Communicating your boundaries
So you’ve decided to communicate your boundaries – fabulous! Now what?
How you phrase what as important as what you are saying. “Honey, I’ve decided I need my own space, so I’m kicking you out!” might not yield the best results.
The formula that usually has the best outcome is
“When you ______ I feel ________. In future, I would prefer that you __________.”
So, for example – “When you leave your socks in the lounge room, I feel stressed and anxious. In future, I would prefer that you put them away”
As well as following this simple formula, your message can be made clearer by using behavioural descriptions (“leaving socks in the lounge room” as opposed to “being messy”). It is also important to make sure you are actually naming feelings (sad, angry, afraid, happy). It can be easy to slip into saying “I feel manipulated” or “I feel like you are wrong”, but these things aren’t actually feelings!
This formula tends to work even better if it is preceded by five minutes of active listening – just listening to the other persons point of view and doing nothing but making sure you have clearly understood what they are saying.
Common mistakes and misconceptions
Setting boundaries will fix my friend/partner/employer
There is generally one benchmark that you can use to determine if you are communicating in a healthy manner – you let go of the outcome. This is definitely easier said than done. It’s frustrating when you ask for change, and the answer is no. What then?
The last part of the formula, that is often left out, is
“If you don’t ________________________, I will need to_____________________”.
For example “If you don’t put your socks away, I will need to spend less time in the lounge room.” This is not always about getting the other person to do what you would like. Your answer to the above scenario could also be “If you don’t put your socks away, I will need to learn to tolerate your socks being in the lounge room, because I like spending time there”.
The important thing is that you have made a decision about what you will do if the situation doesn’t change.
Setting boundaries is always easy
Setting boundaries can be extremely difficult and confronting. Human beings are naturally resistant to change. If you have never set boundaries before, you need to deal with two kinds of resistance – resistance from yourself, and resistance from other people.
Setting boundaries will feel unusual, uncomfortable, and silly. It will feel unnatural at first following a formula, and will take some time to get used to. Like anything else, it takes practice, and it’s unreasonable to expect yourself to be perfect at it your first few times.
Sometimes, other people in your life will find it challenging when you begin setting boundaries. They may wonder why you are behaving differently and may worry about the changes this might bring. Try to take on board what they have to say, but also check with a support person or your therapist to make sure you are not compromising your own boundaries by doing this.
The universe cookie
A friend and I were talking about a time when she had communicated with her partner and had done everything she could – used “I” statements, named feelings, set boundaries. And still, things did not go as she would have liked.
I will never forget what she said - “Dammit – I did everything right, where is my cookie from the universe?!”
Often when we begin to engage in healthy behaviour we do experience wonderful change, but we also can’t expect that everything will suddenly go our way – that cookie we want will not just magically fall from the sky because we decided to set a boundary.
So why bother setting boundaries?
So boundaries don’t fix people, don’t get us magic universe cookies, and are a lot of hard work! Why even bother?
Boundaries are like our emotional immune system. In a perfect world where everyone was healthy there would be no need for an immune system. You could get as close as you wanted to anyone you wanted, and you would always be ok.
Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world. No one is one hundred percent emotionally healthy, and we all have our own quirks that set other people off.
This is why boundaries are incredibly useful – they tell people how to behave safely around us to avoid doing damage to us, and to themselves.
In the long term, setting boundaries reduces our stress levels by helping other people know what we do and do not like, and helping us relate differently to activities/people that are causing us stress.
You can learn more about communication skills at the Centre for Non Violent Communication