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 all weekend.
Every now and again I relish having a weekend like that, 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 my 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! I tell myself.
But total freedom never quite feels – or works out – the way I imagine it will.
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, nothing to hurry me, 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’m reminded again and again that while total freedom and limitless possibilities sound alluring, they start to feel uneasy or even paralyzing when it comes time to act.
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 squandered. Because realistically, having no specific motivation to get off the couch and nowhere in particular to aim our energy keeps us 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 with a friend at 5pm 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 blank pad of paper and a pen, 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 shrinking with anxiety and hesitation in all that limitless space. But instead, imagine being given the prompt 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 to spread out and explore the space.
Having some distant outer boundaries to bump up against helps me feel like I have a safe space to explore and work within. That container leads me to a headspace where I feel clear, relaxed, and free.
And this same idea shows up in so many area of our lives. In our daily decision-making, in our productivity or the way we use our time, in the pursuit of what we think of as our ‘big goals,’ in our creative work: having limitless freedom and options can be utterly paralyzing. The vastness of that unending space can feel big and overwhelming, and depending on the context, maybe even unsafe.
But simply adding some structure, outer limits, or boundaries can start to give shape and meaning to our direction, and hint at our next steps.
So how does that translate in our relationships?
I came across a note recently that I had scribbled down in a notebook after a therapy session a few years back. We’d been on the subject of boundaries, and my therapist started telling 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 highlights Hadley’s perspective as the two move through 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, which free us up to settle in and spread out, to stay playful, and to be brave within the safety of those walls.
But knowing how to define, articulate, and construct boundaries in relationships of all kinds 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 a relationship?
In my experiences, identifying boundaries or outer limits can serve a couple of key purposes.
First, there’s the idea of setting boundaries externally, out loud, together, that end up serving as ground rules for the relationship. 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 flourish within them. Examples of this might include:
Setting ground rules for heated conversations. When things get tense, which behaviors, types of language, etc. are off limits or unacceptable? 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/work-related/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.
Defining what constitutes a betrayal, in terms of intimacy. Whether that’s in terms of privacy and sharing with others outside the relationships, or in terms of physical boundaries in your romantic relationship, setting and understanding some shared definitions of what crossing a line looks like can prevent real pain later.
But beyond these specific types of ground rules, I’ve found that a slightly different type of boundary in a relationship can serve a second, amazingly-powerful purpose. In the moments when I’ve felt totally overwhelmed by the task of juggling someone else’s priorities along with my own all while trying to preserve the harmony, focusing on naming my own mental and emotional boundaries, or outermost limits, has helped me understand my own wants and needs with more clarity.
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 – things like what’s ok with us, and what isn’t; where we can bend while still hanging onto our grace and integrity, and where we can’t; where we feel secure and nourished, and where we don’t. And sometimes, we won’t know where those limits are until we run right up against them.
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 in the relationship - be it a change in living situation, the way we interact, or some other type of noticeable shift;
When I’ve struggled to pinpoint what exactly I want for myself or what I want to be moving toward - in a partnership, a career, a home, or even my own inner-life.
Through examples like these, my experiences have taught me this: if you feel too overwhelmed to be able to confidently pinpoint which is the ‘right’ direction or what to say ‘yes’ to, start with what you know you definitely don’t feel good about, or what you know you want to say ‘no’ to. The ‘no’s 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.
My challenge to you: in an area of your life where you feel overwhelmed by options or the vastness of possibility without anything to anchor you, see if you can name your definite, absolute “no”s, and work inward from there.
What are the things that your intuition knows are out of alignment, or not ok? When does that gut-level “this doesn’t feel right” anxiety start to kick in? Start there. Maybe that’s where the outer limit is, or maybe it’s even a step or two closer inward from that place. Feel that relief, that ease.
From there, 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). That doesn’t mean there’s no room for grace or empathy in those conversations; but remember that there’s no need to apologize, to back down, or to soften your personal boundaries to satisfy anyone else.