Looking for a simple way to think about personal boundaries? This example uses ice cream to explain how to assert personal boundaries and why it’s important to respect others’ boundaries.
About a year ago, I read a post on Facebook stating: “You know someone loves you when they give you what you need without being asked.”
Lots of people liked and hearted that post. I mean, it sounds ideal, right? Someone turning up with a box of chocolates or flowers because you were feeling sad. Someone instinctively knowing what you wanted for your Birthday. It’s like a Hollywood romance movie! Who wouldn’t want that!?
But let’s get real… the only people who are supposed to meet another person’s needs without being asked are caregivers dealing with children. No adult wants to be told that they need to:
- apologize for their mistakes,
- eat more vegetables, and
- clean up their room.
But those are far more realistic needs than a glass of wine. And this is where boundaries come in.
Note: I worked on this post about personal boundaries for longer than I’ve worked on any blog post. Even after writing this post, I did 3 different ice cream photoshoots, which were definitely more about procrastination than getting the right lighting. Boundaries are hard.
Boundaries… the 1980s Self-Help Fad
Talking about boundaries became a thing in the 1980s, and it’s still a thing. But given the current political climate, it’s pretty clear that boundaries aren’t generally well understood.
Here’s how I like to think of boundaries:
The simplest boundaries: A boundary is anything that keeps two things apart. Think of the border of a country or the concrete barrier between lanes of traffic on a highway.
Personal boundaries: Anything that one person does to keep themselves differentiated from another is a personal boundary. It can include:
- A physical boundary around maintaining personal space.
- Mental boundary to have your own thoughts and opinions
- An emotional boundary to manage your feelings.
There are a ton of websites talking about boundaries and defining them in different ways. However, it’s actually a very simple and universal idea.
Boundaries and Ice Cream
My view of personal boundaries is you are allowed to be yourself and make your own choices. I’m allowed to be myself and make my own choices. We’re fine to be ourselves as long as our choices don’t directly harm others.
I like using ice cream as an example because it’s so easy and obvious how boundaries apply to a bowl of ice cream.
My friend Lee doesn’t like ice cream. If I offer Lee a bowl of ice cream, he’s not going to eat it.
- This doesn’t mean that Lee doesn’t like me.
- It doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t like ice cream. Or that people who like ice cream are bad.
- Lee’s choice around whether or not to eat ice cream is up to him. Sometimes he’ll have a bite of ice cream, but most of the time he won’t.
- I can’t force Lee to eat ice cream. He gets to decide whether he wants it.
Why do personal boundaries matter?
Understanding and respecting other people’s boundaries is key to all relationships. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about your boss, your mother-in-law, or your friend. Most interpersonal conflict comes from poor management of personal boundaries.
Here are a few things I’ve learned about boundaries:
1. No one else is responsible for your feelings and emotions.
You always get to choose how you feel about something. Respecting someone else’s boundaries means that you don’t hold them accountable for your feelings.
If you’re in a bad mood, then you need to manage that on your own.
If someone did something to make you feel uncomfortable, then you have the right to assert a boundary. “I don’t like that. Please don’t do that again.” You also have the right to leave the situation or avoid contact with them.
2. You aren’t responsible for other people’s feelings and emotions.
If someone is holding you accountable for their feelings, dumping their stress on you, or yelling at you because you made them feel uncomfortable, then that is not okay either.
No one needs to help someone else cope with their feelings (other than a caregiver helping a child). This doesn’t mean you can’t be a good listener. It just means that they shouldn’t be yelling at you because they had a bad day.
3. Everyone is allowed to make their own choices
If Lee doesn’t like ice cream that’s a statement about him. It doesn’t have to do with me. I can still eat ice cream and enjoy it. It would be disrespecting my boundaries for Lee to tell me I could no longer eat ice cream just because he doesn’t like it. Likewise, I would be disrespectful of Lee’s boundaries if I told him he had to eat ice cream or made fun of him because he doesn’t like ice cream.
Allowing someone to make their own choices is a necessary part of respecting boundaries. You don’t have to agree with those choices, and that’s OK because you’re also allowed to make your own choices.
How to respectfully assert your boundaries?
There are a few ways to assert boundaries that still respects the other person’s boundaries.
It requires the understanding that both of you have the same right to make choices. Going back to my ice cream example. Lee has as much right not to like ice cream as I do to enjoy my ice cream cone.
Here are a few ways to assert a personal boundary with someone who is not respecting your right to a scoop of caramel swirl ice cream.
- “Can we please stop talking about ice cream?”
- “I don’t want to receive any more articles about how ice cream is bad for my health.”
- “I’m going to eat ice cream for dessert. If you can’t handle that, then I guess we can’t go out for dinner together.”
- “Just because I like ice cream, doesn’t mean I like cotton candy. Please let me decide for myself.”
Our culture has messed up boundaries, which makes it hard to be assertive.
–> You don’t have to be angry to assert a boundary. Just state what you want and leave it there. The more you practice the easier it will be to state your boundary.
–> Boundaries can be hard to assert with someone who benefits by disrespecting them. Don’t back down or argue. Just walk away. If they aren’t willing to let you enjoy your ice cream in peace, then they don’t deserve to spend time with you.