Boundaries. Not international lines, borders, or fences, but personal boundaries. The ones that define our privacy, and draw the emotional line on what we will and will not do.
Many reasons for the difficulty in holding up emotional boundaries are the same as maintaining physical boundaries–we want to defend our space and control it, we don’t like the people on the other side, and they want what we have. No wonder it feels like a struggle–it is.
I’d like to suggest another perspective on the emotional boundaries we set. One of compassion and kindness. Those two words aren’t generally associated with boundaries, are they?
Here’s how we set boundaries that don’t work:
- We decide we don’t want to participate in some activity–ours or someone else.
- We say “No” and make up a reason we believe the other person will accept.
- The other person doesn’t accept the reason and tells us about their own frustration or anger.
- We weaken because our first impulse is to fix everyone else.
- We weaken more because our other first impulse is to be liked.
- We move the boundaries and do what others want.
- We are filled with rage and explode and someone who was not involved or someone helpless who won’t hurt us.
Any surprise we walk around in anger and guilt with no boundaries? It’s too hard to make them
work in the first place. Not is we come from the other perspective–that of kindness. When we set a boundary of compassion and kindness, we protect not only ourselves, but also the other person from being an abuser–the thing that makes us so angry, feeling abused.
Here is how boundary setting looks if we approach it from kindness:
1. Check if the request is a trigger to anger, guilt, sickness, or spreading sickness (emotional, spiritual or physical pain). This includes everything from a temptation to gossip to an invitation to take support someone else’s problems–binge drinking, let’s say.
2. Say “no” or set the boundary with kindness but no explanation.
3. Offer no details. When asked to explain yourself, say, simply ‘That’s not possible for me right now.” Remember, no reason is good enough for the other person who is manipulating you to do what they want. You will have to repeat this step often, under incredible duress. Our culture has removed the right to privacy and you are replacing it. This is not considered normal.
4. Be prepared for emotional attack. The other person will now load their emotional weapons with anything that will get you to change your mind. It may start small, but it escalates to the heavy stuff right away. “You are so selfish.” “I thought you loved me.” “All of us thought you were a team player.” “I always knew you were a bitch/bastard.” This part goes on until you meet their demands, no matter how unreasonable. No explanation on your part will change the other person’s mind. Their entire focus is to get you to remove the boundary. They use words of anger and guilt.
5. Remember the kindness of the boundary. You placed that boundary for a good reason. It stops the other person from abusing you. It removes the other person’s partner in the manipulation game, which requires two to play. Or it stops you from abusing yourself, from feeling anger and guilt. That is the kindness. That is the reason for the boundary. It is reason enough to keep it. Most people want to be accepted, loved, appreciated– to be part of the group, to go along to get along. Your boundary may have cut you off from what your group thinks is OK.
6. Offer something you can do that represents who you are, what is good and healthy for you. “I can’t come to babysit your kids tonight, but I can take them out for lunch tomorrow.” This may be rejected, and with anger. It’s OK to hold on to what you want.
7. Tell the other person you are ending the discussion. Do it kindly. “This isn’t getting anything productive done. I’m sorry I can’t do what you want. I’m going to leave/hangup/stop emailing/texting now.” Then do that. Expect some anger and backlash, maybe even a mutual friend being involved. The more people want you to participate in their story, the more they will try to break down the barrier. The more sure you are of your reasons, the more you can defend it.
I know I’m making this sound like a battle for your soul, when maybe your barrier was simply turning down an invitation to go shopping because you didn’t want to go the store right now. Didn’t have time. Don’t like the store or trying on clothing under fluorescent lights. It is good to explore your own motivation, but you are entitled to determine how to fill your time to suit your own emotional and spiritual growth. And stick with it.
—Quinn McDonald is a life- and creativity coach who works with individuals, businesses and groups to help them set boundaries.