How to talk about your personal boundaries

Boundaries — well now, hasn’t that become a fashionable word? Who would have thought that a word that references separation and lines of demarcation would so handily describe our efforts to define and communicate to others the whole range of our needs and wishes?

Until the last few decades, when the notion of boundaries was introduced into advice about setting guidelines for showing others how you want to be treated, we may well have gone for years without ever using the word. Unless you’re a cricketer, of course, or you need to establish property details, or you’re involved in artistic activities where you might want to create a border of some kind — ha.

Boundaries and borders bring us into difficult territory. These concepts cause serious disputes. Wars are fought over them. Lives are lost.

So it seems somewhat misplaced to invoke the notion of boundaries when you are communicating your needs about, for example, sharing household tasks, or the timing of meetings and phone calls, or the way someone speaks to you. Of course, the word has significant relevance in serious situations, especially with reference to closeness and intimacy. But we diminish the importance of that context when we apply the concept of boundary to the everyday and the trivial. I know, I know, nothing is trivial if it affects your wellbeing, but a bit of calibration can be helpful.

Calibrate to communicate your feelings

You can communicate your feelings assertively without applying inflated terminology. The classic formula is:

1. Describe precisely the behaviour which offends.

‘When you always arrive late/never say thank you/call me by that nickname/assume that I’ll tidy up/insist on talking when I’m trying to work

2. Describe the effect it has on you.

‘I feel taken for granted/belittled/dismissed/annoyed/angry

3. Describe the change you are requesting.

‘I would like you to stop calling me that/take your turn cooking dinner/stop flirting with that person/give me an hour to myself in the morning

Now, you don’t have to follow this structure. You can use it to work out what you want to say, and it’s important to know that you can use it if you choose to. But sometimes you might want to be a little lighter — without violating the principles of assertiveness, of course.

For example, if someone habitually phones you (assuming you’re not scared of phone calls — we’ll revisit that), you could just say something like:

  • ‘After nine is the best time to phone’
  • ‘It’s great to talk to you – even better if we make it after nine’

If they don’t take any notice? You’ve left yourself room to dial it up a notch.

You can be brief and direct.

  • ‘Hey, don’t call me that’
  • ‘I need half an hour’s quiet’

You know what, you can even be playful. Use whatever phrase suits the person, the situation and your relationship.

  • ‘Enough already!’
  • ‘Come on, let’s have less of the…’
  • ‘I don’t like it when you channel your inner…’

So you can communicate in ways other than saying that this behaviour makes you feel disrespected, damages your sense of self, crosses your personal boundaries.

Discussions about boundaries often refer to Mending Wall, the poem by Robert Frost which describes a discussion between two country-dwelling neighbours about the stone wall that divides their properties.

The line from the poem ‘Good fences make good neighbours’ is frequently quoted. But the poem, engaging and thought-provoking as it is, acquires deeper resonance when we realise it was published in 1914 at the beginning of World War 1, and that its exploration of the concept of boundaries and borders came under scrutiny during later conflicts.

Its political relevance developed in 1961 when the Berlin Wall was erected, a year which also saw Frost’s visit to Jerusalem and his meeting with the Soviet Union president Nikita Khrushchev. This meeting was arranged by John F Kennedy, a year before the Cuban missile crisis. And here we are, over 60 years later, still torn apart by international conflict.

Our personal connections and relationships, our sense of solidarity with the people with whom we share our lives and with those we will never meet, matter more than ever. We need to communicate and negotiate the way we interact. But we could do it without using terminology which at best is a dodgy use of therapy-speak, and at worst a reference to concepts which not only keep us apart, but threaten the very things we need to cherish.

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