Boundaries are trouble. Boundaries are mean. Boundaries are selfish. Boundaries are for other people. I don’t understand how they [insert person you are judging who has clear boundaries] can do that [insert some kind of boundary that makes me jealous].
I, like many of you, grew up believing that boundaries were not for me. My gender made boundaries a challenge. My ingrained people-pleasing and perfectionist ways (which were all shame-avoiders) made boundaries a challenge. My desire to become a doctor, and to do all of the things that I was told would help me get there made boundaries a challenge. And of course, surviving/thriving in medical school and residency made boundaries a challenge.
This all works for a while, to a point. But for most of us, continuing to avoid boundaries leads to resentment, jealousy and frustration. Because without boundaries people will have endless asks of you. They will not volunteer compensation for your time or expertise, because they are used to simply asking and receiving. People will tell you that you are “much nicer/easier to work with than so-and-so,” because they can get what they want from you.
You may be left sucked completely dry.
Giving away so much of your time that you have no time for you.
Giving away so much energy to others that you collapse on the couch in a heap each night, numb.
Giving away so much care and compassion that you don’t feel nourished or supported yourself.
Something’s gotta give. And that something is usually your emotional and physical wellbeing.
So how does one get started? How do we undo a lifetime habit? In my experience, it takes a bit of planning, reflection and introspection to get started.
What is one instance that seems to repeat itself that leads you to feeling resentful or frustrated, but isn’t a deep issue? Laundry comes to mind. If your kids constantly leave dirty laundry on the floor, and not in the hamper or other designated place, it could be as simple as “when you leave dirty clothes on the floor, I won’t go pick them up before I start the laundry, and you won’t have clean clothes.” There is a behavior that they do (or don’t do) that is not what you want, and the consequence is that you won’t do something that they want. They may or may not make a change to their behavior, but you are clear on what will happen.
This can translate to work as well. You might say to your patient, “when you don’t let us know that you have a form to complete, we won’t have time to finish it at your visit today.”
Does imagining any of that give you the heebie-jeebies? Probably. Because the cost is discomfort. Discomfort at setting a boundary, discomfort of disappointing others, of risking them having opinions and feelings about your boundaries, especially if you generally don’t have any.
But the gain is that you get to let go of frustration and resentment. You get to set up new guidelines about how people treat you and what they can expect from you. And people are allowed to not like it.
The goal here is not to be mean or selfish. But it is to become clear about what’s ok and what’s not ok. Being clear on how people can and can’t treat you is money in the self-worth bank, and it teaches important lessons to the other humans, big and small in your life. It teaches them not only how to treat you, but also that they can become more capable themselves, and maybe they too can start to develop boundaries if they have been struggling.
Growth is always uncomfortable. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth doing.