How Clear Boundaries Create Freedom and Ease
Last month, I had an entire weekend completely and totally to myself. My guy was out of town, I had no plans, and zero obligations. Total freedom.
I absolutely love having a weekend like that now and then, for the chance to go full-introvert and reboot. I love the feeling of having unlimited time to tackle whatever I feel called to. I always imagine myself striking that perfect balance of Indulgent and Productive: crossing a thousand things off my to-do list, making myself amazing meals in a sparkling clean kitchen, squeezing in a manicure in between rearranging my furniture and finishing that novel on my nightstand. I’ll be a beacon of productivity!
But total freedom never quite feels – or works out – the way I imagine.
That same weekend, I woke up on Saturday and enjoyed my usual morning routine: made a latte and some oatmeal, settled into my corner of the couch, and caught up on some reading. I had hours ahead of me, and so many options for how to spend them! There was no rush to get started, and nothing to limit me or corral me in any one direction. Just endless possibilities.
And that’s right about when the paralysis started to set in.
I keep having to re-learn that even though having total freedom and limitless possibilities always sounds ideal, it starts to feel uneasy and even paralyzing when it’s time to do something with it.
In reality, having a whole weekend - or a full day, or even just an evening - to spend however I choose, with no anchors or direction, often means that time gets wasted. Because realistically, having nothing to motivate me to get off the couch and nowhere in particular to put my energy keeps me stuck in the grind of having to decide when and how to start moving.
The weight of endless possibilities can start to get heavy, and keep us firmly anchored in inaction or indecision.
Science says an object at rest tends to stay at rest, right?
On the other hand, knowing I have a morning haircut at 10am, or plans to get drinks with a friend at 7pm suddenly gives me anchors in my schedule, or bookends to my day - and those outer limits suddenly create some motivation to use my time between them with some intention and focus. Suddenly there’s a defined space to work within.
Here’s another example of that same feeling: imagine being handed a pen and a blank pad of paper, and being told to “just write about anything, anything at all.” No limits, no rules, just blank paper and endless potential. I can’t speak for you, but I feel like a deer in headlights just imagining that scenario. I can feel myself tensing up under all that infinite pressure.
Now instead, imagine being asked to “write about a time you felt particularly proud, or surprised by your own strength.” Suddenly there’s a container to work within, an invitation to get comfortable, and a cue to spread out and explore the space.
Having some outer boundaries to bump up against can help us exhale, and feel like we have a safe space to explore and work within.
This same idea shows up in so many area of our lives. In our daily decision-making, in our productivity and time-management, in the pursuit of our big goals, in our creative work: having limitless freedom and options can be totally paralyzing. The vastness of that space can feel big and overwhelming, and depending on the context, maybe even unsafe.
But by simply adding some structure, distant outer limits, or boundaries, we can start to give shape and meaning to our direction, and uncover our next steps with more clarity.
How does this translate into our relationships and conversations?
I came across a note a while back that I’d scribbled down in a notebook after a therapy session years ago. We’d been talking about boundaries, and my therapist told me about a book she was reading, The Paris Wife. The book is a fictional account told from the perspective of Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s (real) first wife, that offers Hadley’s point of view during the ups and downs of their marriage.
She mentioned a particular passage from the book that stood out to her:
“Ernest once told me that the word ‘paradise’ was a Persian word that meant ‘walled garden’. I knew then that he understood how necessary the promises we made to each other were to our happiness. You couldn't have real freedom unless you knew where the walls were and tended to them. We could lean on the walls because they existed; they existed because we leaned on them.”
In case you’re curious (I was!), the internet confirms that the word ‘paradise’ does, in fact, have Old Iranian origins that referred at one time to the expansive walled gardens of the first Persian empire. Isn’t that fantastic? I love that etymological hint that paradise thrives within some confines, or that outer walls can be necessary to keep all that goodness and beauty contained.
Knowing where the boundaries are in our relationships breeds trust and security, making it easier to be brave within the safety of those walls.
But knowing how to define, articulate, and construct clear boundaries can be a tricky process. We can think of boundaries as pre-set outer limits that keeps us from veering in a direction that feels somehow unsafe, unfocused, or unaligned with where we want to be. But what does that look like in practice?
In my experiences, establishing clear boundaries and outer limits serves a couple of key purposes.
First, there’s the idea of defining ground rules for the relationship, together.
Whether these conversations are more proactive or reactive, defining those mutually agreed-upon outer walls can go a long way in providing the ease, clarity, and security that a relationship needs to thrive. Examples of this might include:
Setting ground rules for difficult conversations. When things get tense, which behaviors, language, or body language are off-limits? What standards can your hold yourselves and each other to? Having those limits can give you a safe container in which to have a productive conversation when things get hard.
Defining what quality time together looks like, and doesn’t look like. Are there certain times you set aside for quality, uninterrupted time together? Does that mean a screen-free environment? Are there limits to the amount of time you spend on negative, or work-related, or other specific kinds of talk? Having some shared expectations for time spent together can help all parties involved feel like they got what they needed from that time.
Second, take some time to define your personal dealbreakers and non-negotiables.
In the moments when I’ve felt overwhelmed from trying to juggle someone else’s priorities along with my own, all while trying to preserve the harmony, this has kept me from over-stretching and spiraling.
Once we can identify and point to that outermost place where things start to feel unmistakably not-right, or not in line with how we want to feel, we suddenly have a container in which to confidently work, play, and experiment. Knowing where our absolutely “no”s are can start to give the whole thing some shape, and bring things into focus.
Keep in mind, you might not know where those limits are until you run right up against them — and that’s ok! Here are just a few examples of situations I’ve encountered in my own relationships where defining some kind of boundary or outer limit in my own mind helped ground me, or at least helped me find some mental clarity around what’s right for me:
When I’ve felt uneasy about conforming to what another person wants or expects from me;
When I’ve had to choose a direction in which to move forward, and the weight of possibilities felt totally overwhelming;
When I’ve felt unsure about whether I’m comfortable with a big change;
When I’ve struggled to pinpoint my direction, or what I want to be moving toward - whether that’s in a partnership, a career, a home, or even my own inner-life.
If you find it hard to pinpoint your boundary, try starting with your outermost, no-brainer “definite no” and work inward from there.
Finding the things you know for sure don’t work you can start to give you some OUTER-outer boundaries, and from there you can start to explore the space between them to find your ‘yes’s.
Be willing to experiment, and give yourself permission to shift the boundaries as you need to. But trust that you’ve found your limit when your inner compass starts giving you those cues — and then be willing to communicate those things unapologetically to the people you love (even when it’s super hard to do so).
There’s absolutely still room for empathy and connection in those conversations; but remember: there’s no need to apologize, to back down, or to soften your personal boundaries to satisfy or accommodate anyone else.