The idea of boundaries comes up pretty often in conventional circles, often through the lens of self-care, encouraging people to set boundaries with their kids, their partners, their parents, and so forth, and to stay strong in defending them.
But in this week’s episode, we’re digging into the language of boundaries and exploring some alternative ways of communicating our needs and learning about the important people in our lives.
We hope today’s episode sparks some fun insights for you and we invite you to dive deeper with our Episode Questions. Join us on Instagram or YouTube to continue the conversation and share your reflections.
Let’s dig deep, challenge paradigms, choose connection, and live joyfully!
- Think of a boundary you hold right now with your partner or a close friend. What might be gained from having some conversations around it? Might it give them some more helpful information about you? Could it help you feel more seen and heard in the relationship?
- How does the idea of using comfort zones to better understand and communicate your needs land with you?
- How often do you operate outside of your capacity to thrive?
- Can you think of times that you didn’t trust someone else’s definition of their capacity? How did it play out? Did it impact your relationship?
PAM: Hello and welcome to the Living Joyfully podcast. We are happy you’re interested in exploring relationships with us, who we are in them, out of them, and what that means for how we move through the world.
And in today’s episode, we are going to talk about boundaries, comfort zones, and capacity. And it may end up being a bit longer than usual, but we are really excited to have this conversation. There are some big paradigm shifts around these ideas that can really have a positive impact on your relationships.
Now, our focus with this podcast is on cultivating connected, trusting, and respectful relationships with our partner, with our children, with anyone we choose to have that level of a relationship with. And we soon discover that that means deeply understanding ourselves so that we can more gracefully navigate the edges where we engage with others. So, that’s really the foundation of this conversation.
And to start with, let’s dive into the idea of boundaries, because it comes up pretty often in conventional circles, often through the lens of self-care, encouraging individuals to set strong boundaries with their partners, for their parents, to set boundaries with their kids, and just to stay strong in defending them.
And the motivation behind that idea makes a lot of sense. It’s to encourage us to not be manipulated into doing things that we don’t want to do. That makes a lot of sense. But the solution proposed of setting and defending boundaries can often create challenges and disconnection in our relationship. Can’t it?
ANNA: Yes! I just don’t find the boundary language particularly helpful. So, the energy of it feels very final and it has this feeling of drawing a line in the sand and, “I’m going to defend that line to the death,” and also that somehow, I’m letting myself down if I don’t uphold it, which is just this double whammy coming at us.
ANNA: So, the alternative I found is to look at the moment in front of me, to be honest about where I am, what I can do in that moment, because it changes. There are things we can’t anticipate about the situations we’re faced with.
And I think, especially with my loved ones, I want to have an energy of curiosity and connection. Standing on the other side of an intensely drawn boundary just doesn’t have the same feel to me. And this could be a language thing. I’m definitely a word person and I tend to respond energetically to words. So, I look to my language to help me cultivate the energy I want to bring and the person I want to be in a situation. That’s why these words are important to me and why I really love teasing apart these nuances.
PAM: Yes, yes. I find it very helpful to consider my language, as well, including the language I use when thinking or talking to myself. When I use the word “boundaries,” does it mean a hard stop to me? When I envision someone approaching it and approaching me, am I looking at the line or am I looking at the person?
Because what a pre-drawn line doesn’t do is consider the context of the moment. Am I feeling resourced and centered? Are they? How’s our day been going? What does their request look like through their eyes? What does it look like through my eyes? What constraints may be at play? Can we get curious together about ways to navigate it this time?
Because I think one of the things we worry about is, if I do it this time, I’ll have to do it every time. “There’s that boundary. I moved that boundary and now it’s forever there.” But that is not true. We are not giving tacit permission forever more. We’re chatting with them about this particular moment and that is how we learn more about each other.
ANNA: Oh my gosh. Exactly. And keeping in mind that context keeps it from feeling arbitrary to the other person involved as well. We’re reacting together to the context of the situation, and that’s where the learning’s happening.
And I do think boundaries can have a place when we’re faced with toxic relationships. This can be friends or even family from our family of origin. When a relationship is harming us, when we find ourselves tied in knots thinking about it, when we see it impacting our mental health or happiness, boundaries can be a helpful step to distance ourselves enough to see the situation more clearly. Even that doesn’t have to be a forever step, but it can be a self-preservation step to gain perspective and to decide if this relationship is one that will work for us going forward.
But if we’re choosing to spend our life with someone, I truly believe that boundary language just tends to shut down communication. It doesn’t leave room for finding solutions that feel good to both parties. And I think it’s important to realize that this is not about not expressing or meeting our needs, but when we do it in relationship, it looks so different.
If we want to have a consensual relationship where the parties involved are heard and seen and we find agreeable solutions, standing behind a hard boundary can get in the way of that. And I’ve found that I can honor who I am and still be open and curious to finding solutions that feel good to everyone involved.
PAM: Yes! I think that is such an important distinction. We’re talking about relationships with the people in our lives with whom we want to cultivate strong, connected, and trusting relationships.
So, when it comes to extended family or people at work, a boundary can be a useful tool to quickly communicate our needs to someone. But with those we want a closer and more intimate relationship with, a boundary can get in the way of that. We tend to pull that out instead of having a conversation.
But it’s in those conversations where we come to better understand each other, where we cultivate connections, where we build trust. That space is where relationships flourish.
ANNA: Yes. And so, another thing that I’ve noticed, I call the pendulum. For much of our early life, we’re basically subject to others in a variety of different ways. We’re told what to do, how to do it, often subjugating our needs and preferences. And somewhere along the line, often in our thirties and forties, we have this awakening and we realize, “Wait a minute! My needs are important here, too!”
And so, you can go into this intense period of advocating for your needs. And I think this is when the strong boundary language that we hear around really resonates with people. “Yes! This feels awesome!” But I’ve also seen that as we get a bit older that things soften and we realize that we don’t have to defend our needs to the death, that we can honor ourselves and honor another, and that solutions are really there to be found.
And I want to say very clearly that there’s no right and wrong about this. There’s no timeline about any of it. It’s just an interesting pattern and I think it can help to be aware of it and maybe watch for it. Are we swinging way over here? Do we want to come back maybe more towards the center? See how it’s feeling as we play with unpacking any baggage we have in this area.
And I think pretty much all of us have some baggage in this area.
PAM: Yeah, no, I do love the metaphor or the image of the pendulum, and absolutely it can be a valuable part of our journey, a helpful part, to swing right up to the very edge, because then we’re gaining experience with what that feels like, and we notice the pieces that aren’t working.
And when we understand those kinds of patterns, it can be helpful for us, too, to help us recognize where we might be on the journey and use that information to help us just decide where we want to go next.
But I do love that idea of the patterns and just paying attention, because, for me, I enjoy looking for that and seeing those bigger picture patterns of how things flow.
And you mentioned the baggage that we can bring. Because, for me, as I thought about how the idea of boundaries feels for me, and thinking back to when I was first playing around with this, I realized that I grew up steep in the conventional culture of competition. So, as I started thinking about this myself, that’s one of the places I went.
So, when I thought about how I anticipated engaging with others in terms of boundaries, it really spiked my defensive energy. As soon as I was feeling defensive, I saw the other person, whether it was my child, partner, whoever I was engaged with, I saw them as the opposition. Like, “You’re the enemy, because I need to defend this boundary. This is a win-lose situation.”
And time and again after having brought that energy to many a conversation, just like you were saying, I learned through experience that when I did that, especially with someone that I love, that perspective and energy just hindered our interaction. It got in the way of us moving forward.
I noticed that my defensiveness raised their defensiveness, which meant that we were both less empathetic. We were just defending harder and harder. And we were each just focused on our own bits and we were only seeing it through our own lens. We listened to the other person not to hear those new bits of information that curiosity can bring and that we notice. We were listening to them so that we could find the things that we could twist in support of the position that we were defending.
So, as I sat with the discomfort of these two seemingly contradictory ideas, “I need boundaries so that people don’t walk all over me,” and, “I want to be connected to this person,” I came to see that, for me, the image of holding a boundary sparks that defensive energy, which negatively impacts my connection with my loved ones.
So, even a rule or a boundary that made sense to me, what it did was shut down so much rich conversation and learning and my opportunity to learn more things about these people in my life, things that I would have never discovered if I didn’t have that conversation in the first place. But those conversations didn’t bubble up if it was just like, “No, you can’t do that. You can’t do that.”
ANNA: Right. And that’s the thing. We’re talking about a very different style of communication and problem solving, and so I hope it’s clear that as we’re looking at it, because we have this one side, you the zero-sum game, defend your position at all costs. That’s pretty common in our culture. We see it in governments to toddlers.
And then here, we’re talking about listening, stating our needs, listening to someone else’s needs, having those conversations, learning more about each other, moving forward together on the same team. It’s so different, but it’s so much more pleasant and so rich with the discoveries about each other and where we can go from there.
PAM: Absolutely. And what helped encourage me to have those conversations was moving away from the idea of boundaries. And instead, I started using the idea of comfort zones. And what that shift from boundaries to comfort zones reminded me to do was to bring my sense of self. So, it’s not about, “I have no boundaries now, do whatever,” again. It’s never about taking our needs out of the equation. It’s more fully bringing our needs into the moment and into that conversation without having to draw that line in the sand.
So, boundaries feel external to me while comfort zones feel internal. Comfort zones remind me to open up and lean in rather than to stand there right behind the line.
ANNA: Right. And, for me, it’s that line in the sand that I wanted to avoid. And with comfort zones, I just like the feel of it, because we do talk about stretching and growing our comfort zones, and I think all of my relationships have helped me do that.
I think we can come into all of our relationships with some pretty rigid ideas of how things should be. And that can stem from our childhood experiences, the prevailing relationship ideas around us, what’s being modeled for us. But those rigid beliefs don’t take into account the actual humans that we’re living with, how they see the world, what feels good to them, how they process information, what they want to accomplish and learn. And that’s where the curiosity and the communication that we’re talking about comes into play.
I don’t have to stretch my comfort zone, but I want to be open to examining it, especially if it’s somehow putting a limit on someone else. And so, that’s why, in general, I just prefer to look at needs. If we have a situation where we’re at an impasse, if we switch the focus to the underlying needs, then we have more room to find the creative solutions that feel good to both of us. So, I like the feel of that again. It’s just a totally different paradigm.
PAM: It really is. And I love the way you framed that as needs. For me, that shift was that these conversations really ended up being less about the thing, the thing that we were in conflict about, and just more about the people involved, which fully included me, and that’s where the needs come in.
Being curious about what the person is needing or wanting to do and understanding the motivation behind that.
Why is that the next step that makes the most sense to them? And why is that next step right at the edge of my comfort zone? Why is that needling at me? And when we better understand those pieces, we can better explain our perspective and needs to them, which gives them the opportunity to understand us better.
And then, from there, maybe they give us more information that we didn’t think of, information that addresses our need. Maybe we give them a piece of information that they missed, and together we find a different way to meet their need. There’s just so much more space for people to move when you take out the competitive nature of that hard line and just start playing, just start thinking, just start sharing what your needs are, what you’re wanting to accomplish, and seeing where that goes. We can be so much more creative when you take that competitive nature out, I think.
ANNA: Right! Because, as humans, if we’re backed into a corner, we’ll defend something to the death even if we don’t agree with it. It’s just this reaction when someone’s coming at us to start defending. But you see that very different exchange that you were just talking about. It’s like, “Well, here’s what I’m feeling worried about.” “Oh, okay. Well, what about this then? What about that?” We’re working together to try to make both of us feel comfortable, both of us feel good moving forward, and it’s just so different.
PAM: Yeah, and I like how it feels, understanding that I’m choosing to stretch my comfort zone rather than naming it in my self-talk as, “I failed to defend my boundary.” It’s night and day how that feels. “I failed,” or “I chose.” And we can also choose to just not stretch, but we can choose to operate completely outside our comfort zone for a while. Sometimes a situation needs me to do something that in any other circumstances I would not choose to do, but this is where I am right now, and that’s not a failure either.
ANNA: Right. And I think relationships give us so many opportunities to do that, to stretch, but also to just step outside for a minute to take care of business. But I always want to ground myself in the choice. And you mentioned it before.
So, I’m not great at parties. Again, this is a well-known fact. If David wants to go to a party with his friends, it will no doubt stretch my comfort zone. But instead of feeling pressured or as if I need to set a boundary around it, I can first ground myself in the fact that I always have a choice. And then I can also feel that choice and I can bring into play my whys.
In this case, I want to support him. He thinks it’ll be a fun night. And so, with some further conversation, we can figure out a way for it to feel good to us both. Maybe for me, that’s knowing where it will be, who will be there, how long will we need to stay. Should I drive separately? If that doesn’t feel good, can we agree not to stay too late?
That conversation helps us learn more about each other. He’s learning what my concerns are, also what my tender areas are, and I’m learning why it’s important to him and what parts he’s looking forward to and why he wants to go in the first place. And if I just shut that down summarily, “I don’t go to parties, I don’t like them,” we’d miss this chance to dig into that and to find something that feels good to both of us.
PAM: Yes. And that is the beauty of comfort zones for me versus boundaries. It encourages me to actually pay attention to the moment, to the context of the moment, versus, this is my line. This is always my line.
Conversations are so much richer and our relationship connections are strengthened, not strained. I love that piece. When we have that boundary, “I don’t go to parties,” that’s just what we pull out. But remembering my why, and everybody’s why, I can support the why and the joy and all those pieces.
And there are times when I’m feeling resourced, when I’m just in a great place and I can stretch my comfort zone a bit and we can enjoy this thing together. Maybe we’re not enjoying the same pieces, but we can jigger things around so that there are also pieces that work for me. That’s so much richer and there’s just so many more experiences in our lives, like not literally having to do things, but our worlds are bigger when we know more about each other, when we can navigate those pieces.
Okay, so there’s one more aspect that we wanted to explore, and that’s the idea of capacity. I feel it fits so beautifully with this conversation of boundaries and comfort zones, because sometimes we do have a pretty hard limit on what we can physically or emotionally take on in a particular moment, and it can feel a bit more definitive than a comfort zone.
So, for example, having a migraine or being very tired can definitely impact our ability to engage. So, even if we’re not able to stretch right now, I think the idea of capacity just feels more informative and less confrontational. It feels more supportive of the conversations that we’re talking about than a boundary or a limit, or, “I can’t do this.”
It quickly communicates to ourselves and to the others involved in the conversation what we are feeling that we are and aren’t able to take on in this moment. It’s more information about us, again. And capacity can be a great lens to use for us to check in with ourselves and just really feel what’s up.
If our first reaction is, “Oh my god, no! I don’t want to go to a party!” Oh, where did that really strong reaction come from? Oh, maybe my capacity’s really low and I need to do something to address that.
ANNA: Oh my gosh. Yes. Capacity just feels so much more descriptive to me and it’s much more about the moment that we’re in, because my capacity at the end of a long day is very different from my capacity in the morning. And there can be so many things at play that come into this piece of capacity. Sleep, money, time, illness, all of these different factors.
But what I want to do with all exchanges with the people I love is to keep us on the same side. They aren’t trying to thwart me or harm me. We’re all just trying to get our needs met. And as we keep those lines of communication open, we build trust in each other to work together to help meet all of our needs.
And another idea that a friend introduced to me related to capacity is that we can operate within our capacity and survive, but we might not be able to thrive. So, we’re kind of on the edge of our capacity and we can physically get it done, but it might be taking an emotional toll or even a physical toll, so that when we keep choice in that equation, we can choose to operate within our capacity to thrive. We can communicate that to the people in our lives and help them do the same.
So, I can honor who I am and still support my partner or child, and they can honor who they are and still consider those around them. It’s really important to me to honor someone else’s comfort zone or their personal definition of capacity, even if I don’t understand it or I think they could do more.
This, again, comes into play with our partners and our children. Our honoring of this helps them develop a strong sense of what works for them and their why. I want to trust their process and that they will stretch when it feels right to them. And so, maybe it’s helpful next time we bump up against someone when we think they could do a bit more than maybe they are, is to consider that maybe they’re operating within their capacity to thrive, not their capacity to survive. And wouldn’t it be beautiful if we could all stay in that thriving zone as much as possible?
Because there are going to absolutely be times where we are pushed way outside of it to deal with an emergency or because something has happened around us that we can’t control. But what if, when we see our loved one not doing something that we think they could, we give them that generous assumption that it’s really just them knowing themselves, knowing that whatever it is may push them over an edge that is into survival mode versus thriving. I just love that framing of it as we look at another person and maybe, hopefully it stops the judgment.
PAM: Oh yes. I love looking at things through their eyes, which we had talked about earlier. And even when we don’t understand why they’re making the choices they’re making, remembering that we don’t need to, that it is making sense to them, even if we think that they should be able to do X, Y, or Z.
It doesn’t matter. What matters and what’s interesting, that’s where my curiosity goes, is, “Ooh. That’s feeling really good to them.” And remembering that their choices really aren’t about me. They are not trying to piss me off with this choice. There is some reason for them.
So, I love that distinction between thriving and surviving. Because when we honor those choices, it just gives us another piece of the picture of who they are and understanding that there can be so many reasons why for them. Capacity can be a reason why they aren’t up for it or don’t want to stretch or do the thing that you know that they are capable of doing sometimes.
And it’s especially helpful to question the boundaries that are handed to us by society. One that we see held up often in conventional culture is, “I’m not going to do something for someone else that they can do for themselves.” Oh my gosh. “They need to learn how to take care of themselves.” You see it more often with children, but absolutely you see it with adults, too, that if we do it for them, we are being taken advantage of.
ANNA: But really, we’re just missing these opportunities to deepen that relationship. And then what I’ve seen, and I know you’ve seen it, too, is that when I’m feeling out of sorts and I’m just not wanting to get my own water or whatever it is, both my partner and my kids were happy to bring it over to me because that’s the relationship that we cultivated.
I don’t want to die on a hill of, “I’m not going to do something for you, because you can do it for yourself.” I do things for people all the time that they can absolutely do for themselves. I do it from a place of love and because it’s within my capacity. And when it’s not, I know they’ve got my back. And these skills are critical in all relationships, understanding it’s about learning to communicate more about my needs versus expecting them to understand it or stand behind this strongly-drawn boundary with no explanation. It’s just more information and transparency. The more we have, the easier it is to be in relationship. And, for me, the human experience is relationships.
PAM: It’s relationships. I know. And when you think about it, the more information that you have, it is so often so much easier to find that path through those pieces of information. If I only have two pieces, “They want to do this,” and, “I don’t want them to do this,” how do you find a path between the chasm of those two things?
But as we share a little bit more information back and forth, we’re narrowing in on the path that we can travel between those. Sometimes it takes three sentences and off we go, we’ve got it figured out. And sometimes it takes longer conversations, maybe over days and weeks, but we can find our way.
ANNA: I mean, it’s just a quick way for me to go, “Hmm. Okay. I want to turn this around a little bit. I want to look at what’s happening to get us back on the same side,” because even when it feels really hard, and it may take a couple weeks to figure out something that’s really big that we’re trying to figure out as a family or a couple, if we’re both over here together working on the problem, it feels so much better than being on these separate sides with this giant decision in front of us, and we’re not really communicating about what our capacity or comfort zones are or any of those pieces. And it feels isolating and tough. But when we’re together, even if it takes us time, it just feels better. It’s about being open about it and examining that and seeing what makes sense to you and it’s so individual.
PAM: Yeah, it’s so individual. It’s so rich. And as we talked about in an earlier episode, where do we want to spend our time? Do I want to spend my time on the same team working together? Finding a way? Because when you’re working together and finding your way together, you’re both invested in this path at the end of it, rather than one powering over another, convincing you to do it this way, or us convincing them to do it this way. But then there’s tears at the relationship. And then we need to invest the work in, in repairs.
So, for this week, we have some fun questions for you to ponder around the ideas of boundaries, comfort zones, and capacities.
The first is, think of a boundary you hold right now with your partner or a close friend. What might be gained from having some conversations around it? Might it give them some more helpful information about you, help you feel more seen and heard in the relationship?
I think that’s another big piece. A boundary only shares that little line of information. It doesn’t share all the little pieces of me that came up with that in the first place.
ANNA: And can we really be understood if they don’t understand those other pieces? They can still honor that boundary. And maybe that feels okay, but with a partner who I’m in love with and this is who I want to be with, that deeper understanding of why that is a rub for me would be so much more important to me than them just honoring what might feel like an arbitrary boundary to them.
PAM: Exactly. Without that information, it can feel like an arbitrary boundary. And absolutely, they can still respect it, but there is a richness that’s missing then that’s the only piece of communication.
Okay, so next, how does the idea of using comfort zones to better understand and communicate your needs land with you? Does that make sense? Maybe try that framework and that language next time and see how it unfolds. Remember, as we talked about, let’s play with this. Let’s see. Nothing is a forever commitment. It’s like, “Oh my gosh, I’m going to try this comfort zone thing, and now I can never use any other language.” No. Play with it.
ANNA: We’re just having fun. We’re just learning things. We’re just trying to learn more about ourselves.
PAM: Yes, yes. Okay. Next one. How often do you operate outside of your capacity to thrive? Another great question, just to dive into that self-awareness piece. It may not be something that we communicate very often, but understanding it about ourselves, noticing how often we are stepping outside of our capacity to thrive more in survival mode. And then that also can help us understand why we’re feeling tired, why we don’t feel like we have a lot of energy, what kind of self-care pieces that we can bring in there. Anyway, it’s a great question to start with. How often do you operate outside of your capacity to thrive?
ANNA: Because I think it also impacts our relationships. So, our culture values this operating at just survival mode. And so, it’s something we all fall into, schools and work and all the things that we’re doing. And so, it is a really interesting question to say, “Am I able to thrive and have the relationships that I want and do the things that bring joy to me? And what can I change?” So, it’s like, “Am I operating outside of that and then what would that look like?” So, I think, yeah, that’s going to be really interesting.
PAM: Yes. And our last one, can you think of times that you didn’t trust someone else’s definition of their capacity? Ooh, that’s a good one. How did it play out? Did it impact your relationship? It’s very curious to see what other people’s lens of their capacity is. As you were saying, are they just living through the cultural expectation that we survive, we go till we drop, put it all in, we are productive to the max. Are they bringing that in?
ANNA: And I want to add to this one a little bit, that sometimes when we are in that survival mode, when we are pushing, pushing, pushing, we can have resentment towards someone that’s choosing differently. And that resentment may not even make a lot of sense to us, but I think when you look at it through this lens, it’s like, oh, wait a minute. Do I really want to be resentful or passing judgment on someone that’s actually taking care of their mental health and doing this for self-care, just because I’m running my nose to the grindstone?
So, I think it’s really interesting. For me, again, it’s this awareness. It’s like, when we name these things, we’re able to distance ourselves. It doesn’t feel like it’s all who we are. We can go, “Okay, this is something I can examine. I can play with it. I can see how it feels.” You don’t have to make changes, but playing with it just gives you so much more information. And especially if you see it causing a problem in a relationship, it’s very much worth your time to look at those pieces.
PAM: Yeah. Oh, that’s one of the reasons why we are so excited to be sharing these questions, because we are not trying to get rid of some rules or paradigms and then being prescriptive about how, now you must do it this way. No, let’s play with these ideas. These are things that we’ve found helpful in our relationships, paradigm shifts that have helped us. There is no expectation that it will work out any particular way for anyone else, but it is so worth the time to play with it.
ANNA: And especially if you’re feeling pinches, because I think that’s the thing, if our relationships are humming along, then we’ve got a good understanding. Whatever we’re doing is working.
But when we start to feel the pinch, when we start to feel a distance, when we have a rupture for whatever reason, using these things that we’re talking about can help us really kind of zero in versus standing in a place of hurt or not really knowing how to make the repair or not knowing how to change it even if we can make the repair, because we don’t know how we got there.
And so, these pieces allow us to play with that and to look at it and be like, “Okay, I’m going to be more intentional about this piece for these relationships that are important to me.”
PAM: Yeah. And for the moving forward piece, like standing there, “I don’t know how we got there,” and two weeks later, “I don’t know how we got there.”
ANNA: We’re here again!
PAM: Okay. Thank you so much for listening and we will see you next time. Bye.
ANNA: Bye bye.