If ever there has been a misunderstood idea, it is the concept of setting boundaries with other people. The reason for this is that each of us has a burning, shameful memory of a bad interaction with another person: a failed friendship, a betrayal, a bad breakup, a layoff, or some other interchange that has emotionally scarred us for life. We feel this way even though well-negotiated relationship boundaries might have prevented such a wound in the first place.
For me the killer memory is of another driver shouting an unprintable and probably physically impossible imperative command at me out of his truck window in 2005. I went home and sobbed for two hours, considered relocating back to my home state, and eventually just decided to quit owning a car! So, thank you for that, truck-driving Rude Man; you’ve saved me tens of thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of freeway commuting. Any unfortunate events that have befallen you in the past thirteen years, go right on ahead and chalk them up to car-ma.
Back to boundaries. Why on earth would I let a random troll infect my peace of mind? Why do it at all, but especially, why remember it for over a decade?
So many things have gone well in my life since that day: I joined Mensa, remarried, reached my goal weight, ran a marathon, adopted a parrot, traveled to two additional continents, changed careers, published a book, and all sorts of other things. The truth is, no amount of achievements or accomplishments really feel like they matter when we’re mulling over a relationship misfire.
The reason for that, I suspect, is that other humans are our natural predator. We are each other’s biggest evolutionary threat and most terrifying enemy. Communicating, collaborating, and cooperating with other people is our safety, our strongest survival trait. We like to think it’s using tools, but when we catalog all of the tools that we personally can use, we start to understand that we rely on each other’s skills more than we’d like to acknowledge. Nothing else can mess with our equilibrium as much as relationship drama, just like nothing else can help us succeed as much as feeling like our friendships and family connections are strong.
This is where boundaries come in.
The first principle of boundaries has to do with accountability. When we accept total and complete personal accountability in every aspect of our lives, this gets easier. We become trustworthy and reliable. It also becomes difficult to maintain relations with people who are not completely accountable themselves. That’s mutual. Those who don’t like being held accountable start to avoid those who expect integrity.
(Personal accountability is not the same thing as the misguided belief that we somehow bring 100% of our trouble and drama upon ourselves. It just means that when bad things happen, we deal with them. Not my fault, still my problem).
The second principle of boundaries is that each person brings 100% to the table. When we focus on giving, on listening, on being present, on connecting, then we can control those inputs. We can only feel the love that we feel, the love that we cause to well up inside ourselves. We can know, trust, and believe that others love us in return, but we can’t actually FEEL it. It’s up to us to give the love, affection, trust, and respect that we wish to receive.
The third principle of boundaries is that everyone gets twenty-four hours in a day. Thus, we have only so much precious time to spend. Every minute we spend with a random stranger, troll, or anonymous commenter is literally stolen from those we love the most. We are required by the laws of physics to prioritize time for our loved ones, and that means spending less time with people we don’t care about as much.
This is where we start to get into trouble. People start working themselves up over hypothetical situations, rather than picturing their own literal, actual loved ones. We count imaginary hurt feelings rather than counting the calendar minutes we’ve spent talking to, say, our grandparents.
It’s not that I don’t care; I just don’t care.
I don’t care about anonymous commenters as a policy. Any second of the day, I can go to a news article, blog, or Twitter and read anonymous comments. No scarcity there. I don’t allow comments on my own blog because 1. I don’t have to, 2. Moderating comments would create an entire second job that I don’t want to do, and 3. I want to protect my more sensitive readers. Anyone who sincerely wants to talk to me can email me or tweet at me using their actual name.
I don’t care about insults. Trolling is a hobby these days, a stupid one. Trolling is proof that the troll literally has nothing better to do. This is definitive proof that this person’s opinions are worthless. I can’t care about a troll’s comments any more than I can care that a random dog barked at me.
I don’t care about naysayers. Regardless of my goal, regardless of the relationship I have with the naysayer, it’s my time and energy to waste. If I want to do something, how is it hurting that person? The easiest way to avoid dealing with naysayers is simply not to talk about your plans until they’re finished. Inform people after the fact. Hey, I went to Morocco. Hey, I placed a product in stores. Hey, I had a conversation with someone in Spanish. Naysayers never seem to care about goals that are already complete.
I don’t care what conversations or social occasions I’m missing. There are always going to be infinite possibilities that I can’t fulfill in one lifetime. People I’ll never meet! Parties and weddings where I wasn’t invited! Concerts I missed! I refuse to whip myself with Fear of Missing Out. I’m having the conversation I’m having right now. I’m living my life right now. Thus, I spend almost no time on social media.
Also as a policy, I will help anyone I can in any way I can. If it’s specific, count me in. I grade myself on whether I’ve fulfilled my obligations, followed through, filled in for someone else, helped get something done, kept confidences, and shown up when I said I would. That doesn’t insulate me from trolls, haters, or critics - nothing would - but it does allow me to set my own values and measure my own adherence to them.
The truth about setting solid boundaries with people is that they usually don’t even notice. We aren’t usually as important to others as we would like to think. As a rule, we spend more time dwelling on our hurts than those who have insulted us ever did with their casual cruelties. Other people spend their time thinking about themselves, just like we do, and it’s likely that the only memories of our past wounds exist in our own minds. More likely, most of our emotional scars come from our interpretations of others’ words and actions, things they never meant to cause any pain at all, things they have long forgotten or never noticed doing.
What the heck is a boundary, anyway? A boundary is an expectation. We decide who hears our secrets, who gets to be inside our house or vehicle, who gets introduced to our friends, who uses our stuff or has access to our passwords, who we would vouch for, lend money, or travel with. In all of these areas, I tend to err on the side of caution.
The minimalist way to set boundaries is to count your top five people. By ‘top’ this means you would consider donating an organ to this person, picking them up in the middle of the night if their house burned down, or bailing them out of jail. They’re on your zombie squad. For this small number of people, show up and be your best self. Be the best friend you know how to be. Make sure they know how much they matter to you. With the time that’s left in your day, consider how much of yourself you want to make available to the other seven billion people on the planet.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.