Eva Berezovsky
setting boundaries: prompts for the new year

published in passerby magazine

Finding autonomy in limitation.

A fresh year brings with it the annual temptation to over-ambitiously renovate ourselves, often pushing us to yearn for a sense of newness and addition in our rituals, systems of organization, and possessions. But we’re thinking it’s equally important to consider how we wish to pare ourselves and lives down going forward. Read on for a meditation on setting and maintaining boundaries, naturally fit for the new year but applicable at any time.

embarking on introspection

Before jumping to precise visions for change, it serves to begin with a survey of the circumstances and mindspace you’re working with. Leigh Patterson—the mind behind Moon Lists—believes in prompts as kickstarters for reworking the self, and we’re on that wave too. Leigh suggests asking yourself the following: Looking back on the last 12 months, what has come into being that this time last year was only a glimmer of an idea or thought? And assign the previous season a theme or two. What words rise to the top? As bell hooks professes in All About Love (as recommended by Jenna Saraco and Folasade Adeoso), “Definitions are vital starting points for the imagination. What we cannot imagine cannot come into being.”

After a sort of calibration and neutral acknowledgment of where you’re at, you can trudge into more depth. Leigh advises identifying a source of excess energy consumption. Is there a particular place where you find yourself spread thin? Is there anyone specific you need space from? Here, it serves to pay attention to your body: do certain visualizations make you hot, jittery, or tense? Let physiology inform your reflection.

You can and should also make use of lived experience, consulting past moments that you’d like to inspire you down the road. Who would you like to bring closer into your circle? And recall a time you said “no” with purpose. How’d it feel? And according to Leigh, at the edges, we locate a new center. Cite a tool or practice that has proven useful for personally relocating yourself during challenging times.

As a final phase of preparatory rumination, consider what’s fueling you to set boundaries in the first place. Entrepreneur Kerrilynn Pamer says, “Setting boundaries is a recent discovery for me. I had a profound realization after a very severe accident last [year] that my energy is limited and not everyone is entitled to it. Historically this has been incredibly hard for me to practice, but this life-changing event has revealed so much to me.” As a result, Kerilynn shares, “My new priorities are clear: surround myself with those that bring me joy, are filled with compassion, and are tender, kind, and caring people.”

consulting the external world for inspiration

Looking to other voices and works of art, literature, and film to gain perspective on your journey navigating boundaries will likely incite discoveries that introspection alone cannot. Our guide to rituals and routines for a new year gestures towards a solid year at large and contains morsels about the role of boundaries there. The podcast episode “Why Are Healthy Boundaries Important?” by Educated Messes (recommended by Marina Sulmona) is another strong starting point, with insight that explicitly addresses the question of what boundaries can look like. Nedra Glover Tawwab’s Set Boundaries: Find Peace (recommended by Amazon Felix) and passerby Fariha Róisín's newsletter edition “On Boundaries” (recommended by Clémence Polès) both do something similar.

As the pandemic has sort of blurred our home lives with our professional ones, New York Times’ Reset Your Boundaries, Online and Off sparks productive thought about how we invest ourselves in our public and private lives. The Woman Destroyed by Simone De Beauvoir (recommended by Lilit Hartunian), which features a novella that touches on the mingling of our professional and personal lives, is set to inspire, too. And for thinking about romantic and professional boundaries specifically, this 30-minute film on the partnership of performance artists Marina Abramović and Ulay poses a worthwhile reflection.

To really center the question of romantic boundaries, gal–dem’s Swipe Left column covers a lot of ground. You can also fall into A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments by Roland Barthes (recommended by literary agent Melissa Flashman) or Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life by Adam Phillips (recommended by Beverly Nguyen). For on-screen options, the HBO series Scenes from a Marriage (recommended by Jessica Assaf) is perfectly unsettling as its ample material for comparing your own boundaries in love unavoidably prompts self-evaluation.

For contemplating friendships, spending time with A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (recommended by Trelawny Davis) is bound to spark both a profound gloom and an important social-life analysis. “Queeries: How do I get over a friendship breakup?” by Aisha Mirza (recommended by Annika Hansteen-Izora) is helpful as a queer perspective on mourning platonic relationships, and Caramel by Nadine Labaki (recommended by Mari Andrew and Alaa Balkhy) is a gem too—the film exists as a portrait five women in a beauty salon in Beirut who exchange their hopes and fears.

maintaining boundaries

Honoring boundaries we set is rarely simple nor linear. As a result, it’s best to build in a pre-decided forgiveness: moments where you fail to fulfill an expectation don’t need to feel irreversible. Instead, they can function as gentle reminders to re-evaluate where you’re at and how you’re doing.

There’s valuable accountability in involving your goals and boundaries in the world beyond your head. Publicist Fatima Jones recommends worksheets made available by BuyfromaBlackWoman.org, and this one in particular feels fitting for boundary-setting and maintenance. Less structure is okay, too: according to stylist Karolyn Pho, “In the moments where I experience a pang of anxiety or unhappiness, I’ll write down what my ideal situation would be on a Post-it note. The written reminder is helpful in addressing your feelings.” If Post-it notes don’t seem like your speed, maybe a simple journal or the guidance of The Moon Lists journals do, whether you’re able to check in with yourself there every day, every week, or every month.

Written confrontation of the self and of boundaries is additionally helpful for record-keeping, but verbal check-ins are valuable in their own right. In addition to Post-its, Karolyn relies on therapy or communication with her partner as both outlets and human monitors—speaking to them is “a way to keep [her] accountable when [she] start[s] to waiver.”

Finally, allow what motivates your boundaries at all to stay with you throughout their upkeep. The more honest your boundaries feel at their origin, the smoother the maintenance will be—with authentic boundaries comes a genuine and inherent drive to uphold them.