Four things I learned about boundaries in 2017


Boundaries are important. Both in the personal lives of the women I know, and in the life of community organizing, I’ve been hearing a lot of conversations recently about the importance of having them, setting them, and respecting them.

But how do we do that? What does it look like to have boundaries? In an increasingly individualized world, when we are struggling to take care of ourselves and each other, it can be really difficult. I am someone who cares deeply about the people around me, and I like to put my skills to use both as a support person for my friends and as a community organizer. I value generosity, compassion, and forgiveness. But I also struggle with workaholism and anxiety, which limits my capacity sometimes. When it feels like people need me, it can feel impossible to say no to helping out. How do I do the work that is important to me, and care for those around me, without overextending myself and burning out?

This year was a year of growth and change for me. I quit my job, ended a long-term relationship, went travelling, and started to put more time into the projects that I care about most — the ones that drive me. In 2017 I have learned a ton about caring for myself in the midst of feeling needed, and I wanted to share some of those lessons.

1. Boundary setting doesn’t always sound like “no”.

Sometimes it’s someone who doesn’t answer their phone or their emails as quickly as others would like, or who says things like “I will respond tomorrow” even when an issue seems urgent. People often apologize for taking a long time to respond to emails or otherwise get back to me, because our society has begun to teach us that if we are not instantly available to those around us, then we are not adequate friends or workers.

We need to learn to respect people who take a bit of time to respond to things that are not urgent — or who disagree about whether something is urgent at all. There are usually other things going on that we don’t know about and that might take precedent, and there might be other ways of dealing with a problem than expecting people to be available at a moment’s notice (see #4).

When someone sets a boundary, sometimes it can feel a lot like rejection, especially if they are saying no to something personal, or if someone you care about does not let you into a part of their life.

It’s really important to work through our feelings of rejection in a way that does not pressure a person to do things that are not healthy for them. Talking to a third party about the feelings is a good way to do this. If we work through our feelings in a healthy way and the person’s boundaries are respected, often relationships can morph into something different but healthier for everyone involved.

2. It can be really hard to learn how to set boundaries, but it’s not impossible.

There was a time when I thought I could never learn to take space for myself even when people needed me. Then this fall, I spent five weeks in a monastery with very little internet access. I was forced to live in the present moment and engage only with the world and the people that were right in front of me. When I left and came back to my regular life, something really amazing happened: I started to feel really comfortable turning off my phone. I even deleted Facebook from it. And it felt good — easy, even. I am dealing with my anxiety more fully and keeping it under control better than I ever have before.

This is not to say that people shouldn’t contact me or that I don’t want them to. In fact, it’s because when they do contact me, I want to be rested and helpful. By turning my phone off, letting my voicemail do it’s job, and being unavailable sometimes, I allow myself to be focused and present where I am and in what I am doing. And then when I turn my phone on, I am also more rested and present for the online and phone conversations, too.

Learning how to make boundaries is especially hard for women, who are socialized to be helpful and to say yes when people need things from us — even when it hard on us. The challenge with this is that it’s great to be generous and helpful! Emotional labour is a super important thing. The key is that nobody should be overburdened with it (and men should be learning to take more of it on). In my own life, I have struggled to balance the fact that I value supporting others with the fact that I have limited capacity.

So how do I do this? What I learned this year is that before going out of my way or stretching myself to help somebody, I need to ask myself — would this person go out of their way for me, if our roles were reversed? This is not to say that someone who can’t return a favour doesn’t deserve to be cared for. But if I am going to go out of my way for somebody, it’s important to consider: if they could support me, would they?

This is a way to make sure that I am surrounding myself with others who value each other and care for each other, and that emotional labour is not one-sided. Everyone deserves to be supported, at the end of the day, I need my community to be composed of people who value interdependence.

3. It’s easier to rely on people who have boundaries.

Have you ever known a person who says “yes” to everything, and then sometimes doesn’t show up to things? I’ve noticed that when people are like this, it becomes hard to trust them to do the things they say they are going to do. And when they do show up to things, they are sometimes not very good at being present and focused.

Nobody can say yes to everything. And while we have all flaked out every once in a while, saying no can be a really powerful tool in building trust and understanding.

One thing I have learned is that when someone says “no”, it means they know how to think through whether something is within their capacity. So if they have said no to me in the past, when they do say “yes” (to something else), then I can be confident that they have thought through whether it is a good idea for them to help out, and whether they have the time and energy for it.

When people say “no”, it can be a sign that they are living their lives intentionally and thoughtfully.

4. Boundaries only function in community.

I am extremely lucky. If I call a friend because I’m having a shitty time and I need help, and they don’t answer, it’s not usually a big deal because I know that I have a lot of other amazing friends to call on.

Similarly, when sharing tasks equally among a group, every once in awhile, someone is going to forget or fail at a task, or be forced to say “no” to something they normally take responsibility for. This is normal. When you have a group that is well-connected and well balanced, someone else should be able to pick up the slack.

However, if your community is too small, or not enough people have the skills or know what’s going on, when someone says they can no longer do an important task, it can cause problems. If they are the only person who knew how to do the task, either the task will no longer get done, or others might be tempted to pressure the person to coming back and doing the task. It makes it hard for boundaries to function the way they are meant to.

The solution is to build community, foster interdependence and do skill sharing. When there are more people around who can help — who have the skills and understand what’s needed — then when one person says no, there will be other people to call on. This doesn’t mean it’s okay to abandon responsibilities and expect other people to pick up the pieces. But if you combine interdependence with good communication and accountability, boundaries can be respected more easily, and things can still get done.