Boundaries vs Barriers

Boundaries are like jello. They're meant to wiggle and jiggle to fit the situation. They aren't meant to keep people out, they aren't hard and fast rules. They're more like guidelines.

Boundaries are one of the most important things in our world. Without boundaries it’d be a lot more likely we’d get upset about so many different situations – and no one else would know why. We label our own bad behaviour as boundaries and everyone, including ourselves, walks away upset.

Here are the basic steps to creating healthy boundaries. Throughout this post I’ll talk about the differences between boundaries & barriers, why these steps matter, and how to work through them. I suggest reading the whole post, but for those with short attention spans, I put the steps at the top of the page.

Steps To Creating Healthy Boundaries

  1. Identify Emotion
  2. What’s contributing to this emotion?
  3. What might help in this moment?
  4. Calmly share your thoughts & feelings with others
  5. Ask for what you need
  6. Show appreciation if they go along with what you’ve asked
  7. Remove yourself from the situation if needed
  8. Remember you are in control of your own actions. It’s okay to say no.

This topic is complex enough it can fill at least a whole book. So if there’s something you’d like me to dig into a little deeper, please let me know in the comments.

Imagine if our different countries didn’t have clearly defined boarders. Canada says ‘This land is mine.’ But Denmark believes it’s theirs. Without a clear definition of where the line is, both countries continue to insist it’s okay for them to be in this space. Luckily neither Denmark nor Canada seem to get angry over the boundary being stepped over. But this lack of definition and lack of clarity could easily lead to larger conflict.

It’s the same with people.

When my husband and I were first dating it wouldn't have occurred to me to draw a line and say, "Whatever you do, If I'm sleeping in the car while you're driving, never pretend we're about to crash." 
I mean, who would think you'd have to tell someone that?
But one day we're driving through the mountains after a Valentine's weekend away. I was curled up sleeping in the passenger seat dreaming sweet dreams when all of a sudden I sit bolt upright when he hit the brakes and screamed. 
I believed I was dying. Then he was dying. Or he would've been had we not been driving on the edge of the mountain...
It's been 20 years and he's only been allowed to drive with me in the car for the last month. 
(His version of the story may be slightly different - in his version I dreamed the whole thing, then woke up screaming). 

The rest of the drive home was very intense. We broke up immediately after – for some reason my over reaction to the situation caused him to rethink our relationship. Not sure why he didn’t enjoy me yelling like a banshee or panicking every time he changed lanes, tapped the brakes, or hit the gas.

Luckily we were both smitten and got back together. We’ve been married 16 years in 2021, and have 4 children, 3 cats, a dog, a dozen praying mantises, and hundreds of plants to show for it.

When we start out in a relationship of any type, we have very few clearly defined rules. We don’t even know what rules we need to communicate most of the time. We can guess based on previous experiences. But those guesses don’t take into account different backgrounds & experiences. They don’t take into account all of the other person’s previous experiences. How long it takes for someone to brush up against one of our values or wounds depends on a wide variety of things.

  • How long have we known each other?

    The less time you know someone, the less likely you know the other person’s boundaries. And it’s less likely they know your boundaries.

    This means you’re more likely to brush against them. But we’re also more likely to excuse these brushes with new people.
  • How much do we like each other?

    It’s strange, but true, the more you like someone, the more they get away with. My baby boy (he’s 8 now) can do things I think are absolutely sweet. But a random kid at the playground? Yeah, not so cute.

    Liking someone means we’re less likely to notice when they brush against boundaries.
  • How confident is the other person in their worthiness to have boundaries?

    So often we come out of childhood not believing we’re allowed boundaries. This can happen for a variety of reasons, watch the parenting category for that topic sometime soon. If either person doesn’t believe they’re worthy, then boundaries are less likely to be healthy.
  • How much do we want to have sex with the other person?

    It always baffles me when people share what they do for someone they want to have sex with – and what boundaries they allow that person to cross. People have a hard time with boundaries to begin with. Throw in sex and suddenly people can’t decide between a chalk line and a steel enforced fortress.
  • How well do we know ourselves?

    It’s easy to think we know ourselves. After all we’ve known ourselves longer than we’ve known anybody else. But, as any invisible person knows, spending time with someone isn’t the same as knowing who you are.

    What are your values? What are your strengths? What are your hard ‘no’s?

    the better we know ourselves, the more likely we’re able to communicate our boundaries in a healthy way. The more likely we have healthy boundaries.
  • How much we want to have sex with the other person?

    Seriously, sex really messes with people’s ability to communicate boundaries. We may want sex with this person in the future, so we don’t tell them what we want now. We want sex so we ignore certain boundaries because we hope if we just get passed this one. point. over. there, then we’ll finally be able to have sex. (this goes for our own boundaries as well other people’s)
  • How much do we like & respect ourselves?

    Sometimes we think we know who we are, and we don’t like what we see.

    If this is the case our boundaries are likely to be inconsistent. There’s times we’ll lash out, times we’ll let others walk all over us. When this is the case, we often blame the other person – except late at night when it runs through our head preventing us from sleeping. That’s when we possibly see a small glimmer that we were wrong.

How confident are you both in your abilities to move on in your relationship?

We’re more likely to communicate boundaries when we’re confident in our ability to move forward even if we’re upset or uncomfortable. If both people are confident, then you’re more likely to both communicate boundaries respectfully. The less confident either person is, the more likely boundaries aren’t communicated – and the more likely everything sits seething under the surface until it boils over.

I believe this has a lot to do with the vulnerability of joy and the belief many people have that most people are untrustworthy. I’ll get into both of these topics soon.

Boundaries vs Barriers

Boundaries are like jello. They’re meant to wiggle and jiggle to fit the situation and the person.

Boundaries aren’t meant to keep people out, they aren’t hard and fast rules. They’re more like guidelines, and they often feel uncomfortable.

Many people think maintaining boundaries feels uncomfortable because it involves standing firm and being confrontational – I’ve yet to meet a single person who wants to be confrontational. Boundaries are uncomfortable because we have to move with the situation, we have to let go of control, and we have to be willing to open up to others. That’s pretty much the trifecta of the most uncomfortable things in the world.

Boundaries are maintained by our own emotions & actions.

Barriers are walls we put up to keep others out. They’re only passable if someone crashes through and destroys them. They’re about controlling situations – and often other people. We put them up in order to try and make ourselves feel comfortable in uncomfortable situations. We tell ourselves we’re maintaining our boundaries, but really we’re pushing others away just so we don’t have to take the risk of talking to someone.

Barriers are maintained by the hard work of everyone involved. They generally involve us forcing others to make us comfortable in a situation. “How dare you say that! I’m upset. You have to make it better!”

Letting Others Have Responsibility For Their Own Emotions

A healthy boundary knows that we’re each responsible for our own emotions – and that those emotions are okay (that doesn’t mean what we do with the emotion is always okay, just that the emotion itself is okay). In order to have a healthy boundary we need to be willing to see who we are, and continuously assess how we feel in different situations.

“I don’t like this, so I’m saying no.” vs “How dare you say that!?!”

When we erect barriers, we don’t pay attention to ourselves or our own emotions until it’s too late.

Barriers are sudden. They’re generally unrecognized and uncommunicated until someone crashes into them; then everything blows up and people are hurt. Yelling or some other form of ‘attitude’ often accompanies these barriers. These become hard & fast rules in an effort to remove the discomfort we have in the situation.

When we put barriers in place, we often blame those explosions on someone else. “I wouldn’t have yelled if you’d just done as I said!” (or something similar). It’s easy to take a step back from responsibility for our own actions/reactions when we can blame them on boundaries and someone else.

I get it, I need boundaries, not barriers, but how can I create boundaries in the moment?

Great question! I’m glad you asked.

A moment that needs a boundary is one where we start to feel uncomfortable in some way. This may be emotionally, it may also be physically. We feel uncomfortable, and we want the situation to shift so we feel more comfortable.

In this moment we choose a barrier or a boundary. If we choose a boundary, we need to recognize the emotion we feel and what about the situation lead us to that emotion. We also need to recognize that we can only control ourselves. We cannot make someone else behave a certain way. When we figure out how we feel and why we think we feel it, we can then communicate to the other person/people how we feel.

There can be no expectation that someone else makes us feel better. That is not their responsibility. It’s their responsibility to manage their own emotions – and our responsibility to manage ours.

Over time we can learn the skills necessary to talk through these situations. For now, start with identifying and communicating your emotions. Is there something that will help you feel better? It’s okay to communicate and ask. It’s also okay to remove yourself from the situation, or explore and discover you’re uncomfortable, but the situation is still okay.

These are boundaries. There is a single situation, but several different ways you can behave in order to make the situation okay for you – or you can leave the situation. Boundaries are all about your own emotions and your own actions.

A barrier is letting go of responsibility or control over your own emotions, not consciously choosing how to behave in the moment, using anger or force to try to control someone else’s behaviour or emotions. And making someone else take responsibility for your emotions.

Sarah Langner

Sarah Langner

Sarah Langner helps invisible people become visible and works to build bridges between people, ideas, and ideologies. The sweetest part of my life is my family, my friends, desserts, and, of course, Disney World!

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