This is the first of a seven-part series on the anatomy of trust. This is based on Brené Brown's work that she wrote about in her most recent book, Rising Strong. The BRAVING acronym is the result of years of her work on shame, vulnerability, and connection, interviewing and combing through those data to find the trends.
The BRAVING acronym is broken down as follows:
Now, let's just be clear on one thing: nobody scores a perfect seven every day of their lives. David Eagleman says that we are perceived by others as being the average of ourselves over time. If we are mostly perky people, we will be thought of as perky; if we are mostly cynical and abrasive, we will be thought of as those things. We may have moments of being the opposite, but it does little to alter the average. Thus, what we're aiming for in this series is to cultivate a reasonable to high average – allowing for a few off-days – rather than constant perfection (which, by the way, is an unattainable and crazy-making goal).
Today, let's deal with boundaries. Cloud and Townsend liken personal boundaries to garden fences. They exist to delineate what belongs to whom, but they leave room for people to come in and help if needed. Boundaries aren't giant impenetrable castle walls, build to keep absolutely everyone out, nor are they non-existent, imaginary concepts that we expect people to 'just know' what and where they are.
People with good boundaries say what they mean, and they mean what they say. While 'no' is a complete sentence, people with good boundaries often find a polite way to set boundaries, for example, they find a kind way to decline invitations for events that they don't have the time or will to attend. At the same time, if you need to set a boundary on someone who has done work on their own boundaries, they're open to that, they can handle their own disappointment, and they don't react negatively.
There are two potential traps to fall into with boundaries – having boundaries that are too strong, and having boundaries that are too weak. Both are the result of pain inside those people. People who have been hurt traumatically in the past tend to get triggered by things that even remotely resemble their past experiences, and will self-protectively rage at you to make you go away (boundaries too strong). On the flip side, people who don't think they're able to say 'no' tend to let people walk all over them, and end up feeling resentful (boundaries too weak).
There are two major kinds of boundaries – those we apply to ourselves, and those we apply to other people. By way of some examples, an internal boundary – one that we set on ourselves – might be eating carbs only on Sundays and eating healthy the rest of the week. An external boundary, on the other hand, would be refusing to pick up work calls after hours (they can text if it's urgent).
What does a good boundary look like?
For starters, a good boundary is one that exists. More of us – as women, very generally, because we are trained from a very young age to put others' needs before our own – tend to err on the side of boundarylessness. A boundary that exists and has been thought out clearly is a very good thing.
A clear boundary is a good boundary. It sets parameters within which other people can reasonably operate, and has a consequence if it's broken. For example, 'If you would like a cigarette while you're at my house, please would you use the smoking area at the end of the garden?' The consequence is implied, but smokers generally know that non-smokers don't like the smell and know that their being invited back to your house is conditional on them respecting your wishes and not smoking in your living room.
A good boundary is appropriate, and deals only with what we can reasonably control. We can only ethically set boundaries on things that are within our control. Setting boundaries on what other people can and can't do to their body/property is considered abuse. There are caveats here for parents and bosses. 'Don't get drunk at work,' is perfectly reasonable, as is 'be home by eight on school nights.'
A flexible boundary is a good boundary. For example, I don't touch children's genitals because I believe in the validity of age-of-consent laws...but there have been times when I have changed a kid's nappy for my friends, because they had too many tasks to take care of in that moment and the nappy change needed to happen urgently. If a boundary isn't flexible, it's more likely to be a trigger point, rather than a neutral delineation of property and responsibility.
A bad boundary is one that's impossible to maintain. For years, I had an internal boundary about jiggling in public...which I broke (and resented myself for breaking) when I'd had a bit to drink and someone put a good song on. 'No crying at work,' is normal and acceptable most of the time, but what about the person who just lost a parent and is having a hard time coping?
How do you set a boundary?
Cribbing heavily from Marshall Rosenberg, a good first step to setting a boundary is to ask why the other person is doing what they're doing. Maybe you were raised with strong feelings about a particular topic and they weren't. Maybe they think they're being nice because that's what they'd want – for example, an extrovert dragging an introvert out for an all-night party session, when the introvert really just wants to be at home alone. There is always the possibility that they're intentionally trying to hurt you, but the rates of pathological sadism are very low and they're more likely doing the best they can under the circumstances.
After you've found out why they do what they do, politely ask them to change their behaviour to fit within both of your boundaries, and set a reasonable consequence (reasonable to enforce, as well as receive) for non-compliance. For example, 'I don't want to brush my teeth in your faeces and urine. Please put the toilet lid down before you flush? If you want to flush with the lid up and spray your excrement around the bathroom, let's hang out at your house or on neutral territory.' If they respond well and change their behaviour, woohoo!
If they respond badly, they're probably having some kind of pain reaction to having a boundary set on them. You might be threatening a part of their identity (regarding the above example, many men seem to think that leaving the toilet seat down is grounds for having their Man Card revoked, and will resist any encouragement to be more hygienic for fear of seeming less of a man). Maybe they had a hyper-controlling parent and have systematically rebelled against rules ever since. Whatever the case may be, it's probably more about them than it is about you.
When setting a boundary, be clear on what you want as an alternative behaviour. 'Be less of an asshole,' for example, is very vague. 'Please use headphones if you want to listen to music while I'm sleeping,' is more helpful, because it provides a clear alternative.
Be very careful when setting consequences that you don't threaten the connection with that person. People generally only feel empowered to change their behaviour if they know they will be accepted and loved regardless. 'No sex for a month,' is a terrible consequence to give a partner, because it threatens the very foundation of the relationship (and enforcing celibacy sucks for you too). 'I will stand over you until that project is complete,' is also counter-productive, because nobody works well under that kind of pressure, and it relegates you to standing for hours on end while they finish work. Only use consequences that don't suck for everyone when you stick to your word.
If someone routinely disrespects your boundaries, even when you ask them to do something differently, that's a black flag. That is demonstrative of contempt for you as a human, and contempt is one of the strongest predictors of future divorce. Incidentally, the equation that predicts divorce based on contempt also works for predicting the outbreak of war between two groups. Contempt is toxic. Run as fast and far as you can from that person/group, because it probably won't end well.
So that's a brief synopsis of boundaries. As mentioned previously, nobody is perfect. We all have off days, and moments when we perform at less than the gold standard. There are times when even the best boundaried people reach breaking point and yell, 'Do that one more time and so help me God, I will kill you with my bare hands!' That said it is (usually) possible to repair relationships after a boundary issue. If you would like more information about this topic, there are some great books on Amazon, written by experts in the field. Check them out, and re-read them annually for a tune-up of your boundaries.