Boundaries can seem like a big (and intimidating) word, especially to people who haven’t set many limits throughout their lives. If you’re a people-pleaser, you know what I mean. However, the good news is that setting boundaries is an acquired skill. We can learn some tools and then practice them over and over. We don’t have to resign ourselves to doing things we’re uncomfortable with because that’s what we used to do. We can make healthy changes.
In her newest book Rising Strong: The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution., Brené Brown, Ph.D, LMSW, includes a helpful question we can ask ourselves when creating boundaries: “What boundaries do I need to put in place so I can work from a place of integrity and extend the most generous interpretations of the intentions, words and actions of others?”
Brown includes an example from artist Kelly Rae Roberts: When her career as an artist took off, Roberts noticed that some of her followers and students were copying her art pieces and selling them online. In response, she penned a blog post called “What Is and Is Not Okay.”
She created two columns: “It’s Not Okay” and “It’s Okay.” For instance, under “It’s Not Okay,” she wrote: “To publish videos or photos on your blogs and websites showing my book, class step-by-step instructions, or painting process.” Under “It’s Okay,” she wrote: “To send me an email asking if you can use one of my images for any reason.”
That’s how she laid out her boundaries — as two lists of what’s OK and what isn’t. (By the way, here’s the post.) Which I find to be a really helpful framework for thinking about our own boundaries. Because it’s simple and straightforward. Because it reduces boundaries to their most basic and truest form: Something that someone says to us or does is either OK or not OK with us.
What is OK and not OK with you? What are you OK with when it comes to how people treat you? What are you not OK with when it comes to how people treat you?
It’s also helpful, as Brown mentions in her question above, to assume that people have good intentions. I think one of the reasons why we’re afraid to set boundaries and speak up is that we’re worried it’s harsh and mean. We feel like we’re being rude or aggressive or ungrateful. But we don’t need to shout our boundaries. We don’t need to communicate them in angry, bitter tones. We don’t have to set our boundaries with a scowl, or a chip on our shoulders.
For instance, Roberts included these words in her post: “I hope this clears things up. I know that most people who have crossed the line have done so without intention. And most didn’t mean any harm whatsoever. But I think it’s important that we all continue to be good stewards of the creative life and continue to gently educate on what’s appropriate and what’s not, especially because breaking copyright law is very serious business…”
Boundaries are firm. But there’s always room for compassion and calm. For instance, Brown includes these helpful examples of boundaries:
- “I care about you and I’m sorry that you’re going through a hard time. But I need to talk to you about what’s okay and what’s not okay.”
- “I know the holidays are hard for you. I want you to come over on Christmas Eve and be with us, but I’m not comfortable with your drinking so much that you get drunk.”
- I understand that there’s a lot of conflict between you and one of the other team members. This is a stressful project, and it’s miserable for all of us to work under this constant tension. It’s not sustainable. I need you to clean it up by next week or you’ll be pulled off the team. What’s your preference, and how can I support you?”
- “Yes I love you. Yes, I made bad choices when I was your age. Yes, you’re still grounded.” (I’m setting this one aside for the future!)
Communicating our boundaries in this way is powerful. As Brown writes, “When we combine the courage to make clear what works for us and what doesn’t with the compassion to assume people are doing their best, our lives change.”
What works for you? What doesn’t? What’s OK with you? What isn’t OK with you?