photo: CmdrGravy on flickr

When you hear the word “boundaries,” what comes to mind?

A crossing guard in full uniform, his squinty eyes leveling you with disdain?

Or an insurmountable barrier, like a barbed-wire fence with Rottweilers on the bottom and sharp, pointy spikes on top?

Or maybe you think of “boundaries” in the psychological sense: A granola-loving, tofu-smacking therapist who likes to explore “feeeeeelings” and “protecting personal space.”

With apologies to the Rottweiler fans, this post is about the granola version of the word.

There are several myths and misunderstandings about boundaries, and we’re going to explore them right now!

(As opposed to later. I’m setting a boundary. See how easy it is?!)

I first came across this list in a training for my job. I loved it so much, I saved it and still refer to it occasionally. It’s from the book “Better Boundaries: Owning and Treasuring Your Life” by Jan Black and Greg Enns.

6 Myths About Boundaries

Myth #1: Boundaries are selfish

photo: wonderferret on flickr

I love this one. Have you ever noticed when someone accuses you of being selfish for setting a boundary, it’s because you’re not doing what they want you to do? Tricky, tricky!

Boundaries are selfish only in the best sense of the word.

When you take care of yourself by setting boundaries, you’re actually more available to help and serve others.

Myth #2: Boundaries are a waste of time

photo: blue2likeyou on flickr

If by “waste of time,” you mean “positive, constructive actions designed to maintain balance and peace of mind,” then – by all means – boundaries are a waste of time.

For the record, time spent setting boundaries in your personal and professional life can literally save your life.

So they’re only a waste of time if you’re planning on having no time. Because you’re, like, dead.

Myth #3 Boundaries make relationships more difficult

photo: 05com on flickr

It is true that boundaries can cause difficulties initially, especially if others are resistant to them. But relationships without healthy boundaries are beyond difficult. Try: codependent, addictive, destructive.

It may be difficult at first to set and maintain boundaries, but this pales in comparison to the mayhem of boundary-free interactions.

Think World War III, in the emotional sense.

Myth #4 Boundaries are a fad

photo: Kumar Jhuremalani on flickr

Fads are things that come and go. They’re popular one day and gone the next.

That’s not what boundaries are. Boundaries have been around forever.

Picture this: Two Neanderthals are living in a cave. She likes to go to bed early. He likes to invite his buddies over to stay up late and trade hunting stories. Finally, after months and months of sleepless nights, she sets a boundary: It’s me or your buddies. He chooses his buddies and she hooks up with the cavewoman next door.

Boundaries. They’re as old as time.

Myth #5: Boundaries don’t work

photo: eridesign on flickr

Yes, they do. The only reason they don’t work is that they haven’t been implemented correctly.

Like this:

Person A – “I need to spend time alone tonight.”

Person B – “But I was looking forward to hanging out with you. Can’t you do it some other time?”

Person A – “But – ”

Person B – “Pleeeeeeeese?!”

Person A – “Okay. I’ll do it some other time.”

The “my bad” in this scenario belongs to Person A. She can blame Person B all she wants, but it’s up to her to maintain her boundary. Even if it’s hard.

If we set boundaries, they will be challenged. It’s part of the deal.

The challenge doesn’t mean they’re not working.

It means they are.

Myth #6: Kind, loving people don’t set boundaries

photo: mRio on flickr

Here’s how it works: Some kind, loving people set boundaries. Some don’t.

The ones who don’t set boundaries end up burned out and unable to continue giving. They’re still kind and loving. But they need to apply that kind, loving energy to themselves in order to recharge.

Better to set boundaries all along and not have to burn out.

photo: Sarah Fleming on flickr

Let’s review this list one more time, but from the point of view of the Truth behind the Myths:

Myth #1: Boundaries are selfish

Truth #1: Boundaries are self-actualizing

Myth #2: Boundaries are a waste of time

Truth #2: Boundaries are a powerful use of time

Myth #3 Boundaries make relationships more difficult

Truth #3: Boundaries make relationships healthier

Myth #4 Boundaries are a fad

Truth #4: Boundaries are as old as time

Myth #5: Boundaries don’t work

Truth #5: Boundaries work when they’re implemented correctly

Myth #6: Kind, loving people don’t set boundaries

Truth #6: Boundaries help kind, loving people thrive

photo: Sodanie Chea on flickr

Now that we’ve busted the 6 myths about boundaries, I want to tell you a story.

This story is about my friend Alaric and it’s one of the best stories about boundaries I’ve ever heard.

When I was working for the County of Sonoma as a Social Worker, Alaric came to join our team. He was in charge of the Dads Make a Difference Program (DMAD). DMAD provided support and services for young fathers, including parenting classes.

One of Alaric’s jobs was to transport the young men to the classes.

Several of the fathers were residents of Probation Camp. Probation Camp, for those of you who don’t know, is a step down from Juvenile Hall. You’re given a few more privileges, but you’re still not free.

photo: Sonoma County Probation Dept.

Alaric was given the task of overseeing the young fathers while they ventured out of Probation Camp to attend the parenting classes. He would pick them up in a van, drive them to class, and escort them home.

One evening, on the way to class, Alaric and his van full of young fathers were sitting at a red light. All of the sudden, one of the young men jumped out of the van and ran away.

The other guys sat there, speechless. They turned to Alaric.

“Aren’t you going to go get him?!” they said.

After all, this young man was in Alaric’s care. It was his job to look after him, to make sure he got back to Probation Camp. Wasn’t he going to grab him and get him back in the van?

“Nope,” said Alaric. “Not my job.”

There was no question, no hesitation in his mind.

When he told me this story, I imagined myself in his place. I would have been totally stressed, torn between staying with the guys in the van and running after the guy who got away.

But Alaric was totally clear. He knew what was his to do and what wasn’t.

We later found out that the young man who fled had been pretending to be a father. He signed up for the parenting classes so he could run away. In other words, his escape was bound to happen. It was only a matter of time.

If Alaric hadn’t set a boundary, he would have risked losing the other guys in the van. And he most certainly wouldn’t have caught the young man who was intent on getting away.

Setting a boundary didn’t make Alaric selfish. It wasn’t a fad or a waste of time. It didn’t make things more difficult. (The young man was eventually found and returned to custody.)

It was exactly the right thing to do.

That what boundaries are, when implemented correctly. Exactly the right thing to do.

I thank my friend Alaric for showing me this.

When did you set a boundary? What was the result?


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