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Setting Boundaries in Our Social Lives

Relationships benefit from the boundaries we enforce.

Key points

  • When we have boundaries, we are better able to interact with those around us with confidence and security.
  • These skills are particularly valuable around the holidays, when expectations and emotions are high.
  • Do not feel compelled to compromise your boundaries with someone who has a history of disrespecting you.
Paul McGowan / Pixabay
Paul McGowan / Pixabay

Co-Authored with Melody Murray M.A., LMFT, CMHS

I want you to imagine a quaint cottage in a lovely little village. Everyone you know and interact with lives in this village, and you live in your cottage. You have dedicated time, money and effort to get this cottage to become a safe and hospitable haven for yourself. In order to protect all your hard work and loving care, you have built a beautiful yet strong fence around your cottage with an ornate and lockable gate. You love your cottage so much that you also want to share what it has to offer. You know that to amplify the joy of your cottage is to bring others in. When those others respect your cottage and enjoy it as much as you do, your joy is multiplied.

However, some people you invite into your cottage may disrespect it, not like how you’ve decorated or nonsensically break things that you love. When this happens, we remember the fence and the gate. Once we see how people treat our cottage, we decide if they are invited back. This village of everyone we know and interact with may, at times, be filled with bad actors, or once-friends who are now not-friends, or even family that is not safe. While they may remain in the village, they do not need to remain on the guest list of our cottage. The fence and the gate operate as a way to let those in that share in our joy and to keep those out that take away from our safety.

This is how boundaries work in our lives. The cottage of our lives is our self, personhood, values, body, family—anything that is ours and we choose to protect. The fence and gate are the boundaries that we use to protect it.

Expectation Management with Social Engagements

Having firm personal boundaries will help you maintain your sanity and draw clear lines between what you want to do and what you can or will do. Give yourself time to think about all of the invitations you’ve received. Be honest with yourself about how you feel about each one. Acknowledge where you feel excited, stressed, or exhausted by certain invitations and allow these feelings to dictate your participation. You should give yourself permission to decline invitations that don’t feel good. It’s your duty to listen to yourself. If you show up to an event resentful, who are you serving? Definitely not yourself.

When you decide to decline invitations, do it in a way that serves you but do it with enough time for others to work around you when necessary. If your home is the usual spot for dinner, inform others of your decision so they can make new arrangements. If you normally supply the desserts or the drinks, tell the host so they can find someone else to fill the gaps.

People will adjust. You have a right to take care of yourself even if that means others have to get used to your absence. If they are angry by you removing yourself that shows that they need better coping skills to manage changes. It’s not your job to teach those coping skills. It’s also not your responsibility to maintain dysfunctional systems.

Communicate what you want to do, and, more importantly, communicate what you don’t want to do, but keep explanations to a minimum. Some people want to know the thoughts behind your decisions so they can poke holes in your rationale in order to serve themselves. Remember, “no” is a complete sentence.

Practical Tips for Establishing Boundaries

  • Alternate lodging while traveling to see family. Just because you are traveling for a holiday does not mean you have to stay in the home of someone with whom you anticipate friction.
  • Minimize communication.
  • Don't engage in family gossip. You are allowed to say, “I’d rather not discuss this without ______ present.”
  • Allow yourself to be decisive. It's easy to endlessly ruminate on what to do to make someone in the family “happy,” but this dance violates your boundary of autonomy. You can absolutely be gracious and hospitable, while also remaining decisive in your choices around family and friends.
  • Leaving. You are allowed to leave without reason and without justification. Adulthood has its hard knocks (like taxes and having to wait at the DMV), but the major benefit is that we are no longer the helpless children in our caretakers' household with no choice and no escape.

Handling Potential Challenges

There are some people who will not respect your boundaries. People will resist changes, especially if they are being inconvenienced. The people most resistant to your boundaries are those who benefited most by you not having them. Set boundaries anyway. Even if someone doesn’t respect your boundaries, you need to know how much they do or do not respect you. Your boundaries will give you the permission to end the relationship or adjust your expectations of the relationship.

If you feel you are seen as an equal and valuable partner in your relationships, it’s okay to be open to negotiating a boundary. If you feel resistance (and feel respected), ask the other person what would feel comfortable for them. If you feel comfortable sharing why you’ve created a specific boundary, feel free to do so. Compromise where necessary and appropriate. When compromising, know that you’re not asking for permission.

Do not feel compelled to compromise your boundaries with someone who has a history of disrespecting you. If you have narcissistic or manipulative people in your circle, think twice before negotiating with them. You will probably lose because some people don’t care how their behaviors affect others. Regardless, stay open and willing to see things from other points of view while still validating your needs for your boundaries. When necessary, illicit support from people who you know love and support your way of being.

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