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  • Writer's pictureLynn Denton

Navigating Boundaries

It’s summer and many of us are thinking…..vacation, outdoors, hiking, boating, swimming, blue lakes, tall green trees, warm sand and lots of sunshine. It is nature’s gift to us and makes for happy moods all around.


There is a special place in Minnesota, on the US/Canadian border, called the Boundary Waters. It’s a series of lakes connected by land. For those who are active, it’s a great place to go to canoe on quiet, pristine waters. Though, to get from lake to lake, you must carry your canoe and your gear on land for sometimes up to a mile……no easy feat. The lakes are clearly delineated from these bodies of land, and one must cross over land to continue on the journey.


Recently, a friend was talking with me about navigating boundaries in life. What are boundaries? What does it mean to set boundaries? And does setting boundaries feel like canoeing on peaceful lakes, or does it feel more like carrying your canoe across land?


By way of definition……setting boundaries is establishing limits in your relationships as to what you will do with and for others. It’s when you say yes, and when you say no. It includes physical availability and emotional availability. Boundaries change all the time. They change based on who you are and how your relationship with the other person (or organization ) evolves. For example, if you recently went back to work after staying home to raise the kids, your boundaries with your kids and partner will likely get re-negotiated. When someone retires, and the other spouse is still working, the boundaries get re-negotiated. Also, when a child goes off to college, boundaries with that child change.


And what role do boundaries serve? Boundaries help to support healthy, balanced, clear relationships. Here are a few examples:


There is a colleague from work who lives near you. He is a nice person, good worker and you enjoy his company. You grab lunch with him on occasion. However, he regularly asks you for a ride to work so that he doesn’t have to take the train. He is often not ready when you pick him up. He never offers you gas money. And when he is in the car, you can’t talk on the phone and catch up with your mother/sister, etc. You start to feel that this arrangement doesn’t meet your needs. You don’t want to be unkind, but you need to set a boundary and let him know that picking him up on a regular basis isn’t working out so well for you, but you can certainly do it in an emergency, or from time to time. You are setting a boundary for your own self-preservation, so that when it is time to work with him and go to lunch with him, you are available and friendly. If you say nothing, your working relationship could suffer.


Another example. Your middle-school aged child tends to save requests till the last minute, often close to bedtime. “My gymsuit needs washing, I need a black T-shirt for a school performance tomorrow, I need a spiral notebook, I’m supposed to bring snacks tomorrow to my class.” Though by 9:00 pm, after working during the day, taking care of kids, making dinner, and helping with homework, you want some time to sit down and watch a show, read a book or talk to your spouse. You have talked with your child about this, put a white board in the kitchen to write notes about these requests, asked at dinner if there are any to-do’s for the evening. You have let them know that after 9:00 you are not available, except, of course, for emergencies – and a good night kiss.


So at some point, you set a limit or a boundary, that after 9, they are on their own. After a week or two of fussing and some yelling, and some showing up in the wrong outfit, they figure out you are serious, and start to look at their planner after school. Are you selfish? No, you are setting a boundary so that they can be prepared for their activities, and you can have your unwinding time too. That allows you to be a better parent.


One last example. You do a lot of volunteer work at school or at your place of worship. Because you are competent and organized, the organization keeps coming back to you to do more things. Can you take on this chairmanship? Can you serve on this committee? It’s hard to say no because you like the work and supporting the organization. But it’s getting to be too much and impacting the family with being out too many evenings. So you let them know that for you to take on this committee, you will have to give up something else. Are you uncharitable? No, you need to establish some limits. This way you don’t become resentful about doing the work and can do your job with care and generosity.


Many of us feel guilty about setting boundaries. We don’t like to say no. We like being asked. We like adding value. We like being needed. But if we never say no, we risk burning out and becoming resentful. That is where boundaries are useful.


Are you a bad parent if you say no to your child? Are you a bad parent if you don’t turn yourself inside out to accommodate your child’s request? There can definitely be some guilt in the moment, but in saying “no” sometimes, you teach your children that the answer isn’t always “yes” and how to tolerate “no.” All the while you are protecting yourself from becoming exhausted. When your children grow up, they will not be getting “yes” to every request, so they need to learn early in life how to tolerate “no” – especially a “no” delivered with loving kindness.


Brene Brown, professor, author and TED talk speaker, has done research on setting boundaries, and reports that it’s the MOST compassionate people who set boundaries. The fact that they have limits keeps them available to be compassionate and kind. It’s a bit the opposite of what one might think. She also talks about having a mantra that you can say to yourself when you are (with difficulty) setting a boundary, such as…..”It’s hard to say no, but I’m investing in this relationship.”


So back to the Boundary Waters. Canoeing on the lake is the easy part. The portaging is hard. But the reward of carrying your canoe across land, is that you will soon come to another beautiful lake. And the reward of setting boundaries in your relationships is having the energy, the love and availability to be fully present in your interactions. And that’s a gift all around.

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