. You can do hard things, I believe in you, and I’m here for you.