If I ask you what a boundary is, what comes to mind? Most people think boundaries are something we create to tell other people how they need to behave. This is 100% backwards.
A boundary is a decision you make for yourself about what you’ll do if a certain behavior happens around you that you don’t want to be around.
Some people have a boundary about not having cigarette smoke in their home, while others have a boundary about not being touched without permission. For some people swearing is a boundary, while for others it’s just part of any fun conversation.
That’s because boundaries have nothing to do with how “bad” a behavior is. Most people think a boundary is to keep us “safe” from other people and is appropriate when someone else’s behavior gets “bad” enough.
But that’s not the most useful way to decide how to make a boundary. Because if you believe the other person’s behavior is wrong and shouldn’t be happening, you’ll be resistant to it and want it to change, which means you’re mentally and emotionally focused on changing the other person (rather than on caring for yourself and taking whatever action you need to take).
Then it becomes about them in your brain—why they’re doing it, what it means about them, if they’ll stop doing it, if they’re sorry, how you can get them to stop, etc. It produces an enormous amount of mental and emotional spin about the other person, and it produces cognitive dissonance and paralysis, instead of action.
That’s why I teach you’re not ready to make a boundary until 2 things are true:
- You’re making the decision out of love for yourself. You accept (or maybe even love) the other person the way they are. You truly understand they are “allowed” to do what they’re doing—and they will probably keep on doing it.
- You’re 100% ready to enforce the boundary. If you set a boundary hoping it will change the other person’s behavior, you’re not setting an effective boundary.
Now let’s play this out if I’m in unconditional love with myself and someone else and know something is an absolute boundary for me. Maybe it’s cheating, yelling, or using physical force. When it happens, I know I’m going to leave the space immediately. It has nothing to do with whether they’re a good or bad person. I don’t have to spend mental energy thinking about any of that—I know my boundary, and I leave that space immediately and don’t go back if it’s crossed. That gives me so much power and freedom. Focusing on the behavior I want to be around, instead of whether or not they’re a good person, or if I did something wrong, or if they’ll change, immediately eliminates all of the confusion about what I should do.
Focusing on the actions you don’t want to be around makes it totally irrelevant what the other person says about why they did the thing, or what they say about you, or even what you think about yourself. It doesn’t matter. If the behavior happens, you know what the consequence is for you, what you’ll do. And that creates so much more clarity and action.
(As an aside, this is why it fascinates me that people get angry about my work because they think I should acknowledge other people can gaslight you and control your thoughts. Even if that were true (which I don’t believe it is), isn’t teaching someone how to take back their own brain the most important empowering thing we can do? If we don’t change our thoughts, nothing in our lives will ever change, because our thoughts are what produce our actions.)
So here’s how to make a boundary:
1. Coach yourself until you feel clear if you can. The other person will likely not change their behavior, so get ok with that. Know and understand they’re allowed to behave however they want (they’re already doing it whether you approve or not), and that the boundary is for you—not to control them.
2. Decide exactly what the boundary is. What’s the triggering action? What will you do? Don’t be vague.
A few examples:
If my mother tells me I need to lose weight, I’ll say “I love you, but I’m not talking about this with you.” If she brings it up again, I will hang up the phone.
If a date tries to touch me without my permission, I will leave the date.
If my partner yells at me, I’ll say, “I love you, and I’m ready to talk about this when you can talk to me without yelling,” and I’ll leave the room.
3. Commit to keeping the boundary and mean it. If you make a half-hearted boundary and aren’t willing to follow through, it’s the worst of both worlds. You don’t take care of yourself, you feel frustrated that you weren’t able to control the other person (which you can’t) and you lose integrity with yourself.
When you’re starting thought work, you’ll be tempted to set a lot of boundaries about things other people say or do that aren’t physically dangerous to you. It makes sense because you’re just learning how to manage your mind.
That’s why the first part, where you make sure you’re clear and don’t believe the other person is wrong and must change is so important. That’s how you’ll know if you’re ready to set a boundary and able to follow through. Over time you’ll find you need fewer and fewer boundaries about what other people say or do, but you’ll feel freer than ever.