Have you ever had that friend that you love spending time with until they started to do “just one thing” that ruined the mood? Or have you ever wanted to stay close to someone, but being together felt like a little bit of a struggle? I have.
The last several years have been full of change for me and for the people in my life. And when several of my relationships, that I value deeply, devolved into sites of stress, I found myself thinking about how to heal them, and how to prevent it from happening again. The answer? Boundaries and clear communication.
The word “boundaries” feels rigid. Setting them might even feel rude, especially if you believe that boundaries herald the beginning of an end. But, when carefully created, they make space for joy and actually enhance our relationships. They allow us, and the relationships we’re in, to grow. They help us talk about the change without assumption, to avoid resentment, and to find a new template.
It isn’t easy to do, and takes time, but I’ve been able to shift my mindset and accept and set boundaries with more grace. The start? Embracing these thoughts:
This may sound odd — or obvious — but I’ve often found myself falling into the trap of thinking about people solely through the lens of their relationship with me. Especially with family. But my aunt isn’t just my aunt and, similarly, your mom isn’t just your mom. They are entire people with lives outside of these roles.
Instead of lamenting what you think your relationship should look like, or perhaps how it has changed, realize that your experience with them is informed by their whole self. We can find joy in forming new, more authentic, bonds with a person’s entire being, rather than restricting them to only our experiences with them.
So, dig in, with yourself, and with them if possible. Ask:
- What has made this person who they are?
- How have they changed or adapted through their life?
- What kinds of relationships do they seek now?
- What is important to them — and why?
Every person has different lived experiences that shape why and how they show up the way they do. For those of us living with marginalized identities, this can be especially true. Anyone who is trying to heal from oppression will have different ways of communicating and expressing their needs.
They may have survival or coping mechanisms that make setting boundaries more difficult. Or they may be unsure what boundaries they need to thrive, having never had the opportunity to express them. This might mean boundaries are not clear, or that they shift or change quickly.
None of this contradicts them being a full person. Working through these fractures is part of their wholeness. It may feel like someone should know how pain makes them — or you — react but that’s rarely the case.
Instead of expecting a friend to know what you’re feeling or the impact of their behavior, be willing to have the conversation and share what this pain has done. By having open and clear communication about ourselves, we are able to more easily identify what activates us, and what boundaries will help us remain calm and connected.
And acknowledge that you can’t move them, only they can move themselves
Not everyone will be in the same place as us at the same time. When we acknowledge and accept this, we can find space for someone to be in our life as they are without sacrificing what we need to thrive, or the progress we have made in our own life. Remembering this — that all people are shaped by experiences from before we met them — allows us to form more empathetic and personal connections.
Many of us, especially the more marginalized we are, have been socialized to only hint at what we want and need. This is not a great way to communicate needs. We may even struggle with the belief that setting boundaries means someone loves, likes, or cares about you less. Or you might worry that you are communicating that you love, like, or care about them less.
It’s the opposite.
People who love and want to be in relationship with you want to respect your boundaries. With clarity comes fewer miscommunications and interpretations of an experience. So the clearer we are, the less likely a boundary will be accidentally crossed, and the more unnecessary hurt we can avoid.
Bold, clear boundaries can reduce ambiguity and anxiety (once we get through setting them) and open us up to a more successful relationship. And to the the joy of witnessing growth to feeling seen and respected.
This is huge. Often people don’t have the language to express themselves clearly. When we begin to have these conversations about boundaries, setting and enforcing, there is room for miscommunication and hurt.
If we respond with defensiveness, we endanger the potential for growth. When we react with curiosity and assume that this person also wants to grow, usually we can find a way forward. You might have boundaries about how you communicate boundaries! And that is fantastic! But assuming good intent is a good place to start, from both sides.
Setting boundaries can be an opportunity for a relationship to shift, grow, and even blossom. As we change our relationships change. Communicating these changes allows us to stay close, even become closer, as life moves forward.
Take, for example, our relationships with our parents. As children we look to our parents to direct us and make decisions for us, as we grow the decisions become suggestions and advice. Setting a new parent boundary might begin with “Hi mom, thank you so much for caring about my health, but please don’t comment on my weight.”
The same goes with childhood friends — maybe you shared all your crushes and milestones with a friend growing up, but as you move into more adult relationships you no longer feel comfortable sharing all parts of your relationship. Setting a boundary might look like “Hey Friend, I’m so glad you like my partner, but it makes me uncomfortable for you to comment on our sex life.”
Setting the boundary may feel like something is being taken away, and if it feels too stark you can add something that you do want to share, “…but I would love it if you would be willing to teach me the recipes from grandma” or “…I’m thinking of proposing, will you help me plan it.”
By letting those close to us know what we don’t want, we can invite what we do, and feel closer by not becoming irritated by what’s no longer serving the relationship.
These five thoughts were pivotal in helping me shift from looking at boundaries as something to be afraid of, to something to be embraced and celebrated. Once I started integrating this new perspective, while seeing the challenging conversations as expressions of love, my relationships improved.
I have confidence that the people I am in relationships with want to continue to share their time and energy with me, which eases so much of my anxiety. I have less fear about change, and more excitement about growing with the people in my life. There is joy in realizing people care about you enough to recognize your whole self, and there is joy when you recognize the wholeness of others. There is continual reciprocated joy when mutual needs are honored in order to help your relationships grow.
Indigo Sage is a sometimes writer, always over thinker, living, working, and daydreaming in Washington DC. You can follow her on Twitter @indigosage2.