If you’re frustrated with a boss who constantly emails you late at night, or a friend who takes takes takes and never gives, this blog is for you.
Lovingly setting boundaries IS possible. Maybe you already know this. Maybe you were raised in a socially adjusted, emotionally evolved family. Consider yourself one of the lucky few.
But if you’re like me, then maybe you aren’t even sure of what your boundaries are, much less how to set them. And set them, lovingly? Forget it! Wait, wait, wait… there’s hope. I’m living proof. In the past, I’ve been guilty of anticipating & planning for outcomes, or positioning for best result. I’m not sure I knew it, but more often than not, I was living life with a desperate desire to avoid conflict. This meant I put other’s needs before mine, and often said yes, when what I wanted to say was NO. I wasn’t being true to myself or true to the other person either. B/c I wasn’t setting clear, firm boundaries.
And I was afraid. I didn’t know what might happen. But I figured it was something akin to the sky falling, or more simply…people no longer liking me. With a little practice and gently testing out new boundaries, I was proven wrong. So wrong in fact, that I’m tempted to kick myself for all those wasted years I worried about how people would react.
Here’s a recent example: I’d received a number of letters from my insurance company asking me to fill out a survey and someone called me at 9p (!!!) from said insurance company inquiring about whether I’d filled out the survey. The truth is I had no plans to do the survey, period. So I said, “I’m not going to fill out the survey. I have a baby, a job, and not enough time, so can you please note that and take me off the list” I had no energy or resistance about it; I talked to him like he was an old friend. It felt so good to be 100% honest (yet still kind). And he couldn’t have been nicer in return. He didn’t try to sell me on why I should do XYZ other step. He simply said he would note it, and then even closed the call by saying, ‘I hope you have an amazing rest of your night.’ WHAT!??? Awesome.
I know what you are thinking. It isn’t hard to set boundaries with a stranger, or a telemarketer! Well, speak for yourself. Even a telemarketer – a stranger, who I “owe” nothing to, brings up conflicted feelings for me. Thoughts and feelings like this: I’ve been in sales, so I “should” be nicer, b/c I can relate to the challenge of his job. I “should” also be nice because he has the crappiest job on the planet. Or how about this one: I was raised to be polite. Hell, I was raised to avoid any potential conflict. Because what if he gets mad at me? What if I hurt his feelings? What if… I could go on forever. Yep, all these thoughts crop up, over one lousy telemarketer. Scary stuff that previously had seemed best to avoid.
But at the end of the day he’s human, I’m human, and we’re connected by the energy that binds all things in this world. And energy is ever flowing. We can go with it, or we can grasp or resist. Like floating in a river, which direction is easier to swim? Upstream or downstream? If we grasp, the other person most likely will resist. And if we resist, they will keep grasping. And resisting against resistance is like hoping two negatives will equal a positive. Instead, it just compounds the negative energy until the resentment and frustration and anger causes an explosion.
So if there is something we don’t want to do, how do we resist? We don’t. That said, resisting is different than saying no. Instead of resisting or grasping, we lovingly set boundaries. But what does that mean? It simply means communicating kindly and clearly about what works for you. Often times, where people get tripped up is the “kind” piece. Especially if you’ve let feelings of resentment build, it’s difficult not to infuse the conversation with that heightened “hot” energy. How you manage your energy is critical. Quite simply, setting boundaries will be more effective if there is no charge behind your energy. No desirous energy, no defended energy, no frenetic energy. Just being. Just being in what is. It can be real uncomfortable for us pleasers. In this instance, with the telemarketer, I had no energy, so neither did he. I presented no resistance, no challenge to overcome. I simply told him my truth kindly and genuinely. There was nowhere else for him to go, but to agreement. And ultimately, he no longer felt the need to continue to keep grasping.
How do you do this in the moment, which immediately feels charged and old patterns and reactions burst forth with venom?
In the moment is hard. I recognize that. So perhaps, in the moment, just take a simple step. Notice what feelings come up when you boundaries are being violated or crossed. Is it anger? Is it hurt feelings? Bring some awareness to what’s triggered you. And extricate yourself from the potential conflict, and then revisit once you’ve had enough time and space to process the feelings. Make time to go ahead and feel them, because it’s all normal, and it’s all ok. Then you will be more able to authentically revisit the conflict with calmer energy.
And since “in the moment” really is hard, then why not practice in the in between moments? Nobody shows up on Super Bowl Sunday without a hell of a lot of practice and the regular season under their belt.
Practice boundary setting in small ways first.
Start doing the work of boundary setting in small ways. Practice on people like telemarketers because whether it’s painting or setting boundaries, 10,000 hours will make you an expert (thank you Malcolm Gladwell). And every time you “practice” – no only will you get better at it, you will get more comfortable with it. Even if the reaction by the other person causes discomfort or conflict, you will have the opportunity to see, that in fact, no one died because you set a boundary. In those charged moments, before you have found success, it can feel like you’re going to kill the person. It isn’t true, but it sure feels like it. And that is a lot of responsibility to put on yourself. Being direct and kind never killed anyone, I promise.
Practice even more “in between” the charged moments.
And start doing the work in between the charged moments. For example, if your boss emails me you at ungodly hours and it feels like a boundary is being crossed, take a few days and meditate on what feels good and true to you about how you want to be communicated to. Once have some time and space away from the “charged” moment, articulate those expectations to your boss. But you’ve got to show people where the lines are to give them a chance to respect them.
To simply decide to be straight forward and kind when responding to the telemarketer felt miraculous in the moment, but it wasn’t magic. It’s been a long time coming, because I’ve been practicing in the ways mentioned above. Somehow, as the telemarketer launched into his script, I just let go of any preconceived notions of what I should or shouldn’t do, or any fear of outcome / potential conflict and treated him with the respect that I feel I deserve – which is kindness and honesty. Maybe I’m simply at a stage where I’m too tired to mentally obsess about how I “should” respond? Maybe I am at an age where I recognize I’ve always had the answers inside of me, and I realize it’s easier to access them, than to spin and spin about what may or may not be the right thing to say. And it has the benefit of being the truth, which is nice. But I’ve also put in the work to get to this place.
If you practice, if you build the muscles (awareness, mindfulness), and use the skills (managing energy, being direct but kind), the results will astound you.
Suddenly that ogre boss will look more like a princess. You may even shift the family dynamic next Christmas to be more peaceful, more loving. Ultimately, everybody wins.