Boundaries don’t separate us from life; they enrich it
The doors of my house have locks. I not only have the right to lock my doors, but I have the duty to protect my family from thieves and dangerous people. Yet, even with the doors locked, my home is occasionally invaded by telemarketers who interrupt whatever I’m doing with the hope of making a sale. At other times, an acquaintance may call and poison the atmosphere with endless whining about how unfair life is.
Yes, life would be unfair if we were forced to listen to someone whose only purpose in life is to complain. Thankfully, life is not unfair. We have power. We can define what we are willing to put up with. We can establish what is and what is not acceptable to us. We don’t have to listen to every call. We can say, “Sorry, I’m busy now. Thanks for calling. Talk to you later. Good-bye,” and hang up.
In a word, we can set boundaries. Boundaries don’t separate us from life; they enrich it. After all, boundaries give us the freedom to become the person we wish to be. Some, however, are afraid to speak up. They are afraid of being rejected and losing their friend. They are willing to give up all that they can become in order to hold on to the little that they now have. It is like a tadpole refusing to become a frog or a caterpillar refusing to become a butterfly. It doesn’t make any sense.
If we wish to be in charge of our destiny, we have to learn how to speak up and tell others what is unacceptable to us. You can start enriching your life today, by setting boundaries. The four-step procedure is outlined below.
I’ll start with a summary of the four steps and then go into the details of each step. First, the summary. 1) Begin by saying, “WHEN YOU .” (state what is unacceptable), 2) “I FEEL .” (describe your feelings), 3) ‘I WANT .” (describe your expectations), 4) “IF YOU ~ I WILL .” (describe the consequences of ignoring your request).
Now for the details. 1. Define the unacceptable behavior by stating WHEN YOU. For example, whenever Mary says something her husband disagrees with, he rolls his eyes and sighs, dismissing her opinion. Mary decides to set a boundary and begins with Step 1 by saying, “Whenever you disagree with me, you roll your eyes and sigh, as if you are exasperated by something stupid I’ve said.”
When explaining your grievance, it is important to be specific. The person you are dealing with is not a mind reader and cannot be sure of what is troubling you unless you spell it out. Note that Mary did not say, “When you belittle me.” (that is too vague), but said, “When you roll your eyes and sigh.” By being specific, you not only make sure the person you’re speaking to understands you, but you are helping them to become aware of their behavior, which may be automatic and done without any thinking on their part.
Mary continues setting her boundary by taking Step 2 and saying, “WHEN YOU do that, I FEEL hurt. When you dismiss my opinions like that, I FEEL as if I have nothing of value to say to you.” Steps 1 and 2 are not about blaming. They are merely factual statements. Mary is not accusing her husband of being coldhearted. She is just expressing her feelings, and in Step 3, she will go on to express her needs.
Mary is ready to go on to Step 3, so she continues, “I want to be in a loving, caring, supportive relationship. I expect to be appreciated and admired. When you treat me with disrespect, I feel like we are being driven apart. So, from now on, when I express an opinion, I WANT you to stop rolling your eyes and sighing as if I were a jerk. I WANT you to listen to what I have to say, consider it, and respect my right to express an opinion without being laughed at. I don’t always agree with what you have to say, but I respect your right to have another opinion. At the very least, you can grant me the same courtesy.”
Note that in Step 3, too, it is important to be specific in stating what we want. Granted, it is helpful to know that Mary wishes to be in a loving, caring, and supportive relationship, and wants to be appreciated and admired. But those wishes are still too vague to be clearly understood. Fortunately, she later spelled out exactly what she wants when she added, “I WANT you to stop rolling your eyes and sighing as if I were a jerk. I WANT you to listen to what I have to say, consider it, and respect my right to express an opinion without being laughed at.”
A new boundary cannot be established unless it is enforced. The role of Step 4 is to announce the consequences of refusing to comply with the request being made. It isn’t always necessary to announce the consequences to the person you’re dealing with. However, it is essential that you choose the consequences in your own mind and commit to carrying them out if necessary.
In the case of Mary, her purpose isn’t to antagonize or threaten her husband. She merely wishes to correct his unacceptable behavior. So, in place of Step 4, she may simply say, “Do you understand what I am saying, Honey?”
But what if Mary’s husband continues to ridicule her? A boundary without enforcement is not a boundary, so Mary will now announce the consequences. The actions she will take are not punishment she is meting out, but the consequences her husband brought on himself by his own actions. Although there is much Mary can do and say, here is just one example, “I asked you to stop rolling your eyes and sighing whenever I express an opinion that differs from yours and you have refused to stop. So, I have decided to spend less time at home and start taking night school classes where I can improve myself and make new friends. If I cannot find the respect I need and deserve at home, I will find it outside the home. I hope you understand.”
Everyone resists change, so if you try to set a boundary with a friend that ridicules you, they will probably try to brush it aside by saying something like, “I was just joking. You’re too sensitive.” But don’t accept that explanation. Immediately reply, “You may have been joking, BUT I AM NOT. If you continue to ridicule me, I will find another friend.”
You are not less important than others, so stand up for yourself. The other side of the coin is, others are not less important than you, so respect and honor their boundaries. Rewording the point I wish to make, you are not here to live up to the expectations of others, but neither are they here to live up to yours. Seek balance or the middle path. That is, don’t be passive, allowing others to step all over you. Also, don’t be aggressive, bullying your way through life. Rather, be assertive, defending your rights and the rights of others. The purpose of setting boundaries is not to be separated from others, but to gain the freedom and strength to better serve them. For it is only after we learn how to protect. honor, and love ourselves that we will be able to do the same for others.