Boundaries: Four Levels and Four Circumstances
In the article I published earlier this week on physical boundaries, I went into great detail about the four levels (avoid, ask, tell, and demand) and four circumstances (public, work, and school, friends and family, and intimate relationships) in which we set boundaries. You can read that post here.
What Are Material Boundaries?
Material boundaries are the boundaries you set when you invest in other people. Breaking that down a bit further, material boundaries are set when you decide whether or not to lend or give something to someone. The primary currencies involve time, money, influence, and power, which are discussed further in Four Ways to Handle Any Problem Part 2: Community and Society. Briefly, your material boundaries involve giving gifts, doing favors, and loaning things and money to people.
Sometimes gifting and loaning are important to building relationships and community, and you should absolutely make the decision to give to people under some circumstances, especially when you have that resource to spare and you want to contribute in some way to making someone’s life a bit better. However, this particular article is going to focus on when you choose not to gift or loan things, time, or favors to people.
Public Material Boundaries:
When your material boundaries are challenged or crossed in public settings, you are usually dealing with strangers or possibly acquaintances. This makes it unlikely that you are trying to build a relationship, and more likely that anything you’re investing has to do with helping your community or the larger society.
Some examples include:
- A panhandler or sports team or other organization asking you for a donation.
- A volunteer asking you to sign a petition.
- Someone asking to borrow your phone or for help with getting their car running.
Things to consider when setting Public Material Boundaries:
From “softest” to “firmest”, there are many ways to say no to people in public who attempt to get you to contribute time, money, influence, or power. Which of these methods you use most is going to depend on a lot of things including how safe or frightened you feel, the way you were raised, and your personality. In most situations, it is best to stick with “avoiding,” “asking,” and “telling” levels of boundary setting, unless someone is pushing your boundaries very hard. If at any time you feel threatened, always put your safety first.
scripts for public boundaries:
- Avoid: Walk away, shake your head, avoid eye contact, pretend you didn’t hear.
- Ask (that your boundaries be respected): “I’m sorry, I don’t have anything to donate.” “So sorry, in a hurry. Can’t sign the petition right now” “I’m sorry, I can’t do things like that for people I don’t know”
- Tell (that you will not be doing what they want): “I can’t right now” “I’m not going to donate.” “I don’t do favors like that.”
- Demand (that your boundaries be respected): “No!” “Not interested!” “Stop asking!”
Things to consider when setting material boundaries at work and school
Work, school, and similar situations such as belonging to a team or a religious organization have a different set of considerations before setting material boundaries. The first consideration is that you are likely to have a relationship of some sort with the person asking you to do that. Further, it’s likely that the situation is hierarchical. That is, that one of you has more power than the other in that situation, and in some cases, one of you has direct power over the other.
Also, you’ll want to consider that your actions at work and school will reflect on your ability to do your job or participate in school. The same is also true at religious organizations and on sports teams. Take those considerations into account. For instance, you’ll want to be careful to be polite with people who have more power in the organization or power over you. You will also be often working from a “customer service” perspective where you will be trying to ensure that the person continues associating with you or the organization.
Again, setting boundaries in this situation can have social consequences or employment/academic consequences. Adjust as needed.
scripts for work and school boundaries
- Softest (“Avoid”): Sometimes avoiding can have very negative consequences for you in these circumstances. It’s best, if possible, to learn to ask or tell to set your boundaries in these situations. Pass the donation bucket without putting anything in it. Don’t show up to the after work “informal gatherings”. Don’t reply to emails/voicemails with requests.
- Soft (“Ask”): “I’m sorry, I’ve got a bill to pay. Can’t donate this time.” “Date tonight. Catch you next time.” “I’m so sorry I can’t give you a reference.” “Please don’t ask me to cheat for you. I can’t do that.”
- Firm (“Tell”): “Not this time”. “Not going to make it to the gathering.” “I can’t give you a reference.” “I don’t cheat.” If you offer a reason, *give* a reason. Tell the truth.
- Firmest (“Demand”): Demanding should only be used if “ask” and “tell” got no results. It can break relationships and endanger your work or school or organizational involvement. “Stop asking me for money or I’m going to HR!” “
Things to consider when setting material boundaries with friends and family:
Most boundaries are harder to set with friends and family, and material boundaries are no exception. There are a lot of reasons why. First, for the most part, your friends and family all know each other. If you damage a relationship with one person, it’s likely to damage other relationships in the group.
A second reason has to do with how social systems protect themselves. Let’s suppose you have a serious “mooch” in your family. This person borrows from everyone and never pays anyone back (and that’s just part of their inappropriate behavior). You set a firm boundary. You won’t lend this person any money, won’t bail them out, won’t solve any more of their constant emergencies. And the system turns on you. Instead of saying “you know, you’re right. We need to stop helping their bad behavior”, you get pressured into falling back into helping that person. The reason for this is that the other person’s behavior is “normal” in that system. You are the one who changed behavior, and now the system has to either change or exclude you. Many friends and family will choose not changing the system over supporting your boundaries. This is always a possibility when you set boundaries with families and friends.
scripts for friend and family boundaries
- Softest (“Avoid”): Ignore the family/friend group text asking for money. Avoid those who want things from you. Pretend you don’t hear. Shake your head.
- Soft (“Ask”): “Sorry, guys. Can’t go out for pizza tonight. Saving for a new computer. “Sorry, mom, I can’t loan you any more money. I have a bill to pay.” “I’m so sorry, but I can’t babysit. I made other plans.”
- Firm (“Tell”):” I can’t pitch in until everyone starts pitching in.” “I’ve already loaned you money. When you pay that back, we can talk.” “You’re going to need to find a regular sitter. I can’t continue to do this for you for free.” “I’m not going to lie for you to your boss. You’ll have to tell him why you missed work.”
- Firmest (“Demand”): “I’m not going to contribute to supporting your addiction.” “I need to take a break from or end this friendship if you keep asking me for things and not doing the same for me when I ask”. Explain why then block them on the phone and social media if necessary.
Things to consider when setting material boundaries with intimate partners:
It is always best to set your boundaries in romantic and sexual relationships very early in the relationship. State your boundaries often and fairly firmly (ask or tell) and watch for boundary crossings. If the person crosses your boundaries often early in a relationship, a longer relationship is probably not a good idea. However, if the person occasionally crosses boundaries, but you are able to ‘dance’ with each other’s boundaries and learn to respect them, game on.
If you are in a long term relationship and your material boundaries (and others) have never been truly respected, it is unlikely that you will get your boundaries respected without a lot of hard work. Your partner is also likely to fight with you over it. Also, watch for “gaslighting” in these situations. Unfortunately, this may include domestic violence. If you feel like your choice is between having your boundaries disrespected and a dangerous situation, make a plan to get into a safer situation. If necessary, stick to the “softest” of boundary setting levels until you are safe.
scripts for intimate partner material boundaries
- Softest (“Avoid”): hide your wallet/bank account. Arrange to “be busy” when they ask you to do something for them and then pretend you didn’t get the phone call. When they ask you for a favor, pretend you didn’t hear.
- Soft (“Ask”): “Sorry, honey, I’m all tapped out.” “We have a thousand and one things to do this week, remember? I’m sorry, I just don’t have time.” “Honey, you know I can’t ask my boss that. It might get me in trouble.” “I’m sorry, sweetheart. I can’t knit that for you. I already have three projects I’ve committed to this year.”
- Firm (“Tell”): “I’ve paid my portion of the bills. You’ll have to figure it out” or “We’ll have to do without.” “You’re going to have to do that for yourself or find someone else. I don’t have time.” “I’m not going to ask my lawyer friend to fix your ticket for free. Don’t ask again.”
- Firmest (“Demand”): “I’ve asked you to pull your own weight for a while now. I’m moving out.” “I’ve asked you repeatedly to stop asking for that favor. Don’t ask again or we’re through.”
But What If I WANT to Give to People?
Great! Fantastic! Most human beings love the feeling of giving to others. I strongly encourage you to go with that. And before you give to other people, whether you’re giving (or lending) money or items, time, influence, or power, ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I have this (money, item, influence, power, time) to give or loan?
- Will I be okay if it isn’t repaid?
- Will the relationship be okay if it isn’t repaid?
- Am I confident that I’m okay with however the person chooses to use what I give them?
- Are we on an equal giving/lending level or Am I okay with giving more than I get from this person?
If the answer to these five questions is yes, give, give, give, give! Revel in it. Roll in it. Have fun with it. But if you’re afraid you won’t be able to pay a bill or meet an obligation or will resent the person if they don’t act the way you want them to, it might be best to hold your boundary firm and not give, this time.
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