How To Make Boundaries Work in Every Part of Your Life
Why healthy boundaries are not just about saying “No”
Boundaries are more important than ever. In an age where you can work 24/7, not setting boundaries is a surefire way to burn out.
With no boundaries around technology and social media, you’ll find yourself being constantly distracted. And it’s through setting boundaries in your relationships that you grow trust and intimacy. Without clear boundaries in your life, you’re lost.
Boundaries have also become personalized. They used to be set for us, by 9–5 work hours, limited TV schedules, strict institutions of marriage, and so on. It’s now up to each of us to set our own personal boundaries.
But how do we know which boundaries are healthy or unhealthy? We can look around and see people working much harder than us, as well as people working much less. We can see people glued to their phones, and others taking digital detoxes. We can see committed monogamous couples alongside people in open relationships. How do we know what works for us?
To answer that question, we need to understand why boundaries work in the first place. Boundaries provide us with safety, comfort, and security — they protect our free time, our personal space, the risks we’re willing to take. That’s why they’re so important. But too much security can leave us stagnant, overly comfortable in our bubble, unable to reach out and explore the world.
Boundaries work when they provide us with enough comfort and security to start safely exploring the world again — to be free, to play. It’s finding this balance — between security and exploration — that makes boundaries work.
Forget about being a “Yes” or “No” person
Most people understandably think of boundaries as saying “No”. Clearly stating your boundaries, especially in the context of physical touch and personal space, can keep you safe from unwanted attention, harm and abuse.
But “Hard No’s” are only one type of boundary. In her recent best-selling book, Set Boundaries, Find Peace, Nedra Tawwab distinguishes between rigid and healthy boundaries. Rigid boundaries —which include “Hard No’s”—can be useful in extreme situations, to stay safe. But, in the long run, they don’t provide any room for growth, compromise, and exploration.
And yet, the idea of “Saying No” dominates the boundaries landscape. Take these 3 books, for example: The Art of Saying NO, How To Say No Without Feeling Guilty, and Saying No: Why It’s Important for You and Your Child.
Personally, as someone who identifies with being “a nice guy” (which basically means I’m scared of what people will think of me if I’m not nice), I find it hard to say “No”. I read these book titles and think “Huh, maybe I need to get in touch with my “No”? Maybe I need to be more of a “No” person?”
But then I come across these bestsellers: Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes and Yes Man by Danny Wallace (which went on to inspire the film of the same name, starring Jim Carrey). More recently, the film Yes Day, released last month on Netflix, is about how parents should lighten up and stop saying “No” all the time to their kids. Being a “No” person may be empowering, but being a “Yes” person looks like a lot more fun.
The point is there’s no such thing as a “Yes” or “No” person. Sometimes in life, you need to say “No”, sometimes you need to say “Yes”. It’s a balance. If you’re like me and tend to say “Yes” more often, maybe you’ll resonate with the idea of being more of a “No” person. But if you’re the opposite, being more of a “Yes” person might sound more appealing. There is no right answer here.
The problem with seeing life — and ourselves — in terms of saying “Yes” or “No” is that, most of the time, we need to say both. We need to say “No” when something makes us feel unsafe, uncomfortable, and insecure. But, once we feel comfortable and secure enough, we need to start safely saying “Yes” again, exploring the world with renewed vigour.
Failure to say “No” can leave us overly vulnerable, open to harm and abuse. Failure to then say “Yes” — when we’re ready — can leave us overly stuck and rigid, unable to explore and grow again. We need to be both a “No” and “Yes” person, not one or the other. Healthy boundaries are about being both.
The importance of making your boundaries work
Finding this balance between security and exploration — which can only be done through the exercise of healthy boundaries— is key to living a meaningful life. Boundaries work when they help you find this balance.
It’s tempting to think we know what matters in life, and how to get it. For example, you might want career success and a loving relationship. You can achieve the former by setting up an effective routine and working your socks off, and the latter by hitting the dating scene hard.
But the problem is life doesn’t work like that. We often don’t know what’s really good for us. And, even if we did, we almost always don’t know how to achieve it. Will success in our career really make us happy? What if we’re more suited to doing something else? And how do we know the right balance between our career, our hobbies, and our relationships?
Life is complex. Discovering who you are and what matters is an ongoing process — a messy and uncertain one at that. Achieving success is impossible without making many mistakes and failures along the way. Finding love is impossible without being vulnerable and getting hurt at some point.
That’s why both security and exploration are so important. Security is what gives your life stability and structure: it’s your plan for the next day/week/year; it’s your possessions and existing relationships; it’s your habitual ways of seeing the world, doing what feels good and natural.
But, eventually, security starts to limit you. You cease to go beyond your comfort zone. You no longer do anything outside of your daily routine. You don’t take risks in your work. You don’t expose yourself in your relationship. You become stuck. And, most importantly, you lose touch with what matters.
Boundaries work when they help you say both “No” and “Yes” to life — when they provide the grounds for safety and exploration.
Put another way, healthy boundaries are constantly challenging. They should provide you with enough security to feel grounded and at home, but also enough exploration to push yourself to your limits and learn new things.
A meaningful life is not something that just appears in front of you, in a moment of divine revelation. It’s something you have to continuously create, to actively carve out of the hard rock of existence. The more you safely explore this rock face, the more new patterns and textures emerge, new opportunities for growth. Boundaries are the tools we use to create meaning in our lives.
Summary— How To Make Boundaries Work for You
Boundaries provide us with safety, comfort, and security — they protect our free time, our personal space, the risks we’re willing to take.
But too much security can leave us stagnant, overly comfortable in our bubble, unable to reach out and explore the world.
Boundaries work when they provide the right balance of security and exploration: enough comfort and security to safely explore the world.
Healthy boundaries are what help us become a “Yes” and “No” person. Failure to say “No” can leave us overly vulnerable. Failure to then say “Yes” — when we’re ready — can leave us overly stuck and rigid, unable to explore and grow again. We need to be both, not one or the other.
Healthy boundaries are meaningful and challenging. They should provide you with enough security to feel grounded and at home, but also enough exploration to push yourself to your limits and learn new things.