Boundaries (Part One)

Posted by: Lee Thomas

Time to read: 4 minutes

One metaphor I like to use around boundaries is driving. So let’s talk about highway driving for a second.

A key thing about driving is that you only control your own vehicle. You can do basically nothing about how other people drive; all you can do is choose how you drive, and how you respond to their driving. If your plan for a smooth trip is controlling how other people drive, you’re in for a bad time.

We’ve got these lines painted on the highway. And the thing is, those lines actually do nothing to prevent cars from driving over them. But we’ve all collectively decided that those lines mean something, and the vast majority of the time most of us try really hard to not cross those lines, because we know they keep us safe and other people safe. 

The majority of boundaries we set will hopefully be like these lines. A lot of the time when we start talking about boundaries, our brains immediately jump to “well what if the person doesn’t respect those boundaries???” And I get it, because a lot of the time we’re coming into these conversations with experiences of people not caring about our boundaries. And we’re going to cover that “what if” a little later on.

But let’s be honest: sometimes we’re so sure that people won’t listen to our boundaries that we don’t even really express them. So let’s remember that on this road, we’ve just got these painted lines, but most people try to follow those lines most of the time. (People don’t follow them nearly as well when they’re impatient or not paying attention or don’t know the rules or think that their desires are more important than others. I’d argue that that’s all basically true for boundaries too). Many people, and hopefully most people in your life, want to treat you relatively well, but they need to see the lines in order to be able to do that.

But also, unfortunately, there’s some moments where the line just doesn’t quite cut it. Back to our highway. We don’t have just one painted line and then a huge plummeting cliff, right? We’ve got the line, and then a rumble strip, and then a shoulder, and then a ditch. I think it can be helpful to think of boundaries in a similar way. We can have layers of boundaries and consequences, it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing approach.

The last part of this metaphor is the importance of being proactive. We learn about driving before we get in the car. We do up our seatbelts. We think about the conditions we’re going to be driving in, and we try to set our expectations accordingly. We drive differently in a nighttime winter storm than on a clear sunny day, and that can be true about boundaries too. It’s almost always more effective to set people up for success by communicating needs in advance than it is to set boundaries in the moment… but that’s a blog post for a different day.

This part of the boundaries talk doesn’t translate well into the driving analogy, so I’m just going to say it directly: we don’t live in a very pro-boundary culture. We’re usually taught (implicitly or explicitly) that setting a boundary is harmful to our relationships, that boundaries are something we do as a punishment, and that a healthy relationship should never need conversations about boundaries because the other person should just know how you feel without you ever having to express it. 

But that isn’t true. Boundaries are a gift to our relationships. Setting boundaries sometimes sucks, but that’s actually part of what makes them such a gift. We don’t do things that suck for relationships we don’t care about. And often the more that it sucks and feels awkward and messy, the more of an act of caring it is. It’s way easier to avoid an awkward situation and just cut someone out of your life lol.

Setting boundaries is part of the messy business of learning to care for other people and for ourselves. I feel like this idea is summed up beautifully by this quote from Prentis Hemphill: “Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.”

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