Remember the terms and conditions you agreed to when you signed up for Facebook? Oh, you don’t? You mean you just scrolled to the bottom and clicked “Agree” without reading the 3,500 words of legalese? If you are like everyone else, chances are that you didn’t read Facebook’s terms and conditions, you haven’t given them a second thought since then, and you’re unlikely to worry about them ever again. That is, until Facebook blocks your account for violating their terms on how much nudity can be shown in a link thumbnail (guilty as charged).
Personal boundaries are like the terms and conditions you have to agree to in order to use Facebook and countless other websites. Everyone has personal boundaries — physical, mental, and emotional. Some people will be up front and clearly explain their boundaries to you at the beginning of your relationship, like a pop-up that won’t go away until you click “Agree” or “Disagree.” Some people will not be as forthcoming, the same way that some sites bury their terms and conditions page in a 6-point font link at the bottom of the page. It doesn’t mean their boundaries don’t exist, but it may be up to you to seek that information. And unfortunately, many people are not cognizant of the boundaries of others or even of their own boundaries until they are violated in some way.
It can be difficult to easily sum up a lengthy terms and conditions document, and personal boundaries can be equally difficult to define. Some people call them “dealbreakers.” Many people in the BDSM community refer to boundaries in terms of “hard limits” and “soft limits.” Many people conflate boundaries with setting up rules or establishing agreements in relationships. However, the defining feature of boundaries is that they are limits, restrictions, or guidelines that you place upon yourself. This is as opposed to a rule, which may be imposed upon you by someone else, or an agreement, which may be formulated between two or more people.
Because boundaries can only be established by you, applied by you, and enforced by you, they are the best tool at your disposal for keeping yourself safe and maintaining integrity and dedication to your values. Boundaries have a contradictory nature in that they are not flexible, but they may shift over the course of your life, and they may look different in each relationship you have. However, be vigilant that your boundaries are changing because you want them to, not because someone else is coercing or forcing you to change them.
Discovering and clarifying your boundaries can be a long and evolving process, but here are three steps to get you started down that path.
1. Determine what behavior from others runs counter to your values.
As mentioned above, sometimes we don’t know what our boundaries are until someone crosses a line. Reflect on a time you got hurt or upset by the actions of past or current romantic partners, family relationships, or friendships. This is a good time to consider what lessons you may have learned from past arguments or what red flags you may have missed early on in a dysfunctional relationship. Here are some examples:
- I caught my partner snooping through my personal text messages and private emails.
- My father has a habit of always interrupting and talking over me when we disagree about something.
- My ex-partner often resorted to calling me names and using abusive language when he was angry.
2. Set a boundary that addresses that behavior.
Remember that boundaries are placed on yourself, which means they are not the tool to keep everyone else in line. They are for protection, not punishment. It may be tempting to use your boundaries as ultimatums in order to get what you want, but this isn’t recommended if you want to have healthy and compassionate relationships. There is no set formula for phrasing boundaries, but here are some examples:
- I will not tolerate someone looking at my text messages or emails without my consent.
- I will not converse with someone who repeatedly interrupts me.
- I will not permit anyone to call me names or use abusive language toward me.
3. Determine how your boundaries will be enforced.
If your boundaries are crossed, and you do nothing about it, then it becomes that much harder to stand up against other boundary violations. Before you know it, you’re in Doormat Town, population: you. Enforcing your boundaries doesn’t have to be dramatic, harsh, or extreme, but it does need to be consistent. Here are some examples:
- If my partner looks at my text messages or emails without my consent, I will activate stricter security measures on my devices, and I will proactively confront her about it.
- If my father interrupts me or talks over me during a disagreement, I will remove myself from the conversation until we are both calmer.
- If a partner calls me names or uses abusive language toward me, I will leave the relationship.
Some boundary enforcement may mean choosing to politely yet firmly speak up when someone crosses a line, or it may mean choosing to end a relationship altogether. If someone repeatedly violates your boundaries, even with your consistent enforcement, it’s probably time to leave the relationship anyway.
One last word of caution: just because you feel uncomfortable with a person’s behavior, it does not automatically mean that they have violated a boundary. For those of us exploring non-traditional relationships or non-monogamous sex lives, it can be hard to tell the difference between a boundary violation and uncomfortable personal growth. It was incredibly uncomfortable for me the first time a partner of mine left to travel on vacation with someone else, but it wasn’t a violation of my boundaries. It’s important to make your boundaries clear to yourself and others so that it’s easier to tell the difference between it’s time to hunker down and tackle some challenging yet positive growth and when it’s time to leave a bad situation or relationship.
If you haven’t already, try writing down a few of your personal boundaries. They don’t have to look like Facebook’s terms and conditions, but even writing down some rough notes can go a long way. Use your notes as a starting point for a conversation with your partners, friends, or family members. Revisit your boundaries every few months and check in with yourself on whether or not you are enforcing them. With time and practice, you’ll find that your boundaries serve as an important yardstick for keeping your relationships accountable and your values intact — no legalese required!