Emotional Ergonomics: Boundaries and Self-Compassion
Updated: Jan 3, 2022
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.
Poor boundaries can be boundaries that are too porous, allowing everyone to step all over you and your needs, like we talked about above, or too rigid. In a technical sense, rigidity in boundaries is when you overcompensate and enforce your boundary before people get anywhere near it - the emotional equivalent of holding folks at arm's length - but in polyamory it also often manifests as using the concept of a boundary to insist upon strongly enforced rules and agreements that you weaponize against a partner's behavior. Most polyamorous folks have encountered someone - often, but not always, someone relatively new to non-monogamy - who has so many rules around their interactions that it feels like you're climbing an obstacle course to get into a relationship with them. Once things are established, they relax out from there, but all their early interactions are choreographed "to minimize anxiety and respect each others' boundaries" in a way that ignore the potential boundaries of new partners this person and their pre-existing partner might meet. I recommend that folks consider what their boundaries are when making relationship agreements... but also that you consider whether or not something needs to be an explicit agreement or a required "hoop to jump through." Is it a boundary that you meet someone before your partner sleep with them, or is the boundary that you want to meet them, period, if your partner thinks the relationship is going somewhere, and the timing is a preference? Consider that as you make agreements and rules; because fewer rules will leave less space for folks breaking rules. A conversation about discomfort because "hey this preference is stronger than I thought it was," is easier than one on the defensive because "you broke our agreement about introducing me before this action." That's a less deliberate weaponization than when folks do the "If you do <thing X> I'll leave our relationship" (which can be a legitimate boundary statement, but when it's used as punishment or a control tactic around a specific behavior and not self-protection, it can be a weaponization of boundaries. It's also just emotionally disempowering to say "I'll break up if..." and leave it up to them to behave badly again, sometimes. That's a very personal call, but something to consider.
Also, regarding both halves of these thoughts on boundaries I've been having lately - it's hard to start enforcing boundaries with people you aren't in the habit of doing so with. If you're out of this habit in general (If, like me, you've spent a long time in therapy practicing identifying your values in the first place and that you're allowed to tell other people about them and not just know them quietly yourself) it will feel weird when you start asserting them. This is part of the process. Especially if you're in a group our society says is meant to caretake in some way (women, mothers, parents in general to some extent) it may feel selfish or like you're doing something wrong by not putting others' wants ahead of your values. But you deserve to give yourself that respect. The pain of the first several weeks of figuring out how to interact as you assert boundaries with people will give way to feeling better, just like different muscles hurting in a new office chair give way to blissfully not requiring that someone unknot your whole back every couple weeks once you find one at the right height and angle. Your family, friends, and partners love and care for you and will come to respect your assertion of your boundaries (or will prove that they don't actually love and respect you particularly much, which is extremely painful but important information). Everyone is better off when everyone is equally honest about their needs and boundaries. So do the thing. Set boundaries, and enforce them, for your relationships' sakes.
Registration is open for two digital classes in January! On January 9, 2023, at 3pm Eastern, join me for a Polyamory 101 class. Find detailed class info and registration link here. On January 23, 2023, I'm running my most popular class, Beyond the Kitchen Table, an examination of metamour relationships, boundaries, and healthy parallel polyamory, also at 3pm Eastern. You can find more information and the registration link here. Each class is $15 or you can get a bundle ticket to both for $20 here.
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