Boundaries, Not Barriers Understanding the Difference
My raw instinct when I get hurt is to put up a barrier to prevent the offender from hurting me again. I can quickly build a barrier so high I shut them out of my team, my company, my family, or my life. In these first few seconds of personal offense, which could happen several times a day, I have a choice to make. Do I follow through with condemnation and exclusion of others? Or am I able to respond, to what I perceive as an attack, in some other way?
Erecting barriers that shut people out is not a habit of a mature leader. But what do we do with our primal instinct to withdraw from offenders? The answer is, we set boundaries. We must squash our intense desire to shut people out, and instead practice the art of establishing healthy boundaries.
What if someone steals from you? Would you immediately shut them out and erect a barrier? I recently talked with a friend who shared his experience with this very situation. A distant family member had come to his house to visit, and while he was there, attempted to steal items from his closet. This was not the first time it had happened. Naturally, my friend became upset and asked the family member to leave. The person was left to sit outside in the rain, so my friend decided to let go of the anger, and bring his family member back inside. He calmly explained to the person that he did not wish to break off the relationship, but when the man comes to visit, there will always be someone accompanying him in their home. The man would not be left alone.
This may seem like an extreme case for most of us. But this is an illustration of how even when we are justified to erect barriers that cut people off, we could decide instead to take an alternate approach: set a boundary. It may be have to be a strict boundary.
A boundary communicates, “This is a rule. Please abide by it, or there will be consequences.” It means we must diligently maintain control of our own emotions and actions, and clearly communicate and enforce a new boundary for a relationship.
Why are boundaries so hard to create?
I used to resort to erecting barriers much more frequently than I do now. Why? Because I did not yet understand the value of boundaries or how to create them. Here are some reasons some of us may struggle to create boundaries:
- It is awkward.
- The other person may not want to hear what we have to say.
- We may be unable to control our emotions, sometimes for days. Perhaps we become emotional any time we think about the matter. Being an emotional mess prevents us from calmly creating boundaries. If our anger is unbridled, we are more likely to explode, which at minimum creates in an internal barrier. By internal I mean we shut people out in our minds, but the barrier remains unexpressed.
- We are afraid.
- It is hard. Erecting a barrier is easy. Here is one effective way to set a boundary. Wait for the right time, when both you and the offender are feeling well. Sit down, and at some point in the conversation—notice how I said conversation, not confrontation—share your need for the boundary.
What does erecting a barrier look like?
- We treat people strictly professionally, and on an as needed basis.
- We don’t talk to them at all.
- We are cordial on the surface because we have to be, but on the inside we are “done with them.”
A common reason we resort to barriers instead of boundaries, is that many of us lack the skills, or sometimes the courage, to effectively draw boundary lines with others. It may be awkward for us, or we simply haven’t learned how. And for some, we may understand the concept, but lack the emotional control. Drawing boundaries requires skill, confidence, and finesse. Creating barriers does not.
Why are barriers so easy to erect?
Erecting barriers is most often a defense mechanism, a quick reaction to protect ourselves. Unfortunately, it not only blocks a person from our lives, but it usually keeps us from dealing with the situation and the emotional response it has created in us. Barriers frequently lead to resentments, not resolutions. As a result, the problem not only persists, but it builds.
I like creating boundaries in a variety of ways with different people and situations, but always with respect, always honoring others, and always remaining calm.
May we challenge ourselves to deepen our personal character in such a way that we create boundaries, not barriers. Understanding the difference requires us to develop new skills and emotional maturity. Frankly, it is easier to react and throw up walls. Drawing boundaries on the other hand, requires a pause, sometimes a deep breath, and certainly intentional thought. Creating and enforcing boundaries are vital tools in building healthy relationships and leaders.
For more reading and understanding of how boundaries work for you and how to develop the skills to effectively create them, I highly recommend the series of books by Dr. Henry Cloud, beginning with Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No.
For Further Reading: