I get asked a lot of questions about boundaries, which are basically your personal electric fence that let you define what you’re prepared to accept and more importantly, define your limits. If you have ever experienced a painful relationship where you have put up with things that in retrospect have you wondering why on earth you would put up with it, it’s because there were boundary issues – you may have had them, but you didn’t assert them. If you have friends, family, colleagues or lovers habitually take advantage of you, it’s because they are crossing boundaries that you haven’t put up.
A fundamental part of the problems experienced in many relationships with low self-esteem and poor relationship habits is having a lack of boundaries.
Why don’t people have boundaries? For lots of reasons but mostly down to being afraid of the consequences of having them, ie they won’t be accepted, liked or will experience confrontation, and because many of us are obsessed with being The Good Girl/The Good Guy, and particularly in relationships, people have very skewed ideas about ‘unconditional love’ which they think is loving without limits.
If you have started putting boundaries in your life, you may have experienced some uncomfortable side effects such as friends or family having their noses out of joint or a lover being confused at your lack of compliance.
Where problems start to occur is if you go all gung ho with your boundaries and effectively put up walls or spend you life acting like you’re policing your electric fence and are going to pick up everyone on every last little thing. You may be experiencing discomfort and wondering what it means and basically, you may be getting frustrated.
Boundaries are a natural and very necessary part of life even though many of us don’t have them. When you switch to being and doing what you’ve spent a lifetime doing entirely differently, it’s damn scary and very uncomfortable. Fortunately you can use past experience as your barometer of what will happen if you don’t have appropriate boundaries.
But there are different ‘shades’ of boundary and equally different ‘shades’ of discomfort and this got me thinking when I was brainstorming the subject for an ebook, that it would be good to visualise boundaries. The picture I’ve drawn is what boundaries look like to me.
At the centre of it is you.
The yellow zone represents low-level stuff that will annoy you but is not exactly earth shattering and you can deal with. Life can actually be pretty harmonious if the great majority of what you feel is in this zone.
Think of this as your day-to-day, low-level heading towards medium level stuff. Using examples I’ve heard recently, it’s the guy who brushes his teeth in the kitchen sink at the office (heaving), the woman who spoke to me in a condescending manner in the shop, someone chancing their arm at work, when a parent makes those annoying but habitual comments and pokes around in your life more so out of misguided concern and habit, people who sit too close on the train, when someone gives you unsolicited advice and you don’t even know them, a thoughtless comment or action that is acknowledged and apologised for, disagreements that get resolved etc.
It’s important to remember that it’s a natural part of life to experience some discomfort, to get annoyed, and to experience conflict.
The orange zone is really the border crossing to the outer limits – it’s where you are experiencing enough discomfort that you should be seeing it as warning that the situation needs to be handled. If it is dealt with at this point, you’ll get back into the harmonious yellow zone with that person/situation/boundary.
If you decide to proceed with the warning, you will be in the outer limits (the pink zone) of your boundaries which means you will be experiencing and accepting things that are very uncomfortable to you. It may be because you are looking for a solution, trying to work things out with them, or you may be burying your head in the sand about the level of the problem. You know that the problem exists, you’re just not ready to acknowledge and in the process, you are opening yourself up to pain.
If you have been involved with an emotionally unavailable person or an assclown, or have found yourself being taken advantage of by friends/family/colleagues, you are in the pink zone, or…depending on how much you have put up with, you are at the red zone that rings the outer limits. You may even be in the dangerous zone which means you’ve basically jumped your own fence.
If you’re in the pink zone, you need to either need to be aborting the mission or at the very least, keeping your eyes and ears open to work out the level of danger. More importantly, the pink zone seriously requires action.
The more that issues resulting from boundaries crossed in the red zone continue, the more you push yourself to the furthest point of your outer limits until you get to the red ring (zone) which represents your limit.
If you spend the majority of a relationship in the pink zone, it is a very unhealthy relationship filled with red flags.
At the red ring, it’s time to cash out, abort the mission, step away from the gambling table and limit the ‘loss’ from your investment. The red ring also represents boundaries that when crossed, they immediately signal that you should abort the mission, back off or do something to protect yourself.
Examples of boundaries I have that represent that limit are in my post on 12 core boundaries to live by in life, dating and relationships and include not dating people who have passively or directly rejected me and not being involved with attached people.
Beyond the red boundary line is the danger zone and it means you are not only acting without boundaries, but are living out of sync with yourself and putting yourself in situations where you cannot be treated with love, care, trust, and respect. This is an abusive zone.
What is important to note from this is:
What’s fundamentally important to getting the balance right with your boundaries is learning what is and isn’t appropriate in your relationships because a lot of people are programmed to have stuff that should be in the pink or red zones, in the yellow zone – this is normalising bad behaviour and having unhealthy love habits. For people like this, shit will hit the proverbial fan and they will go so far as losing the health, home, self, money, family, friends etc because they’re actually prepared to go far further into the dangerous zone because they think that there are further limits to what they can endure.
There will be some people that you meet, who are immediately on the red line. They display dangerous red flags and these should not be ignored.
There are even more people that you meet who are in the pink zone who are displaying red flags and if you proceed in being involved with them, you will either stay in this zone or work your way up to red and beyond.
What you need is to ensure that the key people in your life, friends, family, romantic partners are in the yellow zone – these are people who consistently and generally respect your boundaries and rarely, if ever, go beyond this zone.
The zones also represent discomfort and if you are in orange and beyond, you will be very uncomfortable although if you are catering to a pattern, you will be in the uncomfortable familiar.
If someone starts out busting boundaries in pink or red and you stay with them, you are extremely unlikely to get them into the yellow zone on a consistent long-term basis.
What you can also learn is that there are levels to your boundaries and levels to your discomfort – it is your job to define your boundaries, to define your limits and listen to your discomfort.
While I appreciate that learning to have boundaries is new, it is necessary, however you will have problems and be an aggressive angry person if you treat everything like it’s in the red zone and react accordingly. Your friend forgetting to call because they’re caught up with work/kids/whatever, just doesn’t fall on the same scale as someone treating you without love, care, trust, and respect.
Boundaries are not walls for you to build a fortress around yourself and trust no-one. Having boundaries lets you have a basic level of trust that you increase with positive evidence and decrease with negative evidence.
Boundaries allow you to be emotionally available and experience vulnerability because you are prepared to listen to yourself. And note – being vulnerable doesn’t mean throwing caution to the wind and attaching yourself to the nearest assclown or unavailable while loving and trusting blindly!
Treat others as you would want to be treated and by that I mean, imagine yourself as someone who is treated with love, care, trust, and respect and treats others with the same courtesy.
Having levels to your boundaries gives you scope to give the benefit of the doubt, to give people a chance, and to gather more information, but knowing your limits makes you accountable and ensures that you will not put yourself in dangerous situations. You will already have been doing the due diligence and recognised that even though it hurts, it’s uncomfortable and it’s not ideal, all signs say step away or take protective measures.
Loving and trusting blindly are deterrents to boundaries hence why you need to get conscious, listen to yourself, open your eyes and ears and not just think and see with your libido and your imagination.
Having boundaries will help you hone your instincts and to trust your gut and intuition. They are vital.