How do you know you need to set a boundary? According to Melissa Urban, you can tell by observing your own feelings — “any sense of dread or avoidance or anxiety around a person, a conversation . . . if you feel like you can’t show up as your full self with somebody, if you feel like you have to hide pieces of yourself or behave in a way that they approve of, that’s a sign that a boundary could be needed.”
Urban, author of “The Book of Boundaries: Set the Limits That Will Set You Free” (Dial Press), said that women in particular have a hard time avoiding overextending ourselves in the service of our families, friends, and colleagues. “I think especially as women, and especially as moms, we have been conditioned — by the patriarchy, and stereotypically rigid gender roles, and often from religious influences — to not have needs,” she said. “We’ve been taught that everyone else’s feelings and comfort need to come ahead of our own.”
The pushback from others can be intense — and telling. “All the people telling us that boundaries are selfish are the people who are benefiting from our having none,” said Urban. In the book, she describes how to set boundaries that are clear and kind, and cautions readers to remember that the only behavior we can control is our own. “Boundaries are not designed to tell other people what to do,” she said. “A boundary is designed to tell people what you will do if your limits are not respected.”
It’s important for parents, Urban said, to model healthy boundary-setting for children, starting as early as toddlerhood. “One way you can help kids set boundaries is around consent,” she said; for example, not forcing a child to hug a visiting friend or relative, but offering other choices, like a fist bump or high-five. “Boundaries really make kids feel safe in their environment.”
Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at email@example.com.