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Not all boundaries are physical

A fence around a field defines the boundary for cattle. Purple paint or a sign on a tree signifies “No Trespassing.” A ditch between tracts of land can define one farmer’s field from another’s. The empty space between my chair and yours at the table gives us each personal space. The baby gate between rooms tells my toddler where he can and can’t go.

I’m constantly setting boundaries for my kids. I expect them to test me, especially the youngest who always wants just one more Reese’s cup. Setting those boundaries comes easy to me; it’s setting personal boundaries I find challenging.

I recently read Badass Habits and one line stood out enough that I wrote it down:

“Personal boundaries define where you end, and the outside world begins.”

That line stepped all over my toes. Setting personal boundaries is something I’ve just started learning about in the last year or two. As a people pleaser, it’s hard for me to set these and say no, but I’m beginning to understand that boundaries can be healthy. As the book said, having boundaries means you are “owning your actions, emotions, and needs.”

So, what does setting personal boundaries look like? It means that work ends at 5 p.m. and any phone calls or emails can wait until the next workday. It means turning down a request to speak at a meeting that may mean a day or more of travel, even if you’d like to go. It means when the soccer team needs a coach, you don’t raise your hand and add that responsibility to your to-do list for the next two months. It means walking away from a conversation that is getting heated beyond your comfort level. It means turning down the opportunity to sit on a board or committee. It means that time you set aside for self-care is sacred, whether it’s for working out, reading, or watching your favorite show. 

I think COVID made the task of holding boundaries harder. With more people teleworking and relying increasingly on technology, it’s easy to send an email at 9 p.m. The challenge for someone like me is feeling like I must answer that ding letting me know “You have mail,” even though my boundary says work stops at 5.

Only we can set our personal boundaries. And rest assured, as soon as they are set, someone will test them. It’s up to us to hold the line on the boundaries we’ve set for ourselves, even if it’s hard or takes us out of our comfort zone.

So many boundaries are easy to see. Others aren’t. One thing I’ve learned is that physical boundaries are often easier to make and hold than personal ones. But personal boundaries need to be communicated, recognized, and respected as if they were an electric fence that would send a shock if you tried to cross it.  

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