Boundaries: Obligation and Commitment, and Internal and External Emotional Boundaries

You know what boundaries are, right? Sure, we all do. But as soon as I start defining my boundaries, things get messy.

One of the best ways I found to think about commitment boundaries was introduced to me during a yoga teacher training. We were discussing the eight limbs of yoga, the first limb of yoga includes the Yamas, which are ethical standards and ways one conducts herself. One of the five yamas is Asteya, “non-stealing.” At this point, you may be wondering why I’m bringing up stealing with regard to boundaries. But here’s the thing, stealing isn’t just ripping off a local shopping center. We steal when we don’t practice good boundaries. In the example in the yoga class, it was given that running over time in class could steal from the following class, could cause someone to feel anxious about their car being parked at a meter, or could cause concern for someone who has to pick up their child right after class. Running over a scheduled class time, is not demonstrating good boundaries, and stealing.

Yikes! So this is one form of boundaries, these are boundaries around time, but also the boundaries we have with regard to social obligation and commitments. We create boundaries when we make appointments or are held accountable to an appointment. We can do this with ourselves, with loved ones, or within our community. When we don’t show up when we say we will, and when we don’t set expectations for others to do the same, we are not maintaining healthy boundaries, and in a way, we’re stealing from others or allowing others to steal from us.

There are also emotional boundaries. These are a bit stickier. There are internal and external emotional boundaries. External emotional boundaries are hard to communicate because emotional boundaries get crossed, often at unexpected times. We may have to restate our emotional boundaries multiple before they are heard, especially in longer term relationships. These boundaries are about how we want to be treated (“I want to be able to have hard conversations, but I struggle to listen when you are raising your voice with me”), and what we are emotionally willing to take in or take on (“I love you, but I don’t want all of our conversations to be you venting about work,” or “I care about you, but this is really hard for me to hear right now because of what I’ve been going through”).

There are also internal emotional boundaries. These are about what we choose to take in, such as in the case of a long term relationship wherein perhaps you’ve tried to set external boundaries, but things haven’t changed, and the small aggrievances are not intentionally hurtful. In these situations, we set internal emotional boundaries with regard to how we will respond and allow ourselves feel (“That person is important to me and they are always going to have to tell me about the great new thing they are doing and I am going to decide to remember I love them, it’s not personal, and no matter what they are doing, I am safe and secure with who I am”).

So you may have realized that you have to work on your external emotional boundaries, perhaps you’ve allowed yourself to be a doormat in the past, you’ve been passive, let your needs be ignored in deference to others, and now you realize, “I need to make a change.” This is not saying “ef you, get it yourself.” Setting boundaries, takes thoughtfulness and precision. It’s recognizing what your needs and wants are, as well as the spectrum of compromise you are willing to take. Keep in mind, as you do this, needs are different from wants although they may feel similar. It’s also having a plan for how you will push for your needs or a compromise. Again, this is not, “if I don’t get with I want, I’m going to keep yelling until I get it.” Sometimes, it is repetition of what we need in a calm and controlled manner with respect to other person’s capabilities. Other times it compromise. Giving a little to get a little.