Hairdressers are familiar with the anxiety that accompanies trying to set boundaries, whether it's with friends, family members, clients, or coworkers. But don't feel alone; this problem is hardly reserved for our industry. Everyone faces conflict around boundary-setting.
The topic is front and center in a new book by behavior scientist and lifestyle design coach Gianna Biscontini, author of F*ckless: A Guide to Wild, Unencumbered Freedom. Through writing the book, Biscontini finally had the courage to set her own boundaries. Once she did that, she says, her entire life changed in 48 hours.
“I was hosting family one weekend,” recalls Biscontini, a board-certified behavior anaylst. “It meant a lot to me, because I had moved 3,000 miles to be closer to them, but they hadn’t driven the few hours to visit my new home until now, six months later. After a short time, I began to experience what I now understand is emotional abuse. Before writing a book on the very topic of boundaries and making decisions based on our own wants and needs instead of what others are comfortable with, I would have swallowed it. I would have heard the words, ‘Don’t be ridiculous, don’t be dramatic’—words that didn’t belong to me but lived, rent-free, in my mind—and avoided tension or friction at all costs, because that’s what nice people do."
This time Biscontini knew better, because she was researching the hold people have on us. She recognized her inaction not as what nice people do but what people do to avoid conflict, thus signing up for more of the same treatment. So she took action.
"I instead set a boundary of how I expected to be treated while in my own home. I told my family members, ‘This is my boundary, which is I believe a very basic thing, and you can choose to treat me with respect or you can leave. We’re all adults here, and the choice is yours.’ At 6:30 the next morning, they left my home without saying ‘thank you,’ ‘happy birthday,’ ‘I’m sorry things went this way,’ or even ‘goodbye.’”
While she acknowledges that the consequence may be that she no longer will have contact with two immediate family members, she says she can accept that.
"There's an upside," Biscontini says. "One: I am left with truth. While painful, I can move on with more lightness and freedom. Two: the empowered feeling of this experience set me off to build a boundary with an ex-boyfriend. It resulted in a warm, nourishing, 90-minute conversation on what went wrong, holding ourselves accountable, and walking away both feeling happier than yesterday.”
Biscontini, who also founded the employee wellbeing agency W3RKWELL, identifies four factors that can keep boundaries from working for us:
- We do not fully believe that our needs, and thus boundaries, are worthy; we may not feel worthy of asking in the first place.
- We do not fully commit to the boundary even if we set one.
- We set the boundary in terms of someone else and in the negative (this is what you shouldn’t do/here’s what I’m uncomfortable with) instead of our own needs in the affirmative (here’s what I want/need/am comfortable with).
- We have a significant fear of the other person's reaction, which outweighs our own needs/wants.
When people protest that boundaries don't work, Biscontini says they're misunderstanding what a boundary should do. If they're trying to be liked, be right, and be accepted by everyone, even when it endangers their mental or physical wellbeing, then the boundary did not work. But if they want to cultivate family, social, and work relationships with only people who show them respect and who value and support them, the boundary will work.
"Boundaries require bravery, because they set us up to be disappointed," Biscontini continues. "If someone we like, love, or look up to disappoints us, it hurts. It’s a loss. And it feels like it's 'our fault.' But if we can look at boundaries as a way to establish healthy relationships, it’s impossible to fail at surrounding ourselves with people who respect who we are. Boundaries determine the life we create for ourselves and give us power and choice."
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