Boundaries: A Thing You Need

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By Anna North

Sometimes you need a little space, even from the people you love. But these people — family, partners, close friends — can be the hardest to set boundaries with, because you don’t want to push them away. Below, some tips for establishing those boundaries without being a jerk.

Figure out what you need.

The first step to good boundaries is figuring out where to draw them. Are you an introvert or an extrovert? How much alone time do you need? What level of closeness do you want with your partner, your family, your friends? Jane Adams, PhD, author of Boundary Issues: Using Boundary Intelligence to Get the Intimacy You Want and the Independence You Need in Life, Love, and Work, says,

The appropriate boundary in all important relationships is that ineffable place where you feel both close to and distinct from the Other. Remember that intimacy means allowing access to your interior world — your thoughts, feelings, fantasies, beliefs, etc — and risk that it (and you) may change. How intimate the relationship is and how much you trust the other person to treat that inner world respectfully — i.e., not mess with your head or hurt your feelings — determines how much of it you show them.

Boundaries will be different for every relationship and every person. If you’re not letting anyone get close to you, you might want to discuss that with a therapist. But there’s a difference between closeness and losing yourself, and defining that difference for yourself is the first step toward setting boundaries that work for you.

Talk about it.

Jo-Ellen Grzyb, co-author of The Nice Factor: The Art of Saying No, says a big mistake people often make is assuming their loved ones can read their minds. That’s (usually) not the case, and rather than requiring that the people you care about “just know” what you need, you have to tell them. And do it early — “the first time you feel it in your gut” that you need to say something, do so. If your girlfriend tries to talk to you while you’re on the phone, or you realize you absolutely need Wednesday evenings to yourself to recharge, speak up rather than stewing about it. If you delay too long, you’ll build up resentment, which isn’t fair to you or the person you care about, and will only make the conversation harder. However, there is one important caveat to this advice:

Wait til you’re not mad.

Grzyb says the time to discuss a boundary issue is soon — but not so soon that you’re actively pissed off. If you talk to your girlfriend the second she interrupts you, you’re likely to snap at her and unload feelings of annoyance that aren’t necessarily even her fault. After all, she can’t read your mind. Just wait for the next calm opportunity, and talk about solutions with a level head. And keep it simple and non-accusatory. Don’t say “you always pester me” — instead, say something like, “it’s hard for me to concentrate when I’m on the phone, could you wait til I’m done before asking me questions?”

Consider their needs too.

The thing about people you love is that you want them around. And any relationship that’s truly close involves some give and take. Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, suggests that when you talk about boundaries, especially with a romantic partner, you talk about “how you can meet your partner’s needs too.” For instance, maybe you want quiet time when you get home from work to recharge, but your partner wants to spend time with you and talk about the day. You could suggest a half-hour of quiet time after work, followed by dinner together where you get to catch up. Cain says what’s important is “establishing protocols that will suit both people.” Once you’ve done that, you no longer have to talk about it all the time — you and your partner will have routines in place that ensure you each get what you need.

State a general preference.

One good way to talk about your need for space with loved ones is to make it about you, not them. It’s not that they’re annoying, it’s that you really need that half hour to yourself every evening. Cain says that especially for introverts, “it’s helpful to have these conversations through the frame of temperament.” Some people like constant social contact, others need more alone time — discussing your boundaries in terms of which kind of person you are can make your loved ones feel less accused. It also allows you to make general statements about your preferences. For instance, Cain says her friends all know she’s not very good about returning phone calls. She’s made it clear to all of them that she doesn’t like the phone much, so when they don’t hear from her, they know it’s about her, not them. So if, for instance, you can’t manage the twice-weekly phone date that your friend would prefer, let him know that you’re just not really a phone person. And …

Offer an alternative.

Sometimes setting boundaries can just be a matter of agreeing on how to talk. Grzyb points out that if you’re someone who doesn’t like getting a lot of texts, you could ask your most text-happy loved ones to leave a voicemail instead, so you can set up a time to talk. If you hate the phone, set up a coffee date. If a friend wants to unload the details of her breakup on you, but you’re already feeling pretty exhausted, ask if you can talk to her about it in a couple of days. Figuring out an alternative way to connect is a good way to show that while you care about someone, you also need to take care of yourself. And anyone who’s truly close to you should respect that.

Boundary Issues: Using Boundary Intelligence to Get the Intimacy You Want and the Independence You Need in Life, Love, and Work [Amazon]
The Nice Factor: The Art of Saying No [Amazon]
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking [Amazon]

Image by Jim Cooke and Timurpix/Shutterstock.com

Originally published on Jezebel. Republished WITH PERMISSION MOTHERF*CKERS.

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26 Comments

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    Ha. I’ve had arguments with friends that literally consisted of me freaking out and screaming “I REFUSE TO BE CODEPENDENT! Stop needing me to survive! Stop needing me to need you! I AM NOT YOUR MOTHER OR YOUR 50’s HOUSEWIFE!”
    I need my space.
    But then, one of the best things about my girlfriend is that we somehow just intuitively GET what each other’s boundaries are without having to have hours-long conversations dissecting them.

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    Thanks autostraddle! That’s been exactly what I needed today, since I am currently fighting with my girlfriend about boundaries and there is some really good advice on how to set them without upsetting my girlfriend in this post.

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        My gf once called us ‘Daria and Jane.’

        There is hope for introverted people. Knowing who you both are before getting into a relationship, and respecting that just because people have different social needs, it does’t make them bad/your fault, is essential. this was a great article.

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      you’re definitely not alone in your introversion, i can seriously be alone for days on end and not even notice/feel the need to go out, it actually kind of scares me sometimes. i’m still not sure whether it is better to be with someone who is also introverted, or someone more extroverted that will push me out of myself a bit. i think if i ended up with someone as introverted as me, we would probably like spend our days in separate rooms, stop talking, and never leave the house.

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    My last girlfriend and I spent hours writing in a notebook while passing it back and forth over coffee. :) It makes being an introvert easier for me because then I get to et my entire thought down for them to look at and think about.

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    Wish I could print this out and read it to my friend/ roommate who wanted to get drinks with me tonight, when she knows I have not gone to bed before 4 for the past 3 days. Time for sleep.

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    Okay maybe this is kind of weird but I need boundaries with the Internet.

    The short version is I am the kind of person who very much feels compelled to engage in discussions about Important Things, but then some of my disabilities (crippling anxiety, for one) make it almost impossible for me to handle the Internet fallout, which is always so much worse than in person fallout. If you’re there with a group and you’re talking about something really sensitive and things get heated or there’s a misunderstanding, you can (hopefully) resolve that shit right there and then. On the Internet there’s no such thing. I have yet to figure out how to balance this.

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    I’ve found that I can go weeks without talking with friends, hanging out with said friends, and the like. I’m either at home doing my art thing or in the campus studio doing my art thing, with an hour long bus ride in between. I’m not as introverted as I used to be, but I’m not much of an extrovert either. I have my moments where I regress, but overall I’d say I’ve improved a lot since college began.

    I do find that with family – because I’m around them the most – I snap at them when they just don’t understand that I have my door closed and locked for a reason: I hate snapping at people. Privacy issues, they like to walk in without knocking, etc. What really sucks though is that when I come home from my 5 hour classes plus 2 hours on the bus (to and from), my nephew is always so anxious to tell me about his awesome day and attach himself to my hip. He’s my little nephew-bro and I love him to bits but damn it, I just need 25 minutes to myself to get situated. It really bites that I’m this cold bitch to him when I’m in one of my “moods.”

    My love life is bland and nearly non-existent. Although I would really like to find a lady friend that I’m compatible with, I never take things a step beyond friendship (or acquaintanceship for that matter). Sure, I’m alright at talking with women I have an interest in and am attracted to, but I’m so out of the loop. I shy away from connecting with people on a personal level besides the close friends I already have. Although I’m all ears and shoulders when they want to rant and get things off of their chests, I never mention any of my problems. I’m all smiles and laughs with these friends and acquaintances, and for the most part I’m myself (sort of), but I have this tendency to put up walls when they try to dig deeper.

    Oh, and I’ve inherited my family’s long-windedness which I try my very best to control. I’m seriously insecure about it because I notice friends disregard what I’m saying and change the topic rather abruptly when I’m in mid sentence. I end up categorizing whatever I was talking about as boring and avoid bringing it up in the future.

    tl;dr: I suck at being open about myself with people, but I’m friendly nonetheless. Sometimes I think people find me inextricably boring because I don’t care to talk about myself. Most importantly, I’m a bi-weekly hermit who talks to herself about herself so she doesn’t have the need to consult anyone else.

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      Oh for the love of… This is embarrassing. THIS is exactly why one shouldn’t have 20+ tabs open at a time while attempting to read several AS articles simultaneously. They merge and, as a result, your thoughts and opinions on them merge as well.

      Headaches, headaches, headaches. My first post and I just blah everywhere. Anywayyy…

      This article was a lovely read. Thank you for inspiring me to think about things in my personal life a bit more thoroughly. Keeping my temper in check when it comes to boundaries being ignored by others, and waiting until I’m level headed enough to discuss it is a top priority.

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    I’m rather late in the game as far as replying to this article, but I just discovered it and it resonates with me tremendously. I’m an introvert (as well as shy, which are two separate things), who needs a lot of space and time alone. Usually I’m very hesitant when meeting new people because people tend to want to merge right away and form that connection, where it takes a lot longer for me to merge and connect with people. Oftentimes, it’s like, “Oh great, I just met this person, now they are going to call me like everyday and I’ll get drained and won’t respond, then they’ll see that as non-interest, when really, I’m interested, I just don’t invest so heavily and as readily like others right away (it takes time).” Introversion and extroversion is about energy. For introverts, they get drained quicker when they are around people, while extroverts literally feel energized by being around other people. Also, for anyone interested and wants to do a little experiment, try the “Lemon Test” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/mind/articles/personalityandindividuality/lemons.shtml).

    Also of note, if you are interested in people’s preference as far as how they think (cognition) and or behaviors, I suggest investing a little time into personality theories such as Carl Jung and his cognitive functions (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychological_Types) and the Enneagram (http://www.enneagraminstitute.com/).

    Also, another little tidbit, you’ll find many introverts online because they can be “social” without the energy drain and are able to pick and choose how they dissipate their energy, again they are able to pick their own boundaries, which works out really nice. Ah, introversion, the story of my life.

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