My Friend, Boundaries by Rob Ross
This is a personal essay that briefly explores the concept of boundaries through the lens of two books: Set Boundaries, Find Piece: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself by Nedra Glover Tawwab and Boundaries: When to say yes, how to say no to take control of your life by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend.
This discussion of boundaries highlights a few of the interesting, effective and beneficial lessons of the combined works, blended with my own thoughts. Rather than a comprehensive book report or comparison, this article focuses on selected content that appears most helpful from the books to give a flavor of why the concept of boundaries is important to your life, whether you’re already aware of that, or like me, only starting to figure out a healthy relationship with boundaries.
Both books offer guidance, with different approaches and styles, to achieve the complementary results of describing what boundaries are, the risks and consequences of not having healthy boundaries, common boundary challenges and why they exist, and how to develop healthy boundaries.
In general, I found Ms. Tawaab’s book more practical, with examples and exercises in each chapter. Both books, however, are widely popular, are worth reading, and complement each other. The religious aspects of Drs. Cloud and Townsend’s boundary philosophies didn’t resonate with me (and it’s unusual for me to read a book that has such religious foundation), but I looked past that and saw a lot of valuable aspects to their writing.
It’s important to note that I grew up with few, if any, substantial boundaries, other than the typical “don’t run into the street” as a kid. Before this exercise, I never actually had a cohesive or consistent consciousness of the concept of boundaries. At 57, I’m only now starting to learn how important they are, what they entail, how they are developed, my own struggles with boundaries and how I can practice them. Before reading these books, I can honestly say that I really had no clue how healthy boundaries are key to strong, positive, long-lasting relationships. In reading the books and writing this post, I have become aware of the source of many of my own relationship challenges. I forever thank Earth Goddess Kate for inspiring me to read these books and write this short essay.
Healthy boundaries are the foundation for every area of human well-being, including mental, physical, spiritual, emotional, financial, and most especially with all relationships. Boundaries are critical to survival and more importantly they are the basis for a happy life, regardless of how one defines their own sense of happiness.
What are boundaries?
In Set Boundaries, Ms. Tawwab defines boundaries very clearly as “expectations and needs that help you feel safe and comfortable in your relationships, which in turn help you stay mentally and emotionally well” In Boundaries: When to say, Drs. Cloud andTownsend describe boundaries as “invisible property lines” marking where someone’s inner responsibility (“property”) for themselves begins and ends, and more succinctly “what is me and not me”. They go on to note: “You can’t have ‘me’ until you first have a ‘not-me.’”
Boundaries and the concepts of boundaries are all around us and needed and impacted by everything we think, say or do. Drs. Cloud and Townsend describe examples of boundaries as including skin, words, truth, geographic distance, time, emotional distance, consequences (“trespassing on other people’s property carries consequences”, “ ‘No Trespassing’ signs usually carry a threat of prosecution if someone steps over the boundaries.”
One of our most basic needs in life is relationships with other people.
I initially started looking at boundaries as “ground rules for healthy living”. . . . but that really didn’t feel right. Rules are kind of a drag. They’re needed for sure, but “rules” also can carry a negative connotation and that really isn’t what boundaries are. I’m starting to see boundaries as a best friend, protecting and loving me, guiding go live up to my best self (sort of like Earth Goddess Kate). Yeah, I’ll think more on that, especially when we get to values below.
When are boundaries first formed?
Like almost everything — in the womb! Have you ever heard someone described as being that way “from the womb”? Everything we are was first developed in the womb. For more on this, take a look at Annie Murphy Paul’s book, Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives, which explains how our very earliest experiences impact us and how they exert lasting effects on us from infancy well into adulthood. The research offers a bold new view of pregnancy as a crucial staging ground for our health, ability, and well-being throughout life. (Pro tip: she just came out with a great new book: The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain that reveals how we can tap the intelligence that exists beyond our brains — in our bodies, our surroundings, and our relationships).
Drs. Cloud and Townsend describe the progression of boundaries from infancy to toddler with the most important one-word boundary “No”. Almost all of us formed our closest relationship with that most profound one word when we were only 2 years old. Toddlers can be demanding, cranky and almost all try to explore beyond physical limits. “Good parents have fun with toddlers who jump on the bed. Poor parents either quench their children’s desire by not allowing any jumping, or they set no limits and allow them to jump all over.” This may be the best opportunity for a parent to really influence their child’s entire life.
From toddlerhood through adolescence and young adulthood, Drs. Cloud and Townsend describe common challenges in each phase and transition. Ms. Tawaab writes about the cost of not having healthy boundaries, specifically calling out “Not Knowing How to Say No”. Many adults are challenged with this, and it’s generally because they never learned it as they were learning to breath at birth, or in their most formative toddler years, and even into their adolescence and adulthood.
The stages of lifespan development are:
- Prenatal Development
- Infancy and Toddlerhood
- Early Childhood
- Middle Childhood
- Early Adulthood
- Middle Adulthood
- Late Adulthood
So if, like me, you didn’t become fluent in boundaries along your life journey, let alone at a young (or very young) age, then in adulthood, it’s likely that you have a) some relationship challenges, and b) some work cut out for you to learn and establish better boundary habits. Just sayin’.
There are too many “stages of development” of boundaries to go into here, but consider when you, your family, and friends, developed their sense of boundaries as they grew up.
Both books weave into their discussion the notion of how values relate to boundaries; but I believe they are more directly intertwined than either book fully conveys. Put simply, boundaries are core to all life values and principles. The Boundary Wheel I made below visually suggests this.
Values and Boundaries
There are many more possible values than in the wheel, but the point is that boundaries, healthy or not, are at the center of every life value. For example, everyone, whether they intend to or not, has a boundary relationship with sleep. They may personally be boundary-less, stay up all night, and go to bed at different times every day; or, they may have strict boundaries, with a set wind down routine and go to bed at the same time every night. In this simple example, boundary-less = poor sleep hygiene = every day is super tough, impacting the body, mind, and all other life values. On the contrary, an established boundary relationship with sleep sets up for the possibility, even likelihood, for a successful day. It doesn’t guarantee a successful day, or even a successful sleep, but it makes it possible.
[INSERT ANY OTHER VALUE HERE]
Similarly, any other life value above is not merely enhanced by — but fundamentally requires a healthy boundary to thrive: Integrity, Respect, Education, Kindness, Sleep, Creativity, Love, Fun, Habits, Forgiveness, Resilience, Strength, Compassion, Empathy, Healing, Food, Body, Exercise, Mind Soul, Activity, Responsibility.
For each of these values, entire books can be written on their relationship with the boundary concept. And volumes can be written about their relationship with each other and with the collective of values overall.
Questions I now find myself asking:
- Integrity <> Boundaries — what do boundaries have to do with Integrity? How do they relate for me? Well first of all, what is Integrity for me — I learned that it is when your thoughts/words/actions are in alignment. What I think is what I say I what I do.
- Respect <> Boundaries — what do boundaries have to do with Respect?
- Fun <>Boundaries
Hopefully you get the idea. Yes, I need to think through each of these. My new friend Boundaries has a long journey for me to go on with them to understand all of this, let alone think through how to remember and draw upon it all in real time, every time. I’m thinking I’m going to mess this up sometimes. Oh, but that’s ok, because one of my values is Remorse. So I’m ok so long as if when I mess up, I at least remember to honor my boundaries around my value of remorse. I also need to balance that with the value of Excellence, which is trying my hardest 150% of the time to bring my A game. I know I have a lot of room to improve there, so maybe I need to firm up my relationship between Boundaries and Excellence.
Actually this is intellectually fun, even if it’s harder to actually do. But then everything worthwhile is harder to do than to think about.
What values do you have that could benefit from healthier boundaries?
What Keeps Us from Having Healthy Boundaries?
Both books discuss the challenges, and there are many. Here is a summary of Ms. Tawaab’s reasons, along with a few of my own
- We assume it’s the “other person has to change” before we’ve really focused on ourselves
- We’re too impatient for change
- We aren’t always aware we need a boundary
- We’ll feel bad if we set a boundary (maybe they’ll get mad)
- We can’t tolerate the discomfort of setting boundaries
- It’s complicated to remember to do and draw on the right boundary at the right time
- Our friends don’t use boundaries and we want to be part of the gang (same as being a people pleaser)
- You’re anxious about future interactions after having set a boundary
- You have no clue where to start (Ms. Tawaab’s — I loved this one!)
- You believe you can’t have boundaries in certain relationships
- Guilt— what a powerful force that is
- Sadness, betrayal, remorse
One thing I like about Nedra Glover Tawwab’s book is that at the end of each section, she includes a very practical exercise:
Grab your journal or a separate sheet of paper to complete the following exercise.
- How were boundaries taught in your family?
- Did your parents/caregivers honor your boundaries?
- If so, in what ways? How were your boundaries dishonored?
- When did you realize that setting them was an issue for you?
The 6 Types of Boundaries
This chapter of Ms. Tawaab’s book is excellent. The title speaks for itself:
- Physical Boundaries
- Sexual Boundaries
- Intellectual Boundaries
- Emotional Boundaries
- Material Boundaries
- Time Boundaries
How to “do boundaries”
Both books discuss this, but Ms. Tawaab is clearer in her approach and I drew more from her book. In chapter 6, she goes through how to Identify and Communicate Your Boundaries, with the caption “you don’t have to be boundaryless to be loved”. First she writes about the ways *not* to communicate your boundaries — too passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive, manipulating.
The “way” she writes is through plain, simple, assertiveness “I know what my needs are, and I will communicate them to you.”, explaining “Assertiveness involves communicating your feelings openly and without attacking others. It isn’t demanding. Instead, it’s a way of commanding that people hear you.”
She offers a straightforward roadmap:
Step #1 Be clear. Do your best to be as straightforward as possible. Mind your tone — don’t yell or whisper. People will miss the boundary if you use complicated words or jargon. Take a deep, deep breath, and focus on being precise.
Step #2 Directly state your need or request, or say no. Don’t just mention what you don’t like; ask for what you need or want. Identify your expectations, or decline the offer.
Step #3 Dealing with the discomfort that happens as a result of setting boundaries is the hardest part. Discomfort is the number one reason we want to bypass setting them. It’s common afterward to feel guilty, afraid, sad, remorseful, or awkward.
Her description of how to handle the natural feeling of guilt is equally straightforward, saying honestly “There is no such thing as guilt-free boundaries. Guilt is a part of this process. Guilt typically happens as a result of thinking that what you’re doing is ‘bad.’ It comes from your programming about telling people what you need or want.” Her advice: “Guilt isn’t a limitation to setting boundaries. It’s a feeling. And like all feelings, guilt will come and go. Try not to treat your guilt like the worst thing ever. Instead, embrace it as part of a complicated process — just one piece, not the entirety of the experience.”
Guilt (feeling bad) is one of the things I’m most challenged with. Reading her take on guilt and boundaries helped me understand how to process that feeling. I hope I can always remember her lessons: “If you’re feeling guilty, here are some reminders: It’s healthy for you to have boundaries. Other people have boundaries that you respect. Setting boundaries is a sign of a healthy relationship. If boundaries ruin a relationship, your relationship was on the cusp of ending anyway.”
More ways to communicate boundaries
In Current Relationships Identify the areas in which you need limits.
State your needs clearly. Don’t explain yourself or provide a detailed story about what’s behind your request. Be consistent in upholding your boundaries. Restate your needs when necessary.
In New Relationships Mention what you want casually in conversations as you’re getting to know people. Have an open discussion about why having your needs met is important to you. Be clear about your expectations. The first time someone violates your boundaries, let them know that a violation occurred. Restate your needs.
More learning to come
This wasn’t intended to be a full, comprehensive overview of boundaries, or a review or report on the books. This is my effort to lean in and begin a relationship with my new, hopefully close, friend. Boundaries.
Thank you for reading 🌻