Emotional Ergonomics: Boundaries and Self-Compassion

Updated: Jan 3

Boundaries have, in some ways, become a buzzword. People use "boundary" to describe personal boundaries, relationship agreements, rules, and a variety of other phenomena that effectively cover the spectrum of things you deliberately want to let into your relationships (or not). We've talked before, on the podcast and the blog, about boundaries, but I've got a few more thoughts I want to get out today.

The first is the one I personally struggle the most with - that personal boundaries only come into effect when we enforce them. Personal boundaries should be something that inform how we behave before they get bumped into, and that we've made people in our lives aware of, so that they aren't constantly being abutted and bounced off of to need enforcement. But, when they are being overstepped or run into, putting up a concrete consequence (like, for example, leaving the room and only restarting the conversation when folks can use lower tones if someone begins to yell, if you have a boundary that you won't be screamed at in conflicts) is the only way folks know that your boundary is real. Allowing someone to misbehave in exactly the same manner and telling them that it's fine but please don't do it again, over and over, does not teach them that there's a boundary there. Another example I've heard used is being charged a late fee or no-show fee for being excessively late for appointments for therapy or coaching, for example, because being more than 10 or 15 min late can throw off the provider's entire schedule for the rest of the day.

A lot of times the boundary examples we use when we talk about this are "deal breakers" so people don't want to enforce them, or they find that the way they phrased them was excessively strong and that it's not relationship-ending just uncomfortable - an issue they need to make an agreement around, but not end a relationship for - and that is challenging. It still doesn't mean that letting someone walk all over either a boundary or an agreement you've made is acceptable. And yes, people don't know our boundaries are there until we tell them, but if you have, it is well within your rights to enforce boundaries and it is a kindness to your friends and partners to do so. It makes you less likely to resent them and more likely to mutually interact well and with kindness over time if everyone is acting in respect of each others' boundaries. The Multiamory podcast's episode on the basics of boundaries does an awesome job talking about the ways that enforcing a boundary doesn't have to be a life-or-death thing for a relationship, if you want an extra resource on that.

The second thing I've been spending a lot of time thinking about with regard to boundaries lately is the way that, because they're so personal, boundaries are like creating an emotionally ergonomic environment for ourselves. There isn't a perfect "should" to what we want that to look like - everyone's will be different based on history, needs, and so on. Self-compassion is really important to this process. If you're a recovering people-pleaser like me, you may struggle a lot with "I shouldn't feel this way," with wanting your feelings to catch up to where you can logic yourself out to - and violate your own boundaries in the process. This causes resentment within your interpersonal relationships because you end up feeling stressed and self-sacrificing - just like your back or knees end up feeling off if you sit in a chair that's the wrong height for your desk - even if your partner doesn't ask you to sacrifice anything, and you take it on yourself. That isn't their fault, it's your own for not acknowledging and enforcing your boundaries. It's their issue if you do acknowledge and attempt to enforce a boundary - and you're not responsible for their feelings about you enforcing it - but the resentment I'm talking about is the product of allowing your boundary to be overstepped, not maintaining your personal standards bubble.

This doesn't mean that you impose rules on other people's behavior to feel better - boundaries are about what you will do and what you will tolerate - but often, respecting your own boundaries means taking a very real reckoning of which things in life are yours and of you, that you can control; or one degree away from you and affect you, that you can react to and control your reaction to or action in regard or response to; or what is at a greater degree of removal that you mostly have to come to peace with, or determine what about that thing happening at a greater degree of removal impacts the things and people that affect you, that you then can have boundaries about your actions and reactions to.

Let me clarify with a polyamorous example. The things you control are pretty clear - they are yourself, and your actions. One degree out from you are family, friends, partners - the people you directly interact with, in their interactions with you. You cannot control them, but they affect you, and your reactions to their actions are within the scope of boundaries. A further degree of removal would be people like metamours, partners' friends or coworkers, or friends-of-friends who we know but aren't directly interacting with. When their actions aren't directly affecting us, but are affecting our friends or partners, we may have emotional reactions, but it's not our business. Sometimes this is positive (like when we feel a great deal of compersion, or when or partner gets a promotion at work and we're really glad their efforts are recognized) and sometimes it's negative (as when their boundaries are different from ours and they are happy with or tolerate behavior we never would). Occasionally some part of these second-hand interactions does affect us more directly - a partner needing to reschedule with us a lot because a meta is flaking on them repeatedly for example - and then we can have a conversation and set a boundary around the part that affects us.