When we don’t have limits or clear boundaries, we can easily find ourselves overwhelmed and stressed. A friend, for example, once confessed she felt overwhelmed and taken advantage of at work. During regular work hours, her days were filled with back-to-back meetings, meetings she was required or encouraged to attend.
The consequence was that she had little or no time to actually do her job during regular work hours, and instead found herself doing work at night and on weekends just to complete basic tasks. Without a clear separation between work and life, work started to consume all her time. It was unhealthy, unfair, and she needed to make a change.
A Boundary is something that indicates or fixes a limit or extent.
In the parlance of self-help, my friend needed to establish boundaries. She needed to clearly define when she would work and what was appropriate. Without clearly defined boundaries, she had no life, she was stressed and overwhelmed, and, unsurprisingly, her health suffered.
My friend resolved to set boundaries. She quickly found, however, that setting such boundaries is not always as easy as self-help books and gurus like to make it out to be. As soon as she started defining when she’d work and what was appropriate for her, she discovered new obstacles and pressures. Colleagues, bosses, and others found her need for limits confusing, because they had been unaware of the extent of her problems. In the end, it took months, but she was able to work out a better work/life balance and take back control of her life.
The self-help world is full of praise for boundaries. To be sure, boundaries can be a wonderful thing and a powerful means by which we can take control of our lives. Self-help gurus often tout the benefits of setting boundaries in life to deal with a broad range of problems. I find that for all their talk, however, there is a tendency to gloss over the challenges that an individual will undoubtedly face whenever attempting to set boundaries in their life.
The talk of setting boundaries that you might find in self-help books can be misleading in the sense that it can make it seem as if the process is simple. You identify where in your life such limits are needed, you set them, and your life is better. This, unfortunately, is a gross oversimplification of the process, one that fails to take into account the challenges, difficulties, and pressures one will no doubt experience as soon as boundaries are set.
Boundaries are a wonderful tool to be used in our pursuit of a good life, of the life we want. I often think of setting boundaries as simply making an effort to live intentionally, to exercise self-control, and to manage our lives in a way that is right for us. Boundaries are, in short, an important tool in an authentic life.
Consider, for a moment, why you might be motivated to set boundaries. In my own life, for instance, I came to realize that I needed boundaries to manage toxic relationships. In these cases, what I was struggling with was, on the one hand, a toxic relationship that was negatively impacting my life, and, on the other, certain obligations and ideas I had about what such relationships entailed. To effectively set boundaries meant facing the full weight of the obligations and ideas I had head-on, it meant dealing with my ideas and conceptions of such relationships and redefining them in ways that were healthy.
Simply setting boundaries, setting limits, isn’t enough. Any boundaries we set will always be challenged, because boundaries entail changes in our lives and interactions with others. To effectively set boundaries, we need to carefully consider why we need such boundaries and which of our ideas, beliefs, and obligations are causing us difficulties and stress—are causing a need for new boundaries.
We should consider boundaries. Such limits in our lives are an important way to exercise self-control and live intentionally. We should also reflect to determine how our thinking contributes to our own stress and lack of boundaries. We need to adjust our thinking for our boundaries to work.
In the end, all change and growth take work and will involve overcoming obstacles and challenges. Setting boundaries, like any changes in our lives, will take time, effort, and perseverance. Once you start taking control of your life and clearly establishing limits, you will notice the benefits and be empowered to design a life that is right for you.
We are all trying to make things intelligible, to make sense of our experiences, ourselves, and our world. The fact that we still disagree concerning the best or right or correct interpretation, the fact that there are so many perspectives, suggests that perhaps meaning is nothing more than a construct.
Most of us adopt values and beliefs simply because they are familiar, because they are those that dominate in our community, our country, our…The real reason we have adopted certain values, that we see the world the way we do, is convenience, happenstance. We, in short, believe what most people believe…we conform.
“Madness is rare in the individual – but with groups, parties, peoples, and ages it is the rule.”
When Nietzsche points out that when it comes to groups, peoples, parties…madness is the rule, he means that there is a tendency to conform and protect the dominant perspective even when faced with evidence to the contrary. We lose our ability to think for ourselves when we conform, but the fundamental problem of meaning is (at least in a certain sense) solved. We know what’s true because we participate in a shared construct, in a shared worldview.
Sartre famously claimed that for humans “existence precedes essence.” He meant that we must make ourselves into something, that we only define ourselves after we exist, and that in truth there is no such thing as human nature which would otherwise determine who we are (and who we could become). The only thing we know with certainty is that we will die. We are beings aware of their own existence and their own mortality—a fact that has a far greater influence on us than most of us would probably like to admit.
We face a reality that is opaque. Try as we might, the world around us gives up only small secrets, and on all important matters remains utterly silent. We exist, to be sure, and we know we will die. We want answers, we want to know why and what for. We want to know what the meaning of life is, the purpose of our existence—but, as Camus points out, the universe is indifferent to our appeals and wants.
Humans are meaning makers—we create meaning and we have a drive to do so. We organize our world; we form a picture that allows us to operate day-to-day without fear. When we believe we can explain our experience, our interactions, when we think we understand our place and role in the world, we gain confidence and feel secure. We want to make our life intelligible because by doing so we remove unknowns, irregularities, we assign a value and place to everything.
Our desire to make sense of things, to make everything intelligible, drives our attempts to leave nothing unexplained. We quickly try to find a place for the new, the abnormal, the irregular, because everything that is not accounted for by our beliefs and values is a direct threat to the integrity of our worldview, our perspective. We think we understand things when the room looks clean, when everything is in its box, in its place, and we feel secure knowing there is nothing that we might trip over.
There is some part of us, a part that is perhaps deep within, one that rarely comes to the surface, but that nonetheless exercises great power—our fear of death, of threat, of danger. We know we will die, and experience tells us that the universe, existence, is indifferent to the individual entities that enjoy life for a short time. Death is the great unknown—it is an unknown in the sense that it comes unannounced, it is unknown in the sense that there are conflicting accounts of what it is (a transition, an absolute end, a new beginning…), it is final, and death is not bound by our sense of right and wrong or good and bad.
Making the world intelligible, making sense of things, makes us feel secure and comfortable because we are not surprised by irregular, unknown, or new experiences, which in turn assuages the fear and anxiety caused by awareness that we will die. Humans are self-aware, conscious entities, who are mortal and thus aware of their own mortality, of their temporality. But we are also meaning makers, and through meaning we create a familiar, knowable, and therefore less harsh and indifferent world, one in which our fears and anxieties need not be so intense, so overwhelming.
What many fail to recognize is that all the various perspectives people have are just so many ways of constructing a meaningful experience and world, but by no means are any representative of what is true, what is objectively the case. A world without meaning, without purpose, is simply a world in which we must each make meaning and create purpose.
The fact is, we thrive when we have reasons for acting, for living, for doing. Better that these reasons are our own, are ones that we have accepted and arrived at because they work for us. We should resist merely adopting values and beliefs because others have, we should resist conforming, because when we do the meanings that define our world and through which we make our experience intelligible are not our own. All we can do is live our own life, be our own person.
In Nietzsche’s Dawn, he points out that at times we are all irrational. “We still continue to draw conclusions from judgments we consider false and from teachings in which we no longer believe—owing to our feelings” (Nietzsche). Even if we reject certain beliefs or customs, it is still possible that our feelings will be consistent with them. Changing how we feel is often difficult, especially when certain emotional responses and feelings are reinforced by social pressures and expectations.
We are taught to be a member of our community, to fit in. We are conditioned to experience feelings of guilt and shame whenever we deviate from the norm, whenever we fail to conform. Nietzsche calls us bound spirits when we conform to social norms and practices, when we accept the dominant perspective not for our own reasons, but because they represent the norm. What’s more, conforming is often easier than living our own, authentic life.
“Problematic.—To accept a faith merely because it is the custom—that is certainly tantamount to: being dishonest, being cowardly…”
As Nietzsche sees it, we are dishonest when we accept a faith, a perspective simply because it is the custom. In such cases, we don’t accept it on our own terms and lack reasons of our own that justify and explain why we accept a certain point of view. We are dishonest because we adopt values and beliefs that are not our own, ones that we haven’t found our own reasons for accepting.
Learning to Think Differently
“We must learn to think differently—in order finally, perhaps very late, to achieve even more: to feel differently.”
The only way to live our own lives is to think for ourselves, to think differently from the norm. We will never feel differently, we will never move beyond those experiences of shame and guilt that were a consequence of socialization and social conditioning, until we learn how to think for ourselves and do so for a long time. Even if we start questioning how we think and are mindful of our feelings, the feelings we were conditioned to experience when we deviated from the norm, from social customs, will remain with us for some time. Our feelings, in other words, are still tuned to society’s perspective rather than our own.
Our feelings… are still tuned to society’s perspective rather than our own.
In order to feel differently, we need to learn how to think differently. We need to think for ourselves and develop the strength to stand on our own. Our life is truly our own only when how we think and feel is an honest representation of who we are and what we believe.
An authentic life is an honest life in the sense that our thoughts and feelings are consistent and complementary. We are truly free and no longer bound or influenced by things like social pressures and expectations. But as Nietzsche suggests, to reach the point at which we feel differently takes time and effort.
If we live our own lives and strive to be honest with ourselves, hopefully we learn to think differently and, one day, feel differently.
We all want to be happy. Ancient philosophers like Aristotle, the Stoics and Epicurus believed that “our reasons for action arise from our interest in [eudaimonia or] a happy life” (LeBar 2020). The pursuit of happiness is a fundamental source of motivation and a primary justification for acting.
While most of us identify happiness or the good life as our main goal, we nevertheless possess at best only a vague notion of what it means to be happy. We no doubt want to be happy, but we lack a clear sense of what a happy life looks like. Without a clear understanding of what it means to be happy, we end up making choices based on misguided, flawed assumptions.
Imagine, for example, a person who is bad with money. This individual might assume that his unhappiness, his suffering, is caused by his financial insecurity. The connection between money and happiness probably seems obvious to him in his situation. He believes his money troubles cause his suffering, and he imagines that he would be happy if he could overcome this one obstacle.
When we are unhappy, we tend to focus on one thing, whatever aspect of our situation is most dissatisfactory. We wrongly assume that we would be happy if we fixed our main source of dissatisfaction. Whether it is a relationship, a job/career, our physical health…we tell ourselves – “Once I fix x, then I’ll be happy.” Perhaps such a response to unhappiness is understandable, but it oversimplifies matters and causes us to miss the mark.
“Formula for our happiness: a yes, a no, a straight line, a goal…”
Nietzsche, like the ancient philosophers before him, valued happiness. He recognized that we need to define the terms of our life, we need to get clear about what matters to us. When Nietzsche says that the formula for happiness is “a yes, a no, a straight line, a goal…”, he emphasizes the importance of choice. We affirm our values in our choices. A choice is an expression of who we are and what matters to us.
When we use our “yes” and “no” we exercise our agency. Society teaches us to be agreeable, amenable, to conform—it teaches us to say “yes” to social norms, values, and practices and “no” to self-expression and realization. When we say “yes” to fit in, to conform, we say “no” to ourselves, we say “no” to expressing our own values. Happiness therefore involves a “yes” and a “no,” because we can only be happy when we identify what matters to us, what we value, and live in a way that affirms our values.
If we take choice seriously, we exercise our agency. When we know what matters to us, what’s important, we can live accordingly. We can walk our own path, one that is clear before us because we know who we are. In Nietzsche’s happiness formula, “a straight line” suggests having a clear direction, a clear path, because one knows oneself.
“the basic fact of the human will…it needs a goal—and it would sooner will nothingness than not will.”
The final component of Nietzsche’s formula is the importance of a goal. A goal can be a unifying force, a means by which we make sense of and understand everything else in our lives. Our goals allow us to prioritize, to justify our decisions and choices, and to live without the fear of regret. A goal is the expression of our highest values, and through these pursuits we create ourselves and live our own lives.