How to Boundaries

For Brigid, Katy, Becky

Disclaimer

My knowledge in this area feels incomplete. I'm still learning about boundaries, but I'd like to share what I think I've learned and then come back and update it when I've learned more.[1]

Current working theory

Boundaries are an inherrent property of all humans. They may be hidden, but they are always there. So when someone seems to have 'no boundaries' it's not really that they don't have boundaries, but that they act and/or speak in a way that is inconsistent with the boundaries they do have. For example, if they've grown up in an abusive family, where their boundaries were repeatedly violated, their boundaries may seem absent, but there still is a natural place where their boundaries would be if they were there. It's that potential place I'm talking about that's the real 'boundaries'. People who don't think they have boundaries are either very very very unusual, or are ignorant about where their boundaries are.[2].

How to have boundaries

For each boundary, you need to discover it, act upon it, and express it in words.

Discover

There are words and behaviours that when people do them, you feel uncomfortable, or react in some way.

Some of them you may want to express as resentments: "I resent you for [specific action or words said]". But there are some that you feel unsafe around. An extreme example might be: when someone punches you in the face. You might want to tell them you resent them for punching you in the face. You might also want to not interact with them anymore. If the thought of never experiencing that with them again brings great relief, you may have discovered a boundary.

I presume[3] not everyone has the same set of boundaries. There are probably some that are very common, but you have to investigate to find all of yours. You may be surprised at the things you can't cope with and need to avoid.

As with the Radical Honesty practice of expressing resentments, specificity matters. Find the exact behaviour that is unacceptable to you.

Act upon

When you've discovered a boundary, sometimes there is an action to be taken, such as avoiding interaction with the face puncher in public spaces, or acting to remove the face puncher from spaces that are yours.

Sometimes the action is more like a lack of action. Your friend invites you to their birthday party. Face Puncher will be there. You would normally have been polite and gone to the party despite the presence of Face Puncher. Instead you decline the invitation.

You may be in an intimate relationship with someone who does and says things you can't cope with. In this case, acting upon the boundaries you've discovered may mean breaking up with them.

TL;DR: Don't hang out with people who are harmful to you. This may require bravery and discipline.

Describe

Speech offers an opportunity for boundaries to be known by others, adapted to and respected.

I've found that my boundaries can all be expressed in terms of conditional wants and agreements:

If you don't agree not to do X, I don't want to do Y with you.

e.g. If you don't agree not to punch me in the face (or anywhere else, now I think about it), I don't want to spend time with you.

Notice that it's an agreement not to do something, rather than a positive agreement to do something. If you don't want to do something with someone unless they do specific actions (for example, you won't make dinner for them unless they agree to wash the dishes afterwards) then that's a regular agreement, but not a boundary. See also, asking for what you want without a guarantee of getting it (Radical Honesty again).

Also notice it's an agreement not to do/say X, rather than actually not doing or saying X. Natural boundaries have a bit of flex in them. When someone does the thing, you can then remind them "You agreed not to do/say that". If at that point they recant their agreement then you probably need to go back to acting upon your boundaries. If they apologise but seem to make no improvement, you might question whether they are willing, or even able to respect your boundaries.

I'm thinking of the incident that led to the death of my Minecraft server. A player said that if anyone said X to them, they would leave the server. A short time later, a player (me, as it happened) said X to them, and they left. If they had instead said "unless everyone agrees not to say X, I'll leave" they could have saved themselves a lot of trouble. mmm maybe this whole discussion of agreements belongs in the agreements article I haven't written yet.

It can also be "If you don't agree to X I won't do Y", but the "I won't want to do Y" means you can still express your boundaries even while they aren't being respected, and without taking any actions. "I want you to leave my house".

I'm not very pleased with this section. It's not been planned out well. So now I'm watching my mind beat itself up about this.

Mixed messages

Saying you don't want to interact with someone if they don't agree not to punch you in the face, and then when they don't agree not to punch you in the face, you hang out with them anyway, tells them that you didn't really mean it.

Either the description of your boundary is incorrect, or you aren't acting in accordance with your natural boundary, or both. You might find that a mixed message is a sign that the 'boundary' you expressed would be better expressed as a resentment.

How to respect other people's invisible boundaries

This is something I'm still learning, and not ready to write about.[4]

Boundaries vs Resentments

I'm not totally clear whether there is truly a distinction between a resentment[5] and a boundary, but if there is I think it's something like this:

When you would keep thinking about the thing that the person did or said even if you had no contact with them anymore, it's a resentment. There is 'unfinished business' - truth to tell.

When you wouldn't think about what they said or did, so long as you didn't have to interact with them anymore, it's a boundary.

With resentments, expressing the resentment is what's needed for closure.

With boundaries, all that's needed for closure is not interacting with that person, or perhaps at most, informing them of the boundary.

Self Aggrandisement

Look how clever I am that I figured all this stuff out. People will like me now because I'm clever, that's how it works right? People like clever people?! Actually no that's not my experience. Maybe it's just about dad. Dad will love me if I say clever things because he values cleverness.

I do think/hope though that people will value me if I say clever things. If I utter wise words, I will be liked, I will be invited to parties, I will be asked out on dates, I will be offered nice food to eat, I will not be neglected.


  1. I'm saying this because I care so much about being right and being accurate. Actually my whole life revolves around being right. I work day in day out to become more right. Even my pursuit of enlightenment, of truth, is an attempt to become more right. Sigh.
    In this case it's also about appearing right to you. ↩︎

  2. hey look at me being all authoritative, like I know things! ↩︎

  3. see how I express doubt where I'm not sure, to be extra accurate and right ↩︎

  4. again, look how wise, authoritative and self aware I sound! ↩︎

  5. note to self: I really need to get that Radical Honesty article written ↩︎

Freyr LePage

autistic, nonbinary, white, middle class

United Kingdom