What does it mean to have boundaries? This is a question I’ve been asked many times by clients and I often stumbled with the answer. I love the analogy found in the book, Boundaries: when to say yes, how to say no to take control of your life. The analogy essentially goes like this: Imagine you live in a neighborhood with neighbors on both sides. Your lawn goes right up to the neighbors lawn and there is no fence separating it. You set your sprinkler up to run during the night. After several days, you notice the area on your neighbor’s side of the lawn growing lush and green. Your own property at the property’s edge appears to be dying. You turn the water on the sprinkler to observe what’s happening. You see that somehow, the sprinkler twisted and is spraying all the water on your neighbor’s side of the boundary line.
What do you do now? Do you leave it? After all, you’ve been providing your neighbor’s lawn with nourishment for a few days. Is it wrong to stop now? Must you inform the neighbor that you will be turning the sprinkler back to your own yard, which you hope to save from withering away?
You decide to fix the sprinkler and turn it to your yard. You go inside. The next day your neighbor approaches you.
“I’m going to put your sprinkler on my yard again. It was really helping it green up.” He says.
What would you do? He was used to you watering his lawn (caring for his needs at the expense of your own). Was it rude to suddenly stop? Consider what your neighbor has lost during the time you were providing for him. He didn’t learn to care for his own lawn and now seems dependent on you. He’s been robbed of self-sufficiency by you inadvertently providing for him rather than yourself.
What if your neighbor said instead that he was now directing all his sprinklers to your own yard to green it up. You realize this would likely give twice as much water to that spot compared to the rest of the lawn. The over-watering could weaken the roots of the lawn, eventually destroying it. What’s the right response? After all, he is just trying to help you out, right?
Consider this: Sometimes, we realize we began to care more about others needs and wants rather than our own. After a period of time, we may realize people start to take from us to provide for themselves without getting our consent. Some people may decide they know what’s best for us and give us things we don’t need or want in our life and we feel helpless to say no. We feel rude if we turn them down. We feel we are inconsiderate if we stop providing for others even when we are dying on the inside when we do so.
What’s the solution? In the analogy, a fence might help to help clarify the boundary of the yard and even stop the sprinkler from watering outside of your property. We can then define the property line with our neighbor of where his property ends and ours begins. We let him know his plan to water your lawn will not work for you and if he plans to make any changes to the watering that could potentially impact both of you, he will need your permission. You explain that his current plan will simply not work for you. No more explanation or justification needed.
Author Anne Katherine’s book, Boundaries: where you end and I begin, says it all right in the title. A boundary in self and relationships is knowing where you end and others begin. From now on, when clients ask me what a boundary is, I will tell them this.
Our boundaries need to defined clearly so you, and others, know when there is a potential violation of those boundaries. When someone intrudes them the first time, we can evaluate where they have intruded upon obvious boundaries or violated ones they should have reasonably known about. If they did, perhaps this is not someone we need in our lives at all. If they didn’t or couldn’t have known about the boundary, or we have just discovered the need for such a boundary in our life, we need to respect ourselves and others enough to inform them of the boundary. The reason for the boundary is not necessary to explain. Simply that it is one. What does that look like?
“I do not appreciate when you….”
“I will not tolerate/It’s not okay with me….”
“I’m unable to provide you with…”
And the absolute, definitive, and best response when explaining a boundary?
"No" is a full sentence. When someone has violated your boundary, a simple "no" is all you must say.
Once we learn to assert our boundaries, we are in control of what we experience in our life. We experience more feelings of safety in our relationships and feel less resentment for those who might take advantage of our lack of boundaries. We know how much of our selves to share, when and with whom. Just like strong fences make good neighbors, so do strong, clear, personal boundaries make for better relationships and lives.
Cloud, H., & Townsend, J. S. (2017). Boundaries: when to say yes, how to say no to take control of your life. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Katherine, A. (2000). Boundaries: where you end and I begin. New York: Simon & Schuster.
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