The cashier at the store was still rattled by the exchange she’d had with a customer the day before. While ringing up my items, she was formulating a plan with her co-worker on how to deal with him if he returned.
He made her uncomfortable, she told me as I paid for my groceries. “He was hitting on me and followed me outside, telling me he felt like he needed to pray for me,” she said, with a doubtful look. “If he’d come up to me on the street…I’d probably have slapped him.”
But she had to handle it differently because he was a customer, she said, and she was deciding how to manage her interaction with him next time.
“I felt like there wasn’t enough space between us,” she added. “He needs some boundaries,” I answered. “You might need to set some boundaries with him.”
She agreed, saying that next time he came in, she’d tell him she didn’t want him speaking to her like that again.
She had no problem recognizing a need to draw a line in the sand. No problem wanting to create clear-cut boundaries with this person who might stand in her check-out line.
But what if the person with whom you have boundary issues is a co-worker, neighbor, or family member? What if it is someone you can’t avoid completely?
“My mother is negative and I feel dirty after being with her,” my friend told me. “I struggle with boundaries with her. She expects regular visits and talks, but we always get into conversations that are negative. How do I honor her but not get dragged into her thought process? I cannot just avoid her as I would a toxic neighbor.”
That situation is a lot more difficult than telling a customer they can’t speak so personally to you.
Designing boundaries is very delicate work. The closer the relationship, the more complicated it is to draw the lines. In more intimate relationships, the boundary lines may vary wildly or move like the stairs in the Harry Potter stories. It makes it difficult to know which step to take and where exactly the interaction and relationship will end up.
What are boundaries? Simply put, they are where one person ends and the other begins. Someone once said, “A boundary lets me decide how far someone gets to come into my life.”
Another person wrote this: “Boundaries help us create ownership and protection of ourselves. Boundaries are our personal security.” (“Setting Boundaries In Relationships: How to Keep the Good In and the Bad Out,” by Melanie Evans.)
I liked the idea of creating “ownership,” which Webster’s dictionary defines as 1) the state or fact of being an owner, 2) legal right of possession; proprietorship. That means it’s our responsibility. We can’t simply blame other people who we feel are stepping on our proverbial toes, encroaching on our space, or pulling us down with negativity. We own our toes, personal space and mood. So we have the right, the responsibility, even, to protect them. That’s where boundaries become our “personal security.” We have a better chance of being safe, protected, and secure if we identify the people who crossover our boundaries and then find ways to keep them at a safe distance, where they can do no harm.
The cashier was clear of both her ownership and her need for protection. She felt the customer needed to be told where the line was, where she ended and he began. I would hope that she could enlist the assistance of her store manager, if need be.
It is much tougher to set boundaries with family — a parent, child, or spouse. My friend also recognized where lines had been crossed and felt the need to set more clear boundaries, which she’s been doing since this conversation. She put more space between herself and her mother, both physically and emotionally, while still supporting and assisting her.
There’s much advice available on how to set boundaries. Here are the most common suggestions:
- Be clear what your personal boundaries are. They may not look the same as your spouse’s or your sibling’s. If you’re squirming uncomfortably or walking away bruised, someone probably crossed over.
- Communicate your boundaries to the person who needs to hear them, not your best friend or your husband or your neighbor. Maybe you don’t have to say, “Mom, I’m going to say goodbye as soon as you start denigrating me or my kids.” But you can communicate your boundary by politely getting off the phone every time the conversation turns negative.
- Or one expert suggested if someone frequently asks for favors, give yourself space by telling them you need to check your calendar. If you have plans, feel free to say, “I can’t that day but can I help you reschedule that appointment it if isn’t urgent?”
- When you’ve set a boundary — hold the line. Do not back off. Keep the boundary clear, your need for it clear, and breathe deeply.
Eventually, if you choose to change the boundaries, that’s your choice. But don’t feel pressured into it to “keep the peace,” because you won’t be peaceful inside. Boundaries actually give us all more freedom to explore relationships because we know where “we” should become “me” again.
Jaletta Albright Desmond is a columnist who writes about faith, family, and the fascinatingly mundane aspects of daily life. She lives in Cornelius with her family. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. See her previous columns at http://davidsonnews.net/blog/tag/jaletta-albright-desmond/