bound·a·ry ?bound(?)r?/

In my field of work, sometimes words and phrases get a bit overused. Terms like “co-dependence” or even diagnoses like “bipolar” start to get used in society where they don’t apply. That overuse makes terms get distorted. The term’s meaning becomes part pop culture and part industry specific making them no longer the concise description they used to be.

The term “boundaries” is one such word. I find in my practice, I hear more and more people describe that they know they need them but they feel uncertain about how to go about implementing boundaries.

Let’s tease out the term boundary to start. The dictionary states a boundary is, ”a line that marks the limits of an area; a dividing line.” The term’s meaning in pop culture is often, “a nebulous thing you should do to prevent your aunt from making you uncomfortable.” What a boundary is in a relationship is the line that separates your expectations and comfortability from another person’s. In other words, it is simply the line that defines what you are comfortable with and what you will accept.

Part of what makes boundaries confusing is that so many are decided by society.  We collectively decide things like how close is too close to talk to a stranger or that it is kind to hold the door for someone. Those types of boundaries are covert. A lot of people do them so from the time you are very young, you begin implementing these boundaries. This happens in families too. Family members collectively decide covert boundaries or rules like, it’s important to watch football on Thanksgiving. No one says it out loud but magically every Thanksgiving the game is on the TV.

The boundaries often referred to in therapy are the overt boundaries. For whatever reason, they require that you state your preference. These become important for people like in-laws or new relationships. Since they didn’t evolve around the same covert boundaries they need descriptions.

Where I see people get stuck is thinking that this is the same thing as confronting someone. It may feel uncomfortable to state your boundary to someone you care about, but that is only because as a society we don’t communicate all of our boundaries. It is just a conversation that doesn’t happen often. Boundaries only become a confrontation when they are not communicated for a long time. The relationship goes on and on with one person feeling walked on and then the boundary doesn’t really get stated at all but rather the built up anger gets expressed. This damages the relationship. Not only does one person feel walked on and hurt but the other person was never even given a chance to respect this undefined boundary.

Think about what you need from a difficult relationship or the behaviors that make you feel walked on. What could be different? What is in the other person’s control? Would it help if they asked you? Could they call ahead of time? Maybe there is subject best left out of Thanksgiving conversation.

Often people know intuitively what needs to stop or what boundary they need to set. But before people state their boundary they say the three words heard in therapy rooms across America, “Is it ok?” These overt boundaries have to be overt because they are not widely accepted or implemented in society. So they are personal. There is no societal norm to compare your boundary to and that makes it feel uncomfortable.

So there are two components to the discomfort of implementing a boundary:

  1. There is no comparison. This boundary is just between you and this person.
  2. Stating boundaries takes conscious effort because so many boundaries are covert.

Remember that these boundaries not only free you from feeling intruded upon they also set the other person free from worrying about overstepping. Boundaries clarify, prevent arguments and hurt feelings. They also give the other person a chance to show they can be trusted and it feels good to feel trusted.

With all of that being said, what are one or two boundaries you could state to help you have a healthy and happy Thanksgiving?

Happy Thanksgiving 🙂



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