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Setting boundaries book review: Where to draw the line by Anne Katherine

“Where to draw the line” makes it clear that boundary setting is not just physical, and not just for new relationships. Yes, boundaries protect us physically, but they can also be used to protect our time, energy, preferences, possessions, and relationships. We actually have opportunities to set boundaries everyday. It is an important skill that everyone needs and that I believe children should learn early.

We are setting a boundary when we say:Where to draw the line image

  • “I’ll do that as soon as I've finished this.”
  • “Sorry, I can’t come out tonight, I have a prior commitment.”
  • “Please, call me Nicky.”
  • “I don’t like that.”
  • “I don’t want to talk about that right now.”
  • “That’s my pen.”

We’re even setting a boundary when we offer a hand to shake rather than going for a hug.

Social norms as boundaries

Since reading this book, I’ve become more aware of unspoken boundaries. There are norms that we don’t even notice unless someone breaks them, and they are context specific. For example, if a stranger sits next to me on a peak hour train, it feels completely normal. If a stranger sat next to me in a mostly empty train carriage, it feels really weird. That is a boundary created by a social norm. The stranger who sits next to someone in an empty train is most probably committing a boundary violation. He or she knows it is normal to give space to strangers, and has chosen to break that rule for some reason. In some rare cases people have difficulty recognising, or haven’t had time to learn the norms in a new context, in which case it might be a boundary error.

There are also social norms around relationships. For example, asking a favour of a close friend fits the nature of the relationship. Asking the same favour of a work colleague might be awkward, and asking the favour of a friend you haven’t contacted for years, or even a close friend that you just had a big argument with, may feel quite inappropriate.

Something I learned from this book is that we can break social norms sensitively in some cases, by first acknowledging the nature of the relationship. For example, “I know this is a strange request”, or “I know we haven’t spoken for years…”. I feel this ability to acknowledge the state of the relationship is important. I’ve seen some relationships where the norm is to have an explosive argument, and then pretend it didn’t happen. Then in a few days or weeks depending how big it was, things go back to normal. I feel that leaves little scars on the relationship. Relationships heal better if both parties acknowledge anything hurtful they said and apologise (though I know that can be easier said than done).

Where to draw the line walks the reader through the complexity of boundary setting in the many different realms of life, including friendships, relationships, possessions, time management, and food, among others. The one area that isn’t comprehensively covered is business and work. The author, Anne Katherine, makes good use of dialogue to demonstrate healthy and poor use of boundaries.

Our early-warning system

Something I realised reading this book and others, is that boundaries aren’t always something we can articulate. Our emotions warn us of a boundary transgression before our thoughts do. For example, very early in my career, I was head teacher in an English conversation school in Japan. Some teachers wanted me to ask the boss whether they could get their final pay check early. Our boss told me that he would grant them their pay early, but that he wanted me to tell them that he had said no, but that I’d work on him. He asked me to keep them in suspense for a couple of weeks and then tell them that I had talked him around. He said that would help to ingratiate me to them and to make them appreciate the favour.

I didn’t immediately know why, but that request made me feel really uncomfortable. I said I’d think about it. My heart knew immediately that I didn’t want to do what he asked me to, but it took a lot of thinking until I realised that he was asking me to be dishonest, and honesty is an extremely important value to me. I had to set a boundary to protect my integrity.

The difficulty that left me with was that I am a polite person, and I like to please people, and there was also the power-differential because he was my boss. All those situations make it particularly hard to say no. Knowing what I had to protect in that situation helped me identify what I could and couldn’t agree to. I told my boss that I would be happy to communicate his decision to the teachers, whatever that was. But that if he wanted to draw it out to make them grateful, then he would have to do that himself.

How to communicate and enforce boundaries

Where to draw the line also went into specifics on how to communicate and enforce boundaries. Simply put, when you first communicate a boundary, don’t hint, be as clear and explicit as possible. Unlike social norms, which we shouldn't need to communicate, the personal boundaries you draw around your values, time, preferences etc, are unknown to others unless you communicate them. Until you communicate your personal boundaries, people are likely to step over them. If you let them cross those boundaries repeatedly without communicating your boundary, you are likely to start feeling resentful or uncomfortable with that person, and it will begin to damage the relationship, and possibly your own self-concept. The other person in the relationship may be wondering what is wrong, oblivious to how or why their actions have been affecting you. In some cases, all that is needed is a clear statement of your preferences or concerns.

Some common reasons that people allow multiple boundary transgressions are:

  1. They aren’t clear themselves on what their boundaries are (perhaps, like in my story earlier, they feel uncomfortable, but aren’t sure why).
  2. It feels easier to allow the transgressions than to communicate their boundary.
  3. They fear that setting a boundary will limit a relationship that they really value.
  4. They assume the other person didn’t understand, and so keep repeating their boundary communication without enforcing it.
  5. They’re unsure how to enforce a boundary.

There are of course cases that are much more complicated than that, such as many domestic and family violence situations.

In Communicating with Strength and the Safe Series of workshops, we work through all of these barriers, and any more that arise. Where to draw the line makes it clear that healthy boundary setting actually strengthens good relationships. It weakens relationships only when one party refuses to respect the other person’s boundaries. When people don’t respect your boundaries it provides a red flag that perhaps the relationship isn’t worth pursuing. You will only get those red flags if you state your boundary clearly, otherwise you can give the other person the benefit of the doubt.

Katherine suggests three steps to communicating and enforcing boundaries:

  1. State your boundary (e.g. Please don’t criticise what I choose to eat)
  2. Add a consequence (e.g. If you keep criticising what I eat, I won’t want to eat with you any more).
  3. Follow through (e.g. At the first criticism move tables).

Prior to reading this book I think I was also confusing boundaries with defences. I thought of them as a strict divider that kept everyone out. That’s a defence, or a rigid boundary. Healthy boundaries move with the relationship. An analogy is having a fence around your property, and a door to your house. These could be defences or boundaries depending on how you use them. If you don’t let anyone inside the fence, you are using it as a defence. It keeps you physically safe, but also alone and isolated. If you keep most people outside the fence, let people with packages inside the fence, but not in the door, and let close friends all the way into your home, then you are using it as a boundary, keeping yourself safe but also allowing yourself the support and joy that comes from friendship.

To get a feel for how assertive you are, try this survey.

To learn more and practice setting boundaries please consider joining a Communicating with Confidence workshop run by Personal Strength, which combines principles from ‘where to draw the line’, ‘crucial conversations’, ‘verbal judo’, and research around effective boundary setting.

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