Boundaries 101 Rule 1

Be sure to read the Introduction to our Boundaries Blog Series here: Boundaries 101

I learn some of the best lessons from stories, so I want to teach about boundaries through a unique tale of my own. Last week, our blog discussed what healthy boundaries are and how they are often crossed. Here, I want to explain the first of my four pivotal rules for setting boundaries in order to foster healthy relationships.

When I lived in Chicago for graduate school, I developed a friendship with an older woman named Hoa (pronounced “Wa”). When we met, Hoa was sixty-five-years-old and had lived a troubled life. She had raised herself from the age of eleven, survived the Vietnam war, been severely burned in a house fire where she lost a grandchild, and had multiple medical issues including severe arthritis. Understandably, Hoa had a lot of needs, which made it hard to set boundaries with her and stick to them.

Hoa did not like taking “no” for an answer, and it was routine for her to ask two, three, or even four times for something after she had been denied. It was this habit that made it difficult to decline her requests, even when I had other priorities.

One day, early on a Saturday morning, my roommates and I woke to the sound of someone banging our door down. I crawled downstairs to see what the problem was, and Hoa was standing at the door.

“Could you come help me flip a mattress?”

I stared at her in disbelief. “Why on Earth does she think this is the right time of day to ask for something like this?!” I thought to myself. I didn’t yell, but I made it clear that she could not wake us up on a weekend unless there was an emergency - we needed our sleep. Even through our language barrier (her English was discernible but not good), she understood that she had crossed a boundary. She apologized and never again knocked on our door early in the morning.

Hoa requested help like this from others in the neighborhood, and several who had lived there for longer had become frustrated with her assertiveness. Once, I was talking with one of these neighbors, and we saw Hoa from a distance. She said to me, “you know, Hoa asks us for help because she knows we’re Christians and can’t say no."

Instead of clearly articulating what her boundaries were (such as “I can only give you a ride or help you out once a week”), my neighbor became resentful; she expected Hoa to inherently know that it was rude to her for someone to continually ask for help.

This leads me to my first rule for boundaries: You must define what your boundaries are and communicate them clearly. When someone crosses one of our boundary lines, we have a responsibility to let them know. We are not to blame for someone else’s unacceptable behavior towards us, but we owe it to ourselves and to them to make clear what is okay with us and what is not okay. Too often we use the excuse of “they should know better” to justify our resentment, gossip, and bitterness.

Sometimes, as in the case with Hoa and the mattress, a person may not know that they are behaving inappropriately towards us. Too often, I see people expecting others to know their boundaries from subtle hints or non-verbal communication - “I thought he would get the message…”.

Defining your boundaries and articulating them to someone else often involves awkward conversations. You must be firm and articulate with convicted civility where they crossed a line. “You may not speak to me like that,” and “I’m not going to continue having this conversation,” are good examples.

Additionally, you do not need to justify your boundaries. Certainly, there are times when the boundaries people set for others are unrealistic or unreasonable. However, practically speaking, these are few and far between. Most people have a problem with boundaries that are crossed too often (being too permissive), rather than boundaries with unrealistic expectations (being too strict). Healthy interpersonal boundaries are your right, not something you have to earn or legitimize.

In summary: define your boundaries personally, communicate those defined boundaries in a loving way, and do not apologize for your healthy boundaries.

In my future posts, I’ll continue my story about Hoa and discuss my second rule for boundaries. If you would like help identifying boundaries in your life, we at The Well Clinic would love to serve you in establishing and strengthening meaningful relationships!