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Drawing the Line: Empowering Strategies for Setting Healthy Boundaries

I like to think of boundaries as the physical, emotional, and mental limits we establish to protect ourselves. Other animals have boundaries and seem to have an easier time establishing, maintaining, and respecting them. In contrast, we often struggle to identify and establish our boundaries, enforce them, and respect them.

A chacma baboon looking in the distance

All organisms, including us, have boundaries. How can you tell? Typically, when someone crosses a limit you have, you experience a physiological response (e.g., increased heart rate, sweaty palms, waves of heat, aggression, etc.). People often become afraid to establish boundaries despite these clear warning signs.

Often, they don't want to risk offending someone, losing the relationship or job, appearing "selfish," or experiencing retaliation. Incidentally, a primary tactic of bullies is to use anger to destroy boundaries.

I think this fear is really about social convention. As social organisms, we absorb so much stress by not setting boundaries. The trouble with that is that we still experience the physiological stress response but take no appropriate action to protect ourselves.

Other animals only do this if the benefit outweighs the cost. What does that mean? Where there is a clear dominance hierarchy, the ability to say no can be compromised.

For example, baboons rely on the social group, and the lower you are on the hierarchy, the more your boundaries are crossed. This is similar to what many people experience at work or home. For baboons, being stressed is better than being dead, so there is a huge payoff to absorbing the stress of crossed boundaries if you're not in the top ranks. However, they do suffer from greater physical illness, reduced reproductive success, and earlier death.

The majority of other animals protect themselves from being taken advantage of or giving more than they can afford. They understand the "costs" of over-giving and aren't willing to pay the price unless they are in a baboonish situation and have no choice. Guilt trips don't work in other animals.

The Ins and Outs of Setting Healthy Boundaries

How do animals set boundaries and say no? Many people love hummingbirds, even setting up feeders to watch these tiny flying acrobatic marvels. Get in the way of them and "their" food, and you might have an angry hummingbird on your hands, intent on setting a clear boundary.

Once, while in the field researching prairie dogs, I happened to choose a spot close to a bush with beautiful white flowers. Apparently, I wasn't the only one. First, the hummingbird buzzed around me, vocalizing in protest. Other animals almost always give a warning. Their goal is to communicate that you are about to cross a boundary before it is crossed. They want to reduce stress. And really, that is what saying no is about—reducing stress and avoiding harm to ourselves.

I did not heed the first warning or the second, and finally, faced with no other choice than to make it perfectly clear that I was not to sit by her bush, the mighty little hummingbird came straight toward me and pecked at my binoculars. Finally, it sunk in, I was not welcomed. I respected the boundary and moved about five meters away.

Other animals do punish those who fail to respect boundaries. Yet, even in this, they have what I consider a healthy response. The intensity of the punishment is directly proportional to the offense. It is also modified depending on the closeness of the relationship or age of the offender (family, lover, child, etc.). Typically, there are minor levels of escalation that grow significantly more serious if the issue persists.

What kinds of "punishment" do animals engage in? The kind we want to avoid. That's because it's frequently physical. But even this is usually a last resort.

We can terminate the relationship. Depending on the violation, this might be perfectly appropriate. We can modify or limit our interaction. We can reflect on whether we have clearly communicated our boundaries and consequences. If we need to, we can clarify the boundaries and spell out the exact consequences. Then, follow through. Other animals don't pretend there is no boundary and then retaliate. That would be madness.

As we can see, we can follow some simple boundary-setting rules.

  1. Identify and communicate your boundaries.

  2. Communicate a clear warning before a boundary is crossed (e.g., it's about to be crossed.).

  3. Depending on the circumstance, modulate your warning to match the nature of the relationship or degree of offense.

  4. Incrementally escalate your warning before engaging in "punishment."

  5. Be consistent.

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