Be prepared for turbulence, or the writing on the wall, part 3
How to set boundaries constructively
Hey everyone. Here’s the third and final part of my little series on boundaries and tough conversations, based on a sign my partner had hanging up on a door in his house. Bizarre, I know, to get so much material out of something like that, but sometimes it’s the smallest things that provoke the most thought in me.
Part one is here: Nobody owes anybody anything
And part two is here: Even so: Be kind, be respectful, be forthright
Without further ado, here’s part three, which might well be called:
Okay, but how do I do that?
As much as I’ve gone on and on about the first two points in my previous point, I can imagine that at this point, the question becomes “how, exactly, do I put this into practice?” What does it mean, practically, to be kind, respectful, and forthright in the face of someone who is crossing, or threatening to cross, your boundaries? Or, more subtly: with someone you care for deeply, but need how they treat you to change in some way?
In short, what do?
This is where the rest of the text of the sign comes in. It’s from a text by David Burnet, who is called “The Learning Coach” online in a few places, but I can’t seem to find much more about who he is. Still, the text is pretty brilliant; this page has a nice clean copy.
Below, though, is my partner’s own edit.
Two Decisions and four steps (and two warnings)
Decide what you want and to enlarge your consideration of every situation and person.
1. Decide what you want and do not want from the person.
Do this in general, do this frequently, search your feelings to see when and if you have changed your mind.
Do this whenever more boundaries are needed. More boundaries are needed when you are frustrated, afraid, hurt, or angry.
2. Decide to be extremely sensitive about boundary setting - which means: enlarge your boundaries, take up more space, and be constructive about enforcing boundaries.
This is functionally similar to the first bullet point above.
Decide to search out what you want and do not want.
Enforce boundaries constructively.
1. Educate or inform people what they are doing. Just inform, in a matter of fact way.
2. If it continues, tell them what you want and don’t want, and how you feel about that.
3. If it continues, warn them how you will separate yourself from them and/or their behavior, either temporarily or, if necessary, permanently.
4. If it continues, distance yourself as you said you would, preferably short term, long term or permanently if necessary.
Be prepared for turbulence.
1. Memorize this list, it may be all you can remember, the first few times when you are under pressure and need to enforce boundaries. Soon, because it works so well, you’ll probably learn to do this fairly automatically and well.
2. The first few times you do this, it will be hard for people who already know you, because they aren’t used to this. They may over-react. They may also over-react because the first few times you do this you won’t be as skillful as after you’ve practiced this.
The above, admittedly, is still somewhat complex. So I’ve tried to break it down even further, as follows:
Make a regular practice of searching out what you want and what you don’t want in any given situation.
When you set or enforce a boundary, do it by letting the person know what they are doing, and what the consequence will be if they don’t stop. Then, carry out that consequence if necessary.
Remember that this is going to make people mad at you, especially at first. Keep practicing and you’ll get better at it.
A quick example of how this looks, with lowish stakes, might be:
Person A: Hey. Can I just ask you for something? When you forget to lock the car when you park it, it freaks me out because I’ve had my car stolen before.
Person B: I’m sorry, I always forget though. It’s hard for me.
A: I get that, and I’m asking you to do a little extra work to remember, at least most of the time.
B: I can’t promise anything.
A: Well I’m not asking you to be perfect. But if you can try, I’d really appreciate it. If it doesn’t improve, I’m not going to feel comfortable lending you the car anymore.
The response after something like this will vary, based on factors like how close the people are, what Person B’s personality is like, and so on. B might get mad at A and feel affronted. B might start making more excuses. But if A can stick to the boundary they’ve set — if this doesn’t get better you can’t use the car anymore — then all the various reactions don’t have to have so much impact on the outcome.
I find myself asking my clients — and people I’m personally close to — questions that touch on this process a lot. “What do you actually want in this situation?” “What is the thing they’re doing that’s hurting you?” “Have you told them that you need things to be different if you’re going to spend time with them?” “What are you afraid will happen if you do?”
It’s a simple enough process when you spell it out, but of course it’s also fraught, especially when it’s between people in a close relationship. The reason there’s a conflict in the first place is usually because however much the one person’s behavior is making the other miserable, the overarching desire is to be together. If I say something, the person often thinks, then they’ll be mad at me and leave. The question then becomes: how bad would that really be, if they refuse to listen to how they’re hurting you and seek to change their behavior?
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