Learning to Set Boundaries

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Art by FISK

By Stephanie White

A wise woman once said, “hot people set boundaries,” and that woman was me! Just kidding. But I did see someone post this online recently and saved it on my phone for future reference because, well, they’re right.  

If you asked me to define boundaries in my younger years, my knee-jerk reaction would probably be to vaguely allude to sports. Then I’d likely begin to nervously sweat because, well, sports. All jokes aside, knowing what healthy boundaries look like and establishing them for myself has only recently become something I do. 

I can chalk up my newfound focus on boundaries to this little ol’ thing called 2020, which flipped most of us upside down and inside out. Suddenly I had more time in my life for self-reflection and was forced into a bit of a reset, a “check-in” on how I was living. The brakes had been pumped on my historically fast-paced, numbed-out life, and I had to face what wasn’t working, what was working, and everything that fell in between. 

I had just uprooted myself from NYC to my hometown of Laguna Beach and had a lot more time and space to reflect on the life I’d left behind and to investigate some patterns and tendencies that were holding me back, including my long-term avoidance of boundary-setting. (And no, the irony of digging into this topic while simultaneously moving back in with my parents as a 30-something was not lost on me).

What’s interesting about boundary setting, or the lack thereof, is that it’s often a reflection of something larger, like your self-worth or how you value your time. I used to equate being available and accessible with being “good,” whatever the hell that means. I was that person who’d get the perfect attendance award every year in school without fail. The more I gave, the better I’d be as a person and the more my ideal life would emerge, I told myself. But this habit I’d developed, the wanting to show up for friends and family no matter what, the need to be the first to arrive at work and the last to leave, it was slowly chipping away at me until I became a shell of a person. I had spent years meeting people at their boundaries while simultaneously neglecting my own. 

When I sat with myself over quarantine and reflected on my life, I realized that the boundaries I had been setting had almost everything to do with other people and very little to do with me. I was accommodating other people’s boundaries rather than establishing where mine were (or if they existed at all). What did I stand for? What did I believe I deserved and why? Who was I? These were questions I’d avoided for so long, but in facing them, I’ve discovered that before I can begin to address the needs of people around me I have to get right with me. I had to set boundaries in order to build the life I wanted

I know we’re all facing different sets of circumstances, obstacles and points of view, but if you’ve found yourself in the same boat, I’m hoping that some of my tips on how to reestablish boundaries, outlined below, can help. 

Boundaries With Myself

Maybe this is the hardest one for you like it was for me?  It took me years of practice and learning the hard way before I started to understand how to navigate my personal boundaries. What makes it so difficult is that it’s truly up to us, each of us as individuals in this vast world, to establish where the boundaries we create with and for ourselves fall for each of us. No one can tell you where to draw the line except you

Teenage me thought those answers would come from Seventeen magazine, that I’d know who I was and what I wanted after absorbing everything I could about the idealized young woman described in these publications. It was much easier for me to soak in what I was willing to do or wanted from other people than it was to establish these lines for myself. Before I knew where my boundaries stood on topics like alcohol and sex, for instance, I relied on those around me to tell me what theirs were. I grew up in the era of Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson proudly proclaiming they’d be saving themselves for marriage and decided to blindly follow their lead.

Was this me listening to my needs and getting a true understanding of what it was I wanted for my life? Nope, I was leaving it to others – pop stars I had never met, no less –to define extremely personal boundaries for me. Looking back, I would tell my 14-year-old self to live her own life, on her terms, and find some real-life mentors who could help guide me rather than relying on some manufactured idea of what a “good” boundary is. I’m willing to bet Britney and Jessica would agree with me on that one today.

Boundaries With My Family

Setting boundaries with others can feel harsh if you’re not used to it. The other day, while on the phone with my mom, I had to tell her point-blank that the conversation was over.  Sometimes it really has to be that literal in order for others to get it. I cherish my relationship with her and wouldn’t give up our communication, but sometimes I have to draw a line in the sand when the conversation becomes unproductive to my mental health. This took me years to comprehend. In the past, I’d sometimes leave a conversation with her, wondering why I felt so shitty afterward. Sometimes she dug into my dating life in a way that felt invasive or probed at a body image issue inadvertently. In order for me to sustain our wonderful relationship, it was important that I established new boundaries.

When I lived on the East Coast, that meant gently reminding my mom to stop texting me at a certain hour. When I moved back into my parent’s house last March, it meant going into my room and asking not to be interrupted by my parents for a couple of hours, without needing to give anyone an explanation.  

If you feel like your mom is prying too much into your personal life, change the narrative with her. Tell her clearly that you don’t want to talk to her about the guy you’re seeing until things get serious, for example. I recommend grabbing a journal and mapping out what those boundaries should look like between you guys and then reciting them to yourself often. I did what I needed to do to give myself back some power. The changes didn’t happen overnight, but being clear and communicative regarding my boundaries eventually helped me see a healthy shift with my family.

Boundaries With My Friends and Relationships

I’ve spent most of my days on this planet thinking that the more available I was for others, the better friend/partner/person I was. And yet, who did I time and time again find myself attracted to? People with strong, clear boundaries. People who knew what their boundaries were and stood by them. I was heart-eyed for these people, without knowing why. What I’ve learned is that a person who knows what they want and takes action accordingly is really hot. 

Something I've learned in my most recent relationships is that a relationship doesn’t work if only one person involved knows what they want. When I got back to California, I had a lot of freedom, and nothing was really standing in the way of me saying yes to things. Yes, to barbecues, yes to gatherings I felt were too large for my comfort levels, yes to late nights when I would rather be home in my own bed than sleeping on the floor of someone else’s living room a la college. I was so worried that saying no or voicing how I really felt was going to break things that, eventually, they broke. I now think of my boundaries (or rather the ones I didn’t set) like black mold. By not addressing them in the moment, by pretending like they didn’t exist, my relationship was ultimately silently poisoned by them. If I could go back, I’d let the person I was hanging out with know what I needed, in real-time. 

The point is, you can be young, wild, and free and still say no. In fact, your partner will likely respect you more for knowing what you want and taking action around it. And, if for some reason you setting boundaries sends them running? Well, you likely just dodged a bullet. 

With My Phone 

I’m just as addicted to my phone as the next guy. Our work is on them and sometimes our dating life is, too. My ex used to call it the “fun box,” and he was right – it can be fun and an awesome way to connect with others. But you might also notice that it can bring out the worst in you, like when you’re waiting impatiently for a reply from someone, worried about the “success” of an Instagram post, or have anxiety about hearing from your boss on the weekend. Whatever it is, when I notice my phone is bringing on these feelings, I know it’s time for a boundary reset.

Sometimes that means honoring the one-hour timer I set on my Instagram to remind me when I’ve been scrolling through for 60 minutes of my precious life. Other times, it means literally setting my phone to Do Not Disturb for three hours while I take a walk on a Saturday around my new neighborhood. 

Sometimes I just leave my phone in a different “room,” which, in my studio apartment, can mean simply putting it on silent under my pillow or tucked into one of the shelves in my kitchen for a couple of hours while I take on whatever I want to that day. When I sit with myself, technology-free, I have found it allows me to notice what I’m actually seeking. Am I creatively frustrated? Maybe I need to sit outside and paint for a few hours. Are my thoughts racing from the workday? Maybe I need to pick up a book of poems or go for a run sans music. Am I feeling isolated? Maybe I should use my phone to call a friend rather than scroll through the virtual abyss with nothing to show for it beyond the same negative feelings I began with before I considered tossing my phone into the Pacific Ocean. 

Keep the conversation going by commenting on this story below. You can also connect with us about whatever’s on your mind by texting The Local Optimist Hotline at 310.299.9414.

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