I’ve spent a significant amount of my life supporting human beings navigate through and heal from difficult and distressing experiences: as a minister, mediator, conflict coach, peer counselor, support group facilitator, educator, and friend. And after spending tens of thousands of hours over decades of listening, I can wholeheartedly confirm what you already know: having healthy relationships with healthy boundaries in our unhealthy society is hard work.
One of my favorite descriptions of boundaries comes from Dr. Helena Liu: “the framework in which we take responsibility for our own emotions and actions and relinquish responsibility for the emotions and actions of others. They are fundamental to leading healthy and happy lives.” Importantly, Liu notes that these are living spaces, “dynamic and flexible”; the more in-tune we are to our needs and circumstances, the more we can customize our boundaries to the moment. At certain times in our lives, or in certain relationships, we may relax or strengthen our boundaries. In other words, and if I may borrow from a well-known observance about the Sabbath, boundaries are made for human wellbeing; humans are not made for boundaries.
Dr. Liu calls boundaries “the necessary spaces” between us, and names five common aspects of life where we experience and need healthy boundaries.
- emotionally (to mutually know and honor our feelings, rather than “reject or deny” them);
- mentally (to mutually know and honor our values and beliefs, rather than to “impose … thoughts and opinions” on ourselves or others);
- energetically (to mutually know and honor our time and energy, so that we can spend our lives aligned to our aspirations);
- physically (to mutually know and honor our bodies, their safety and wellbeing); and
- materially (to mutually know and honor the possessions that are in our care).
You probably noticed that I’ve taken the liberty to frame each of these aspects with the phrase, “to mutually know and honor … .” At the risk of sounding obvious, healthy boundaries in relationships arise when people take the time to understand their own and learn about the other person’s boundaries, and then work together to treat each other in ways that honor both. As simple as this sounds, there are many places where things can go wrong. Maintaining healthy boundaries depends on each person having the skills, resources, support, willingness, and dedication for things that require a lot of effort, such as self-reflection, communication, listening, creative problem-solving, assertiveness, and flexible decision-making. Add to this a commitment to ethics and self-restraint, and we begin to see how complicated boundaries can be. This is also why so many of us choose to rely on cultural and relational scripts to do the heavy lifting.
Yet what are we to do when those cultural and relational scripts are not healthy? The world as we often experience it actively undermines our wellbeing and our ability to thrive. For too many of us, we are trained to be alienated from our own bodies; to actively ignore our needs; and to then view the emotional pain of this alienation as proof of how we are somehow terrible human beings. Unhealthy relational and cultural patterns, especially abusive ones, also condition us to accept this kind of alienation as normal. Add on layers of marginalization and oppression that comes from the kinds of injustice that are baked into our society and culture, and the cards are often stacked against us.
My friend and colleague, Caryn, illustrates these kinds of differences by comparing the living habitat of a beaver dam to a rigid, fixed system like a concrete dam and channel. Beaver dams are part of and responsive to their ecosystem, not separate from it. They slow and filter water flow, help recharge groundwater levels, and create wetland habitats that support bird and amphibian lives, including many endangered and threatened species that depend on wetlands. In contrast, human-built dams are associated with erosion, trapped sediments, and habitat destruction. They often lead to species extinction, and their reservoirs are typically populated by non-native, invasive species. It’s a powerful image of the difference between boundaries that are life-affirming, that make sense of and support our wellbeing and the wellbeing of others, and boundaries that are imposed, rigid, and life-denying. For many of us, we have been living with boundaries that have been shaped and defined by oppressive systems that do not have our wellbeing in mind.
We can reflect on much of our activism and movements for social change in relation to our work to insist on our humanity and gain some level of self-determination in our lives, to establish our own boundaries that do center our personal and collective wellbeing. But when we decide to act, to become agents of change resisting and transforming unjust systems and cultures, then we encounter another way for our boundaries to be tested and stretched, as we balance what needs to be done with what we can do. And with our society’s obsession with productivity, even our most skillful activism and balanced boundaries can be haunted by the question, “have I done enough?” There are thousands of temptations, every day, for us to ignore our boundaries and push past the limits of our wellbeing. Everywhere we turn, we run into the traps of cynicism, indifference, despair, fatigue, burnout, and powerless rage.
When it comes to boundaries and oppression, it is also important to explicitly note how boundaries and privilege interact. Jo Musker-Sherwood expressed the tension in this way:
“we don’t have much of a positive culture around ‘no’, and that the number of options available to us in saying ‘no’ can very depending on our levels of privilege. / Which boundaries are respected are in part determined by the strength of preference on either side, but also by the balance of power. So boundaries are personal, but they are also deeply political.”
In other words, when it comes to unmasking, resisting, and transforming injustice, establishing a boundary is often a defiant act of asserting our humanity. For this reason, working with boundaries can be a healing and empowering experience, especially for any of us navigating oppressive systems, recovering from abusive experiences, and unlearning internalized oppression and dominance. This is wonderful, but this also means that marginalized people are often – and again – carrying an extra load.
For example, Dr. Liu notes how racist tropes work like this, with Black women expected to have an “infinite reserve of inner strength” and Asian and Middle Eastern women expected to be “‘naturally’ subservient and … available at the beck and call of others’ demands.” The result is:
“Integral to the work of setting and maintaining boundaries is recognizing the sexist and racist assumptions that set unreasonable expectations on women of color. We need to do the ongoing work of decolonizing our minds and learn to detach from these harmful assumptions both in our expectations of others and our expectations of ourselves.”
Rheeda Walker, a psychologist and professor at the University of Houston, similarly points out that BIPOC “communities disproportionately carry high levels of burden with less access to education, housing, economic and political opportunities while shouldering more violence and disparities in health and well-being.” This pushes resilience to its edges, where we find ourselves overwhelmed and “as if we cannot take anymore, mentally.” Establishing boundaries comes with recognizing our limits and caring enough about ourselves to believe our wellbeing is worth protecting. Walker recommends reflective questions to help us track with those limitations, so that we can affirm our worth, recognize when we are being overwhelmed, and take steps to come back to balance:
“Am I behaving in ways that are inconsistent with my character? Am I snapping at friends or my children and feeling regretful about doing so? Do I resent having to get out of bed in the morning? Have I lost my sense of joy and peace?”
Yet because our society is set up to expect and benefit from their exploitation, marginalized people often experience pushback when they do establish boundaries. This means that, not only is it essential for members of marginalized and oppressed communities to develop healthy boundaries, it is also an act of resistance against systems and cultures that are organized around our exploitation. Boundary-making helps us recover our agency, but it may also expose us to pushback and even attacks, especially from people who benefit from our marginalization. Dr. Liu links boundaries, self-care, and “showing up for others”:
“Caring for ourselves is also a cornerstone of sustainable activism, where we can sustain our passion and commitment while not succumbing to exhaustion and despair. … Sometimes if you advocate for yourself when people are used to compliance from you, they will be taken aback. / We must ultimately remember that when we give and give and give without any regard for our own needs, we will burn out. When we work ourselves to exhaustion, we won’t be able to give anything to anybody.”
This is a good reminder that boundaries are also about honoring our personal and collective limitations. Anyone actively involved in trying to make the world a better place has felt the pressures to push past our limitations, abandon boundaries, and sacrifice our well-being and aspirations in the name of a cause. While it is true that sometimes we may strategically and intentionally place our needs to the side to deal with a crisis, it is not sustainable or healthy to do so over the long-term – for ourselves or our movements.
If we need a devastating reminder of just how true this is, we can reflect on how our current ecological crisis and the urgency of climate change arises out of our humanity’s reckless refusal to honor the earth’s boundaries. Climate change and environmental injustice are both a reality and a symbol of the harm that arises when we ignore boundaries and balance. Musker-Sherwood helpfully makes this connection, and names the remedy:
“It is precisely in our difficulties respecting boundaries that we have found ourselves facing the consequences of an overstretched planet, and it is therefore in our humble return to the natural rhythm of giving and receiving, of action and rest, that we can find healing personally and globally.”
But this also means that boundaries are about accountability. The healthiest boundaries are meaningless if we don’t know how to practice them; recognize when we are out of balance, being harmed or harming another; and adjust course toward healing and growing. One of the important essays I’ve encountered on this topic is Shannon Perez-Darby’s “The Secret Joy of Accountability” (in The Revolution Starts at Home). Writing in the context of recovering from domestic violence, she describes how an abusive relationship narrowed the choices available to her and eroded her agency and self-determination: “The solution to breaking a pattern of power and control that limits choices lies in an increased ability to act powerfully and make choices on your own behalf.” (105-106). “Relationships,” she wrote, “are made of tiny moments of intention and choice.” (103) Boundary work brings our intention and attention to these tiny moments, helping us recognize both woundedness and strength, and our need for both “self-determination and safety” and accountability. Perez-Darby’s description of this helps capture it as a living process of healing and growing:
“I define (self) accountability as a process of taking responsibility for your choices and the consequences of those choices. … In a process of self-accountability, this reconciliation isn’t dependent on another person’s involvement, but instead engages with our own sense of values and what is important to us. In the work of self-accountability, we are constantly striving to align our actions and our values, knowing it’s likely they will never be exactly the same. When there’s a gap in that alignment we can reflect on what choices we would need to make in the future so our actions are more in line with who we want to be.” (110-111)
This brings us full circle, back to the Dr. Liu’s description of boundaries as: “the framework in which we take responsibility for our own emotions and actions and relinquish responsibility for the emotions and actions of others.” This relinquishment does not mean letting go of community; instead, we are cultivating community in ways that give us each the support, resources, and care we need to “take responsibility for our own emotions and actions.” Like the beaver’s dam, our healthy boundaries help create a life-giving habitat of mutual care and support. Perez-Darby calls it “creating the conditions for loving each other the very best way we know how – beautifully, fully, and as people who can act powerfully and make choices on our own behalf.”
And, at least for me, it is this kind of vision that makes the hard work of healthy boundaries more than a psychological routine, more even than an act of resistance, but a creative practice suffused with joy, love, and hope.