Today I want to talk about how Stoicism can help us set healthy boundaries. Learning how to set healthy boundaries is not easy. I was never really taught how to do this, and so I’ve been learning how to do this over the last few years, and honestly, it’s been a challenge.
“To achieve freedom and happiness, you need to grasp this basic truth: some things in life are under your control, and others are not.”
The first and most important teaching of Stoicism is that there are things that we control, and things we cannot and that we should focus on the things that we can control and let go of the rest. This seems like a very clear concepts, but is one of the hardest things to master. Truly understanding and taking responsibility for the things that you can control is hard. It is much easier to blame our misfortunes and unhappiness on things outside of ourselves. But every time we do this, we allow ourselves to become a victim, and come no closer to solving the issue we’re dealing with.
But how do we deal with things that we can’t control, but have a big impact on us? For example, we can’t control what other people do or say. Does this mean that we have to just let them do what they are going to do and just live with however their actions impact us? I think that Stoicism gives us some tools to handle these situations.
First lets talk about what a boundary is. A boundary is a clear statement about what your actions will be in a given situation. It is letting the other person know what you will do. It is not telling someone else what to do. Setting a boundary is not the same as an ultimatum.
When we set boundaries we are acting on the things that we control, namely, what we say and what we do. We let others know how we will respond in a given situation. We don’t tell others what to do, because that is not within our control.
This is really hard for most of us to do. We want to control the things and people around us. But when we try to control others, we are not taking responsibility for the things that we can control. We often try to do this through all kinds of ways – manipulation, coercion, threats, ultimatums. All of which are trying to control the actions of others, most of which generally fail.
Why is it important to set healthy boundaries? Figuring out your boundaries helps you understand what you want, and how you want to be treated. It is a way for you to define your values. It is how you stand up for yourself. Setting boundaries is how you let other people know how you want to be treated. It improves relationships because you let the other person know how they can respect and support you.
Setting boundaries, especially where you haven’t before, can be very challenging. Often when you start to set boundaries with people that weren’t there before, there is resistance. The other person might get upset because they like how things are. They might try to test the boundaries that you have set up, which is why it is important that you hold your boundaries. Maintaining your boundaries is how you respect and take care of yourself.
How do we set healthy boundaries?
There are a few steps to creating healthy boundaries.
First define what is acceptable behavior. Decide what things uphold your values and what things do not. Decide what you will and won’t put up with.
Second, decide what action you will take in response. Remember, this is about you and your actions. It is not telling the other person what they have to do.
Third, communicate this boundary to the other person. You don’t have to explain yourself. You don’t have to justify why you are setting this boundary. You have the right to determine what you do and do not want to do. Also, remember that this is not an ultimatum, but a statement of what your actions will be.
Fourth, hold up your end of the bargain and take action when necessary.
In some cases, setting a boundary is as simple as saying “no”. Whether in relationships at work, or with family and friends, a clear and concise no is often the best way to create healthy relationships. It lets others know how they can respect your space and time. Remember, you do not have to explain yourself. For some people this is hard, and as a recovering people pleaser, doubly so. We each have the right to determine what we will or won’t do.
Sometimes setting and maintaining boundaries is a little more involved. Lets say you have friend who frequently gets drunk whenever you go out together and it bothers you. When they’re drunk, they get loud and obnoxious. Maybe it’s led to some uncomfortable situations. Setting a clear boundary would be letting them know that if they continue to get drunk when you are out together that you will excuse yourself and head home.
In this case, you made it clear what actions you will take in that situation. You did not tell your friend that they have to stop drinking. You just make it clear what you will do. The next time you are out with your friend, and they decide to get drunk, you politely but firmly excuse yourself.
The last aspect I want to discuss is making sure that we respect the boundaries of others. When someone else has set a boundary, do we acknowledge it and to our best we respect it? Do we try to persuade or talk them out of it? Do we get frustrated and try to bully them? Recognizing and respecting the boundaries of others is a clear recognition that we can’t control other people.
Learning how to set boundaries is a process of defining your values, and understanding your value. It is how you let others know how you want to be treated. Think of it as creating a guide book to you.