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You Are Not A Big Bowl of Candy. Or Maybe You Are!

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So I was talking with a client today about boundaries. As usual.

Therapists love to talk about boundaries. It’s their second favorite thing to talk about after processing emotions. Why? Because you can pretty much predict a person’s success in understanding themselves and navigating the world based on their ability to use boundaries in their life.

Emotional or relational boundaries are similar to physical boundaries. Think about a wall or a fence that you might put up. That’s an obvious boundary. It shows both yourself and others where your stuff begins and ends and defines for others where they can and cannot tread.

The very fact that you put up a boundary is incredibly significant. You don’t often see walls or fences around vacant, weed filled lots. You see them erected on property where there is something of value, where someone wants to protect something, where someone wants to be sure that not just anyone can come along and mess around.

That’s exactly what an emotional boundary signifies. Your ability to define for yourself and others that you, your body, your time, your energy, your work ethic, your love, your generosity are valuable and worthy and not available for just anyone, all the time, depends on your ability to set boundaries.

People can learn how to set boundaries by being taught how to do so early in life by parents and others, having good role models, and through constant practice. People can also become impaired in their ability to set boundaries through having the experience of being abused or neglected, having boundaries violated repeatedly during childhood or adolescence, or seeing others role model “no boundaries” as an ideal.

On Halloween in the U.S., most people wait for trick-or-treaters to come to the door and hand out candy. But some people put out a big bowl of candy, leave it outside the front door, and expect the kids who arrive to take one or a few pieces and leave the rest for others. They have to trust that whoever arrives first will not take advantage and take all of the candy, leaving none. There are no boundaries or enforceable rules when a big bowl is left out unattended.

If you interact with others…your family, friends, boss, co-workers, or strangers as if you are a big bowl of unattended candy, you can’t be completely surprised if you are not respected or if you get all used up. Except you can’t just run to the store to get another bag of YOU to refill the bowl.

If you don’t set rules, if you can’t say no, if you can’t assert yourself and say what is and is not acceptable to you…you will be taken advantage of. It’s going to happen. Even very nice people will take advantage of you, because they won’t even know they are doing it. You’re not setting the boundary by telling them it’s a problem for you.

Setting a boundary doesn’t guarantee people will respect you or honor your boundary. People scale walls and ignore “No Trespassing” signs sometimes. But you want to learn that you have the right to set boundaries, that doing so is what people with healthy self-esteem do, and that you even have the right to enforce or reinforce those boundaries if they are challenged.

Others can tell how much you value yourself, your time, and your talents by how well you set and enforce boundaries around them. Some will make assessments about your level of self-esteem and emotional health based on it. And a few will assess your ability to be manipulated based on your ability to set and work with boundaries.

You and the special set of qualities that make you uniquely you are not replaceable. You deserve to set limits, rules, boundaries, around what is unique, special, valuable. That’s why boundaries are so important.

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