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Build Fences not Boundaries

Do you know how to create and live with healthy boundaries? Have you ever said “I have to get better at setting boundaries?” or “I can’t say no”?  Do you feel you are at the whim of everyone else’s needs, or resentful about how often you come last? 

Or maybe you’ve discovered that saying NO is not the problem at all, in fact, you want to learn to open up and say YES more often. You recognize that you hold yourself back from life by carefully monitoring risks, by remaining disconnected or aloof from others, by only taking on activities where you know you will succeed in order to avoid failure, and as a result you’re beginning to find yourself isolated, bored or living a rigid and less- than-fulfilling life.

In either of these cases, try fences rather than boundaries.  

When most people hear the word “boundaries,” they equate it with saying NO and establishing limits around what others are NOT allowed to do, what you will NOT tolerate, or what you want LESS of. Those self-protective boundaries are certainly important and need mastering, however approaching boundaries with the framework of “keeping out” limits your ability to create the authentic, vital life you want and hinders your chance to live in integrity with your values.

Instead, let's talk about Fences. This is an invitation to expand your understanding of boundaries by also getting clear about when and where you want to say YES, what you want MORE of, and what you want to INVITE IN and CULTIVATE in your life.

If we think of fences instead of boundaries, we can use this thought experiment:

We each have a metaphorical backyard that we work and play and live within. You get to create and design and fill that backyard landscape as you see fit. As you design your perfect backyard, you have the opportunity to put up fences that define not only what you will keep out (bears, hurtful neighbors etc.) but also what you want to cultivate IN your space (beautiful gardens, cozy chairs, crackling fires, reliable friends etc.)  If you design a backyard solely with the framework of what is staying OUT, you may indeed be able to keep the bears away, yet you’re not guaranteed a beautiful, comfortable, nurturing space. In fact, if you only focus on the NO, on staying protected, on drawing boundaries about what you don’t want, you could end up with a very barren landscape inside your yard. Building a vibrant life requires a framework of creation, intention, decision and cultivation. Once my space is “safe from bears,” what do I want to include in my life? Where do I want to spend my energy and precious time? What do I want more of? Who do I want with me?

Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins which leads to a sense of agency, sovereignty and authenticity.  It’s true that we can learn about ourselves by knowing what we DON'T want, yet it may not be enough to cultivate the vitality and alignment we’re really looking for.

Knowing your No and your Yes offers more opportunity to take personal responsibility, practice good self-care, and walk through life with more courage and less armor. When you have designed your “space” you are no longer in reaction to the world, you are creating your world. With the necessary fences in place, you can then use creative, intentional energies to create what you DO want and who you want to be. 

Asserting what we want to create is actually more important than simply asserting what we don’t want. Lack of bears doesn’t guarantee gardens. 

Brene Brown invites us to think about boundaries as BIG boundaries, that is Boundaries with Integrity and Generosity of spirit. This is a useful reminder in those places where you are indeed practicing your NO. 

When thinking about designing the backyard that is your life, when finding your YES, consider how you want to PAINT your fences. 

Be PRINCIPLED. Let your values drive what is inside or outside of your fences. This may require some reflection about what your values truly are.

Be ADAPTABLE over time. What you need or don’t need, want or don’t want can and likely will shift over time as you move through new phases of life and new circumstances of life and work.

Be INTENTIONAL. Understand how your behaviors, decisions, actions, thoughts and priorities support or hinder your vision for your life. Are you living what you say you want, or are you the one breaking your own fences? Do you know WHY you want to say NO or YES to this?

Determine what is NOURISHING to you so that you can fill your life with life-giving people, activities and commitments. Knowing what gives you energy, fulfillment and a sense of vitality gives you a menu of choices to create a beautiful life. If you don’t feel clear about this, experiment with new ideas to see what feels right.

Be TRUE to yourself. Regardless of what others may say you should or should not do, say, or believe, return to your courage and use your voice to support your own authenticity. It’s YOUR backyard. It’s YOUR life.

5 how-tos for living with painted fences: 

  1. Spend some time on purposeful reflection in advance of having to build fences. What do you want more of/less of? What makes you feel alive, energetic and connected? What depletes you, disconnects you or makes you feel exhausted?  These insights can help you define what’s in and what's out.
  2. Tune in to your intuitive wisdom to gauge where fences need to be, or when they have been crossed. What physical sensations are you aware of in your body? Where do you feel the most sensation? What emotional feelings are here? What is that telling you about whether this should be inside the fence or outside the fence? Do you see patterns of reaction that can teach you something about yourself? If you were truly doing what YOU want, what would that be?
  3. Turn toward your own feelings with kindness. Allow and learn about a wide range of emotional experiences; you likely have emotional patterns of reaction - can you expand your feeling repertoire? Anger is a feeling most associated when a boundary has been crossed or violated, while guilt is common when trying to choose for yourself, yet often those are superficial manifestations of other deeper, sometimes mixed emotions. Investigate the needs behind the feelings you are experiencing and remind yourself that this life is yours to design.
  4. Acknowledge and assert your fences with empathy. This is about getting real, being direct yet kind when you express your wants and requests. You have a right to ask for what you want and need. And… not only does the other person deserve empathy, YOU deserve your own empathy and compassion as well. Give yourself permission to set and stick to your fences; you deserve to build the life you want AND people pleasing and perfectionism are enemies of healthy boundaries - remember, good fences make good neighbors.
  5. You may not always get what you want, nonetheless it’s important that you understand what is true for you and begin to cultivate your voice in sharing and living the life you yearn for. If we don’t learn to honor what is true for us, it is likely that others won’t either and fences will be broken.

Shifting the language we use can reframe ideas in a way that opens new possibility. I invite you to shift from practicing "boundaries" to "building and painting your fences" so you can cultivate the most vital, beautiful and nourishing life.  Knowing what we want IN our lives clarifies what we are  working toward, and provides a value-aligned understanding of how and when to say no. To build a vibrant life and career, build fences not boundaries.


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