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Why setting boundaries isn't always the answer

One of the preferred tools for managing overwhelm, stress and anxiety especially in relationships, whether that’s in our personal or professional life, is to set boundaries.

Boundaries have been at the centre-stage of the self-help, mainstream psychology + life coaching world for a while now. It can look like saying no, deciding to walk out of a conversation or asserting ourselves in any way.

It can sometimes take time to establish and express boundaries because we’re not used to it, or because it generates feelings of guilt for some of us who have been conditioned to say yes, or ‘people-please’.

And don’t get me wrong, boundaries are important when it feels like something or someone is asking too much of us, or we are simply not willing to give what they are asking for.

But more often than not, setting our boundaries is a reactive process.

It comes in response to a sense of real or perceived threat. And it’s a good survival mechanism. Your boundaries are being tested, so your response is to guard or defend what you feel is under threat, whether that’s your sense of autonomy, time or space.

But reactive/defensive boundaries are in my opinion not necessarily in service of the relationship, or life we want to create.

I know this goes against mainstream thinking. But hear me out.

When you react to a perceived sense of threat* you respond from a place of conditioning and fear. This conditioning is like a script that’s been handed over to you based on your experience growing up, the culture you grew up in, the life experiences you had etc. It doesn’t necessarily belong to you or assist you get to where you want to go.

So it might feel uncomfortable at that moment. However it’s important when you feel triggered by what someone is asking or you or what you perceive they are asking from you, to see what’s really at stake and take a moment to reground and take stock.

More often than not, we respond by setting our boundaries in a defensive or reactive manner.

But when we reactively set boundaries, we are more concerned about moving away from the feelings of discomfort that are generated by the perceived sense of threat than actually getting in touch with our true desires. Think of it this way, short-term pain, long-term gain. Often, sitting with the discomfort helps us gain perspective and cultivate an observer mind, one that is less reactive and more intentional.

This is not to say that boundaries are not good, or not helpful. But in order to be in service of the relationship or life you aspire to create it is important to step away from this reactive mind and choose how you respond as opposed to react.

This requires taking a step back, and becoming curious about what has come alive in us without judgment. And the difficult part is that it will involve moving towards the fear that is holding the emotional response in place. This is work that is best done with someone experienced and versed in emotional work.

But when you are able to do this, you step away from this conditioned automatic response and can freely choose how to respond. And once you do this, you are able to tap into your true desires and wants. And anything becomes possible, a sense of purpose, drive, clarity, and serenity. You are free to choose to create the relationships, and the life you truly want for yourself.

So next time, you are challenged by someone who you feel is testing your boundaries, I’d like to encourage you to follow these steps:

  • Notice, what has come alive in me?

  • Be curious, why is this an issue for me?

  • What is this feeling defending/protecting?

  • Is this a pattern in my life? Do I often feel like this?

  • How does this automatic response limit me?

  • If I stopped defending this, how would I choose to respond?

These are the first steps to stop reacting to your interactions with others, and start creating the relationships and more broadly the life you want for yourself.

As always, I look forward to reading your comments or answering any questions you may have.

*I am not talking here about an immediate threat to your safety, but a perceived sense of threat, a sense of unease, discomfort.

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