Hawthorn Heart: What makes an effective boundary

This is an excerpt from my upcoming online course Hawthorn Heart: magical boundary skills for women and femmes. It touches mostly on my more practical perspective on boundaries. The rest of the course is full of magical skills and political perspectives – all of which are geared to help you build bad-ass boundaries that fight the patriarchy and protect your magic.

So.. what makes an effective boundary?

The most effective boundaries that I’ve been able to enact in my life have all been: measurable, accountable, negotiable and communicable. In this post we’ll cover the measurable and accountable parts.

Measurable

Often, when we are setting a boundary, the need for the boundary arises from an emotional experience. And at the same time, boundaries that are built around our emotional, subjective or qualitative experience of something can be hard to maintain because they can be hard to measure in a concrete way.

This means: the need for the boundary arises from an emotional experience, but the boundary itself will be more effective if it’s nestled in a concrete way of measuring its effectiveness.

For example, when I experienced burn-out or exhaustion in jobs I’ve worked in non-profit settings I may crave feeling less tired, to have my labor and time be more appreciated or acknowledged, or to be heard more clearly by the folks I work with and for.

These are all totally valid and healthy needs and they may be hard to manifest if we don’t have a way of measuring them. This can especially be true when our boundary rests up against a system of power, and especially when the person or system in power wants to undermine our perspective of reality.

A solid boundary in this case could be:

“I won’t work hours for which I am not paid.”

OR

“I won’t work with co-workers who won’t use my pronoun.”

OR

“I want my name to appear on this report and not just the name of my superior, because I came up with the ideas he is using here.”

In these examples we can measure how the boundary is working in our lives by being able to see clearly if it is being adhered to.

Boundaries that are measurable are especially helpful for women and femmes because so much of our exhaustion and feeling of being used or not appreciated has to do with an implicit (or sometimes explicit) expectation that we will provide endless emotional labour. This labour is seen as a requirement and is often measured in how the feelings of the people around us shift based on the impacts of our time, wisdom and attention. And for most women and femmes, when we are giving this labour it goes unnoticed, but when we cease to do so, people feel angry that we aren’t providing, effortlessly and constantly, work that is perceived as a natural and necessary part of our being.

And so being able to measure, for example, how long we are willing to listen to someone process a feeling with us or what we deserve in return for this labour makes tangible and visible the work we do that is often invisibilized.

Another example of a measurable boundary would be something like:

“I will only do the labour of explaining something about my experience to someone with more privilege than me, if they are willing to take me out for lunch or make me a nourishing meal in exchange for my time and wisdom.”

Accountable

Creating boundaries that we are accountable for enforcing is one of the best ways to guarantee the boundary will succeed. When we rest the functionality and accountability for our boundaries in the hands of others, we give our power away in ways that make our boundaries much less likely to be successful.

Often boundaries that we expect others to hold on our behalf can lend themselves to co-dependent dynamics that are full of resentment.

For example, say I have a friend who likes to endlessly complain about a situation in their life. A situation which they could change if they were willing to make some sacrifices, confront a difficult conflict, or do much needed personal work. I would differentiate this from a persistent problem, held in place by daunting systems of power, which realistically cannot be changed by sheer will, work or faith. It’s a problem my friend can change, if they are willing to do some hard work and: be accountable.

This person likes to have me listen to them, but doesn’t want to hear my feelings or ideas about how they could change the situation.

In this case, I could listen to my friend and explain to them that I need these conversations to happen less, or in a different way. Or I could passive aggressively judge them, make comments that make them feel unloved and uncomfortable, or talk about them behind their back while feigning niceness to their face.

I have tried many of these strategies and have had them done to me. They hurt! And I’ve learned that really, what I need to do is take a deep breath, find my center and communicate my limits to my friend.

Because here’s the thing: my friend is relying on me not to maintain the boundary. Even if they love and respect me, they get something that is very valuable to them when the boundary is not enforced: my seemingly endless availability to witness them, without judgement, advice or requests around their behaviour – and to act as if the process does not affect me.

This dynamic could (and has) lead to me feeling resentment towards my friend, which really doesn’t feel good to either of us and could lead to our relationship collapsing under the weight of their expectations of my labour and my weak boundaries in response.

Let’s say I go for lunch with this friend. I could communicate my boundary  to them in advance.

“I care about you. I see you are in a lot of pain in this situation. Right now based on my energy/spoons/desire/trauma I can only listen to you talk about this for 15 minutes.”

At the lunch I can set a timer for 15 minutes and when it goes off I need to be willing to walk away or change the topic if the conversation continues.

If I make my friend responsible for my boundary I am likely to not feel in control of how the conversation flows. I am likely to have my boundary steam rolled, as is the usual flow.

This type of steam rolling can happen even when we have good intentions. Even when we love each other. I have done it. I think most people have been on both sides of this. Many of us just want to be heard.

We want to be witnessed and when we get on a slightly dis-embodied anxiety, fueled roll we can run the people we love into the ground by not noticing their limitations. And so, if we are those loving people, its our job to make those limitations known, in clear and (if appropriate) gentle ways. And ideally, the person we are communicating our boundary to can hear the boundary and adjust their behaviour to meet our request.

Now, all this is not to say that the maintenance of our boundaries can’t be helped or supported by people we love.

Relationships with deep and healing intimacy often work in ways that allow both people to communicate their boundaries and for those boundaries to be heard and mutually respected.

And, in the cases where mutual respect and support is not present, ultimately we need to be responsible for walking away, or doing whatever it is we need to do to be in our integrity.

And of course, this can be really hard to do! Because it sometimes requires sacrifice, letting people down, or even receiving cruel feedback from the people we love, who are projecting their grief about losing our presence and emotional labour, back onto us, instead of digesting and processing their own feelings.

This phenomenon is particularly common for femme, witchy, empath folks.

And on our side of things, as the listeners/labourers, it can be really easy to sit in a position of power under and complain about something or someone saying “they didn’t respect my boundary”. Now I want to be clear here: It’s not to say that this didn’t happen. The person very well may have not respected your boundary AND the reality is that we need to do the action of enforcing the boundary for it to be accountable to our needs. We can’t make our work someone else’s responsibility because if we do, it’s likely to just lead to us feeling disappointed and burnt out as we give our power away over and over again.

And because I know how hard this work is, I love the practice of thanking someone for setting a clear boundary with me. If I am having a hard time sleeping because I’m spinning about something and my partner says to me “babe, I love you and I just can’t talk about this right now. I’m going to sleep now, I want to talk about this tomorrow” this might hurt my feelings initially, because on some level I feel entitled to the habit of my partner being available to me in this way. But I can learn to see this boundary as an expression of love, trust and intimacy – even though its hard to set.

So in response I say, “Thanks for being clear with your boundary, I really appreciate the hard work you are doing there to have clarity with me on what your needs are.”

And in return I often get the same appreciation and acknowledgement back in relationships where boundaries are seen as a fundamental part of healthy intimacy.

And really, those are my favourite kinds of relationships.

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10 comments

  1. This is so well written and informative. Having been through an emotionally abusive relationship where any boundary setting was treated like I was a bad person, it has been really hard for me to figure out how to do it in a healthy way. But reading this has really put a number of things in perspective– I know I can ask for my boundaries to be respected but also I need to (deserve to!) enforce them and not feel guilty.

    • Andi Grace
      Andi Grace says:

      i feel what you are saying so deeply. i was also in an emotionally abusive relationship where i was accused of abandoning someone for having boundaries. it’s so hard! and it hurts. and i think these practices, while they don’t have conflict go away they do make it easier to navigate with safety and integrity so you can at least feel solid in yourself.

  2. Beth
    Beth says:

    So much wisdom here. Like many folks I’ve struggled with boundaries (creating, maintaining, respecting other people’s, too). This piece is both compassionate and no-bullshit, which is the kind of advice we need.

  3. Julie Reeser says:

    This is wonderful and something I needed, not only to validate my past attempts at walking away or placing a limit, but also in the encouragement to keep at it so that I can be a better friend and companion. Thank you!

    • Andi Grace
      Andi Grace says:

      thank you for saying this. it feels good to know the work is resonating with folks. i’ve lost a lot of freindships and connections as i started setting better boundaries and it can feel lonely, but know the people around me love and see and support me. so it feels good to know the work resonates more broadly. <3

  4. Chickie says:

    How do you handle explaining your experiences when someone else might not clearly have “more” or “less” privilege? I am having trouble with the very linear way people describe privilege, when in reality it is rarely that clear.

  5. Nia T says:

    This expresses the kind of straightforward, firm but kind guidance for life that I wish more of us got as we were growing up, and it’s simultaneously so validating and non-shaming of the experience of being on both sides of the ineffective boundaries issue. Such challenging territory, so beautifully and constructively explored. Also very timely for me personally, thank you so very much.

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