What is a boundary? We hear the word all the time in psychology but few of us truly understand its meaning. Boundaries are standards for how we expect to be treated. Setting a boundary means clearly and confidently communicating what we need to feel happy and respected. At home, setting a boundary might look like a parent telling their child that— after a quick snack of apple slices and peanut butter— it’s time to do their homework. At work, setting a boundary might mean saying a strong, definitive “no” to our boundary-less boss. In love, it might mean telling our significant other that— though we appreciate how close they are with our sister— we felt it was inappropriate to reveal so much intimate information about our latest fight with her.
If someone crosses our boundaries, there are consequences for their behavior. Say, for example, we catch our child playing Fortnite instead of doing their homework. “I don’t want to do long division!” they might whine as we take out their textbooks and turn off their computers. A consequence might be banning them from video games for the rest of the week or limiting their screen time for the year. Enforcing a consequence isn’t about retribution or punishment— it’s about teaching people how we want to be treated. By disciplining our child in this instance, we’re sending a message: we will not tolerate tantrums or misbehavior and expect to be respected.
Though boundaries are essential to our happiness, most of us haven’t been taught how to set limits. In the modern era, we’re more educated than almost any other generation: we can use the Pythagorean theorem to identify the length of a triangle’s sides, we can examine the themes of Anna Karenina, we can recite the fourteen points of the Treaty of Versailles. Yet we remain woefully ignorant of crucial life skills such as how to understand ourselves, how to deal with depression, and how to express our true feelings and remain loving and respectful during a fight.
To remedy this serious shortcoming of our education, Alain de Botton, whose books I write of often, founded the School of Life, a global organization dedicated to developing emotional intelligence. In the latest addition to the series, A More Exciting Life, Botton explores why we don’t set boundaries— and why we absolutely have to.
So why are so many of us hesitant to utter a firm and forceful “no”?
As with most psychological topics, the answer lies in our childhood. According to Botton, those who have trouble setting boundaries in adulthood were not allowed to assert themselves as children. Perhaps an alcoholic father didn’t much care if he had to pick us up from school or a mother with a violent streak and explosive temper didn’t allow us to oppose her. Maybe our dad hit us when we refused to get him another beer. Maybe when we asked our mother why she didn’t help us with our homework after school like Susie’s mom, she got mad, called us an ungrateful brat and sent us to our room. Maybe when we asked our sisters to stop calling us names, they refused. “You’re too sensitive,” they’d say, “It’s just a joke.” Saying “no” to an abusive or otherwise dysfunctional family member meant being physically, emotionally, or psychologically abused.
Our formative years are the blueprint for adulthood. Because setting boundaries in our past often led to conflict, we avoid expressing our needs as adults. We’re scared that if we set a limit with someone, they’ll be angry, maybe even hate us. Say, for instance, our partner invites us to a movie after work. Though we want to decline his invitation because we’re exhausted, we go because we’re afraid a gentle, politely-phrased, perfectly-poised “no” will cause friction in the relationship. “What if,” we worry, “he gets mad at us?” “What if he wants to break up?”
Though it seems ridiculous to think someone would break up over something so stupid, the boundary-less person is this irrationally afraid of confrontation. Because of their upbringing, they fear that setting a boundary will lead to dismissal, rejection, or abandonment. They were taught that being a good girl or boy meant obeying Mom and Dad and putting other people before themselves. If they do find the courage to deliver a diplomatic but decisive “no,” they feel a terrible sense of guilt. After all, who are they to assert themselves?
Despite these qualms, we can set a boundary and still be kind, selfless, and good. A boundary isn’t a cruel, heartless “no” to someone else— it’s an affirmative “yes” to ourselves. We decline our partner’s movie invitation, not because we want to hurt his feelings or because we don’t love or value him, but because we’re tired from a long week of work and would much rather be luxuriating with a good book in bed. We say no to our boss’s request to come in on a Saturday, not because we’re lazy and don’t take our career seriously, but because we deserve rest and value our time with friends and family.
Regardless of what we’ve been taught, we have a right to have our own needs and wants. As Botton would say, “we are not a piece of helpless flotsam on the river of others’ wishes.” Rather than ride the currents of other people’s preferences and opinions, we must remember we are our own ships: we can use our rudders to change course and steer us in our desired direction. Drifting aimlessly and following any wind doesn’t make us happier or promise conflict-free relationships— it only leads to exasperation and bitterness. Imagine you say “yes” when your friend invites you to a rowdy New Year’s Eve party though you’ve been dreaming of having a quiet evening in. Do you take pleasure in the rollicking revelry of the blaring party horns and confetti? No, you spend the seemingly endless evening simmering with resentment and secretly hating your friend. And therein lies the irony: by making other people happy, we often make ourselves miserable.