We feel hard-done-by and resentful when we don’t put down boundaries and hold others accountable. That leaves us feeling entitled to be even meaner to them than we would have been if we’d respectfully addressed the behaviour that bothered us, or politely refused to be roped into something we didn’t want to do. But why is it so hard to say no?
Boundaries mark the place when ‘you’ end, and ‘other’ begins. An easy way to understand our boundaries is to see them as the line between what’s acceptable and unacceptable to us.
We have physical boundaries, such as how close we stand to strangers, and whether we kiss new acquaintances hello. We also have emotional boundaries that dictate the type of behaviour we encourage, tolerate, or reject from other people. In our relationships, boundaries are complex and ever-changing.
I love this quote by Brené Brown: “When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated. This is why we sometimes attack who they are, which is far more hurtful than addressing a behavior or a choice.”
We use the excuse of not wanting to hurt or upset the other person for why we don’t put down a boundary. But often, when we look a little more closely it’s more about not wanting to look bad, or fearing the repercussions if we do.
Most people who fail to put down boundaries end up appearing two-faced. We’ve all met people like that. They feel so victimized by their inability to say no that they feel entitled to disparage or complain about the other person behind their back, to anyone who’ll listen. What’s the first thing you think when you’re with a person like that? Do you trust them not to talk behind your back?
Many people who have difficulty putting down boundaries can feel resentful about being put in the position of even having to say no in the first place. It clouds their ability to see it as a wonderful opportunity to show that person they love them or to repay a favour.
They feel so uncertain of their own right and capacity at any time to just say “You know this is beginning to feel too much so I’m going to stop now”, or “Sorry I didn’t get enough clarity about what I was agreeing to, and now I realize I’ve bitten off more than I can chew.”
Love flourishes in our ability to respectfully, fluidly and experimentally, give and take in the negotiating, and renegotiating of boundaries.
Lasting Lovers encourage each other to be gently and productively honest about what they don’t like, or would like more of in their relationship - making it safe to be honest by agreeing to receive that information in an empathetic and open-hearted way.
Healthy boundaries are a reflection of our integrity towards both ourselves, and others. When we put down loving boundaries the underlying message is “I trust and respect that you have enough agency to handle my truth, and that ultimately you’ll value the opportunity I’m giving you to interact with me on an honest level, rather than be unknowingly placated by me so I end up disappointed and resentful”.
Of course, there will be those who violate our boundaries, or who crumble at the slightest whiff of one. These are people who care more about their own needs than ours. Loving boundaries are a great way to sort the wheat from the chaff.
Healthy boundaries give us more than the ability to say no. Paradoxically the security generated by them, and the freedom from resentment, allow us to be much more compassionate, to say yes and fully mean it. We’ve all come across those people who begrudgingly say yes – the price is too high and we often wish they had just said no, right!?
Here are some basic ways to develop your Boundary Power:
1) In general, say what you mean, mean what you say, but don’t say what you mean in a mean way! When making a request for behaviour change or placing a boundary down, frame it as a request not a demand. You’re more likely to get buy-in from someone who doesn’t feel like they’re being told what’s what, or being forced or shamed into doing something differently.
2) If you’re finding that too often when you try to say no to a partner or a friend and they keep finding that unacceptable, you might want to reconsider having them in your life. People who genuinely love you will want to know how to make you happy. A good rule of thumb is to remember that; ‘people who mind don’t matter and people who matter don’t mind’.
3) Once you’ve built up your confidence in your abilities to put down a boundary you can make them less rigid. Stay open-hearted and open to revisiting and renegotiating in order to find a win-win solution. (We’ll talk more about this next week.)
This is a great start, but of course it isn’t quite as clear-cut and straightforward as this.
Next week in ‘Boundaries 2.1 The Dangers of Unexamined Boundaries’, we’ll look a little more closely at porous vs rigid boundaries (hint- neither are good for us), and we’ll also look at the unexamined boundaries we’ve taken on from our families or cultures and how these might be limiting us too.