What even is a boundary anyway?

I feel like this is a topic that has been popping up in almost all aspects of my life recently and when discussing it with my people, it has in theirs, too.

Over the last 12 months, with the craziness that has enveloped the world, there has been a big focus on mental health and wellness that for me, has resulted in a lot of conversations around vulnerability and boundaries. Yet, many people struggle with the concept of what a boundary even is, what it means, how to support it and how to handle any rebuttle.

So let’s discuss.

I spent a good majority of my life being a ‘yes’ woman. Can I work an extra shift even if it means figuring out another day of daycare for my kids? You bet. Can I go out of my way to help someone who doesn’t drive pick up some gumtree furniture? Sure thing. Can I create a manual on how to run a telco department for a multi-million dollar company, without any recognition or additional renumeration? Of course I can.
Let me be clear: this was not to people please. I was very much a ‘no fuck’s given’ type of person. This was always about ambition and representation. Of course as a woman I could do the same job, and better, than my male counterpart. Of course, as a mother, I could work like I didn’t have children. Of course, I wanted to be the friend and colleague who could be relied on, at the detriment of my own needs. Of course, no question, I could do it all, and do it well, and whatever stress happened was normal.

I see a lot of women doing this, trying to be every thing to everyone. I saw through various careers, prior to becoming a chiropractor, was a lack of representation of successful women, who also wore the hats of mother, wife, friend and confidant, who didn’t succumb to the stress and fatigue that came with it. Not me, that wasn’t what my life was going to surmount to.

Enter, Covid19.

All of a sudden, the title of busy woman, that I wore like a badge of honour, not only wasn’t possible, it was completely taken away by an unprecedented worldwide lockdown. I was faced with the prospect of a uni closure for an indefinite amount of time, with a work-from-home husband and my kids not attending school.

(Privileged problems, yes, but we aren’t here to compare suffering, people).

For some context, it had already been quite a tumultuous few months to start the year (future blog incoming or check out my #theweeklycheckin video here), so the prospect of more uncertainty, more of the unknown, more bridges we hadn’t yet crossed made me feel like I was suddenly surrounded with a pressure I hadn’t felt before.

That’s, I guess, where my journey with boundaries began. Like many people, the comparison of who had it harder came hard and fast. I didn’t know, or perhaps even couldn’t relate to people who were feeling joyous about time off uni, off clinic, and revelling in more study time. I couldn’t align with the parents who were thrilled their kids would be home with them for at least another month. It wasn’t my reality, but all of a sudden my ability to see others’ situations objectively was gone. So the first thing I did was de-activate my facebook account and leave all my group chats on messenger.

I know, I know, it sounds so tacky and petty and maybe even unnecessary. However, I wasn’t handling this discourse that had no nuance, and certainly no room for multiple feelings, thoughts and opinions, very well. It wasn’t healthy for my mental health, and was filtering into how I was showing up in the physical world.

I set a boundary.

The world already felt like it was ending, and in this moment it became apparent to me that for far too long, I had been putting the needs of everyone else, the need to climb the proverbial ladder, the need to be successful, above every single aspect of my health; physical, emotional and spiritual.

It became abundantly clear, relatively quickly, that something had needed to change for a while and that this, somewhat small boundary, was the best place to start.

So, how was this exactly a boundary, and not just me being like, “nope, not today, satan”?

At its core, a boundary is when we can comfortably say no to something, without any associated guilt or feelings of inadequcy. For me, this is one of the first times I set a boundary that wasn’t as a defensive reflex (hello, unfollow button), but rather a recognition that there was a particular thing (facebook) that provided a platform for me to continuously feel less-than. I understood that the intention of the people on the otherside of the conversations wasn’t to make me feel how I was, and nor was it their responsibility to. It was the universe’s way of saying, “girl, you know this has been coming for a while”, because it really had been.

Having that boundary in place allowed me a freedom that I don’t think I had experienced as an adult. I started to not feel guilty about not making plans. I started to take my days slower, to have more flexibility and spontaneity. In general, just feel happier and have the space to explore my feelings and triggers about the ever evolving situation around me. What, perhaps, I didn’t anticipate was how my new-found lightness impacted poeple who weren’t used to me saying no.

Because, let’s be honest, it’s one thing to put up a boundary, it’s quite another to be able to explain it to others, and have them take it how you intended, or even not be prepared for them to put a boundary upof their own.

This is where boundary setting, I believe, really requires time and patience on both sides. We cannot simply put up a boundary with people or circumstances that were previously completely, 100% fine and then without seemingly rhyme or reason, say no. Do you need to justify yourself, absolutely not, but there is certainly room for an explanation as to why this new-found boundary is important and specific to you. I also feel that when we set a boundary, we need to allow the space for the recipitents to acknowledge their own boundaries (set, or otherwise) in how their new interactions will be with you.

As an example, if you had previously found yourself at relatives’ functions, and left thinking “wow, I’m drained and that was a supreme waste of my time”, and then deciding in future that you’re going to lovingly decline invitations, you need to be prepared for someone to say, “well if that is how you feel, the easiest thing for me (or them) to do is not invite you anymore”. This might seem obvious, but in setting a boundary of not attending specific events, the idea of not even being invited anymore may not have crossed your mind. Similarly, the other person or people are allowed to be upset and express themselves, and therefore come to a solution that makes both of you feel ok about the situation.

Does that make sense? In setting a boundary, we need to be accepting of, and OK with, a boundary being set in return.

That’s the thing about a boundary, it is always going to have 2 sides. It can be confronting when that happens, but what we all need to realise and accept is that it is still working for us, not against us, and allowing space for the person on the other side to honour their own needs is important, as well.

Finally, do boundaries have to be in place forever? Of course not. In my experience, I have found it helpful to be open and honest with who I need to about why specific expectation may change, and why. Once it becomes the norm to have very open and authentic conversations, having hard boundaries often becomes un-needed, as we now have the capacity to speak our minds without judgement.

That’s what it’s all about, after all.

With love always,

A x

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