How to bring joy with boundaries

Our newest staff doctor, Dr Sharma, is on a self-improvement journey to bring joy into his life through sustainable, joyful systems. Here’s the first of many posts about how to bring more joy into your life:

How to bring joy with boundaries

When some people hear the word “boundaries”, they think about “limitations”. And to a certain extent, they’d be right. A clearly-defined boundary can feel like a flashing neon “KEEP AWAY” sign when misunderstood. In my experience, the act of clearly defining a boundary used to feel unfair to the people around me, especially towards family. Many of us feel that we owe our whole self to the people in our lives, often because we want to be able to provide as much as possible to our loved ones. But what if I told you that a clearly-defined, well-communicated boundary exists to preserve the strength of your relationships? What if a clearly-defined boundary is what allows us to provide our whole selves to the people in our lives?

I argue that building trust with anyone is impossible without boundaries. Without boundaries, we don’t know the rules of the game we’re playing. In the abstract, when we are unaware of the outer limitations of a space, we’re less likely to explore the entire space – that’s human nature. Think about it this way: suppose you live in a small cabin in the woods, surrounded by dense trees. It’s natural for us to fear what exists beyond the trees. What if danger lurks a mile away? Two miles away? It’s risky to seek the outer boundary of an unfamiliar environment, so we might operate within the limitations of our own home. But what if someone gave you a map to show that, in fact, you’re perfectly safe within a five mile radius of your home? Now, your understanding of the boundaries allows you to feel safe exploring within the limitations provided to you. Are you any safer than you were before? No! The danger still lurks beyond those five miles. But now that you are aware of the line, you’ll be careful not to cross it, and you can feel comfortable spending time outside of the small cabin.

Put this into the context of personal boundaries: when we don’t know where someone’s “line” is, we often fail to explore the rest of the “space” that’s available to us. It causes us to live in a state of fear that we might cross a boundary, which limits our expression within that relationship. Or alternatively, we might cross a boundary simply because we lack the awareness, creating unintentional tension. With clearly-defined boundaries, we’re free to play without fear. With this structure, we create an energy of trust in the relationship, knowing that we won’t cross each others’ boundaries, which improves communication and respect. And remember, your boundaries already exist. If you didn’t clearly define a boundary that was crossed (in good faith, at least), who do you hold accountable? By communicating your boundaries, you’re providing the people in your life the opportunity to play without fear.

How do we put this into practice? Here are some important steps:

1. Identify your own boundaries.

What do you value? What is important for people to know about you? How do you like to be cared for? What support do you need? What makes you uncomfortable? The better you can answer these questions, the better you’ll be able to define your boundaries. Are you unable to answer these questions? No problem! Start smaller. Work on defining your boundaries as they come along. Be patient with those around you – they’re trying to understand your boundaries, too.

2. Find opportunities to share boundary “expansions”.

If you’ve never had a conversation about boundaries with someone in your life, approaching them with new restrictions can feel scary. Instead, try approaching them with ways that they could afford to loosen the restrictions in your relationship. Are there any boundaries that they assumed in your relationship, such as physical touch? “Hey, I actually prefer hugs over handshakes.” In the appropriate situation, providing boundary expansions can feel like an improvement in the relationship, even if that boundary never really existed in the first place. 

3. Ask them for their boundaries.

With a tactful and well-timed question, you can immediately become aware of what another person values. Are you looking for a raise from your employer? Try asking the following: “In what situation would you consider a wage increase?” This question isn’t a challenge, it’s an inquiry. Now that you are aware of the “space” within which your employer is operating, you can either align to their expectations and/or communicate your expectations. Asking for someone else’s perspective without imposing your beliefs provides you with a clear boundary… Now it’s up to you to choose how you operate within them.