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  • Tim Mallory

Boundaries are Hard

Updated: Mar 22, 2021

When young children test their parent’s patience, people say they are “just testing boundaries.” This is true, and it is a typical and functional part of their emotional development. Children are looking for where the line is between acceptable and unacceptable behavior, and they rely on their adult caregivers to show them.

When a toddler throws a tantrum in the checkout line because they want candy and the parent says no, the parent has two choices:

  1. Firmly keep saying no and checkout (without candy) as fast as possible while the tantrum escalates.

  2. Buy the candy and hope it keep the peace.

Option 1 is hard. Checkout line tantrums are mortifying. The parent feels the eyes of shoppers judging the “bad parenting” playing out for all to see. However, over time with consistent application, a single “no” is sufficient. They learn “no” demonstrates a boundary which cannot be crossed without consequences.

Option 2 is easy. The child is quiet (for now), but a precedent is set. The toddler learns that a “no” can become a “yes” if they make enough noise or cause enough of a scene. “No” is just a barrier to overcome on the path to an eventual “yes”. The lesson is that some barriers are more formidable than others, and they all crumble with enough effort.

Is your “no” a firm and respected boundary, or is it a temporary barrier which others can avoid/exploit?

When you have a big project deadline looming and your best friend wants to FaceTime for the third time this week because they are bored/upset/anxious about their job/relationship/life, they may be testing the boundaries of your friendship. FaceTime is a typical and functional part of maintaining relational connection and managing emotions (while maintaining social distance!), but it can also infringe on time when you need to be focused.

When your phone lights up with a FaceTime for the third time this week, you have 3 options:

  1. Let it go to voicemail, leave your phone on Do Not Disturb, and keep working.

  2. Answer the call, tell your friend it is not a good time, and offer to talk again over the weekend. Despite repeated protests from your friend, you politely end the call and get to work.

  3. Answer the call, tell your friend it is not a good time, and offer to talk again over the weekend. After repeated protests from your friend, you end up on the call for over an hour revisiting the usual topics and find yourself further behind on the work project. You stay up way later than normal, but you meet your deadline and order an extra-large cup of coffee the next day.

Options 1 and 2 are hard. Your friend would not have called if they did not need something, but you know you have to prioritize your own obligations. Your friend might be offended, but they have to recognize your time and attention are not theirs alone. You would not have told them “no” unless you really could not talk.

Option 3 is easy. You can talk to your friend and avoid uncomfortable implications of “being a bad friend.” But you turn in work you know could have been better, and your sleep schedule is off for the week. Your friend learns and expects they can call you and you will drop everything for them.

Is your time and attention respected, or do you feel obligated to forego your own needs to help others?

Boundaries are often uncomfortable to discuss, and they are even harder to maintain. Saying “no” requires conviction. Demonstrating no” requires sustained effort. Sustained effort can be exhausting, especially when saying no is an unpopular choice. If you struggle with setting and maintaining relationship boundaries, you are not alone.

As the Holiday Season fast approaches, boundaries will be tested. If you need help standing firm in your boundaries, we would love to meet with you.

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