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Boundaries Part 1: Doors not walls

We all have the experience of being hurt or made angry by someone's actions. If it's a random person or someone you don't have to see or see often, the solution usually is pretty simple- say something or avoid them and move on. If it's a relationship with frequent interaction but without a lot of emotion, it is often as simple as speaking up and making a suggestion for change ("Doug could you please stop calling me boomer?"). But what if it's someone you can not or would not want to avoid, someone close or even central to your life. What if you've given all the hints, tried asking, tried explaining, believing if they just knew, then of course would change. What if after all of this, you have nothing to show other than a growing sense of anger and hopelessness? What if you've tried acceptance (which can also be a valid strategy), but find you cannot? Often long before we recognize a need to create a boundary, we have been trapped in the not-so-fun-house for a long, dizzying while. We inch our way forward ignoring or tolerating until we tire of dead ends and confusing mirrors and demand exit. Maybe we have a big blow out or long stretches of not talking to each other, but inevitably we call out for the things we miss or are unable to tolerate the thought of them all alone, or to be alone without them. So we cue up for another go and agree, at least temporarily, to the familiar status quo.

There is a place between tolerating the intolerable and building a wall between you and the people you care about. I'm sure you've heard the term "boundaries" before, and maybe you tried and think you failed, but perhaps you made some of the simple errors that people often make when not fully understanding how boundaries work, what they and what they are not. Here's some often misunderstood concepts about boundaries explained:

Boundaries aren't about changing other people- they are about changing you. Okay, there is a hope I'm sure that they will change and all will be better, but that cannot be your motivation or goal. Doing so leads to two major problems that often sabotage- judging and making success dependent upon their change. Judgment (my way good, your way bad) sets the stage for arguing about who is more"right" and isn't arguing what you've been doing all this time? Success dependent upon change allows them to hold all the power of inertia, they can simply not agree and choose not to change. Back to square one. A more effective way is to accept their behavior, even if you really find it unacceptable, and let go of judgment. They aren't wrong or bad, we aren't right and good, but we are right about how we feel. It's more of a deeply held preference or undeniable truth about who we are and what we can tolerate. No argument needed. Maybe you'd never treat someone the way you're being treated, but it's still an option that is open for any and all. For their own reasons or maybe reasons unknown to them, this can be their choice. The only truth is that is their choice, and like all of our choices, they are subject to real or unrealized consequences. It's not up to us really. We probably don't want to be hurt, but it hurts nonetheless. If we discover we are the ones trying to deny the hurt and protect them from the natural consequences of their actions in our relationship we also can recognize we have the option to not do so. All we are doing by creating a boundary is to stop the protecting and allow the natural consequence to occur. Instead of trying to continually warn, prevent it from happening or ignore it has happened we can just step aside. If Doug calls me boomer, I get annoyed and I don't like working with him when he makes that annoying joke. I can't stop my annoyance but I can stop pretending to like it, I can call it out, leave the room, choose to not work with him or choose not to develop a friendship with him. Maybe Doug will decide it's not worth it, not want to see me upset, or maybe not, but either way, I don't have to participate in ways I have the power to control. The first and biggest task is to focus on how you will change. Ask yourself when they do that thing, they will likely continue doing- what will you do, how will you react? Is there a way to lessen/stop the hurt without insisting they change? Is there something within your control that you would you be willing to follow through and accept the consequences? If so you're on the right track you now have a strategy to consider.

Boundaries aren't threats- they are statements of fact: You don't have to communicate your intentions, but if do, it's to explain your change in behavior that WILL be happening whether they agree or even understand. It is not an invitation for negotiation or argument. It's given as a courtesy so they, if they choose to get curious, will have some idea of what, why or how. Communication is more about reassuring yourself that they have what they need to know, if they desire to know. Reassuring yourself that you have explained and given them an opportunity, so you truly aren't being shocking, mean or confusing. In my work with families, I would often be in a home, drawing up a behavior plan the parents were crafting. Some children would refuse to participate or even look at the plan when it was done. I simply told the parents that they had done the best they could inviting participation or incorporating any good faith contributions, but (in a voice loud enough for the child to hear) that the plan would be posted on the fridge for when and if they were interested to know. (As well as several copies stored for when the first was torn down and crumpled up). The child was alway invited to participate, but enacting the behavior plan did not depend on if they liked or agreed to it. To do so would obviously create a convenient escape clause that most children are smart enough to try and sometimes even works on loving, anxious parents. Boundaries with adults are the same. If you are waiting for their agreement or waiting for them to show full understanding it would be like expecting that struggling child to say "Mom and dad, I know you grounding me shows how much you love me, thank you". Seriously not going to happen. All you can do is make your best effort and hope they accept the new normal and remember that you love them.

Boundaries don't shut people out, boundaries explain how to come in and be welcomed. Expecting people to enter through the front door instead of climbing through a window doesn't mean people are not welcome. Same with boundaries. You are open to people in your life, but you may have expectations of how they show up and how they behave. It is so important for your wellbeing to keep this in front of your mind. If you have difficulty asking for what you need, you may be prone to feeling guilt when you do. Let's say you have a friend who ignores you when in love but calls you every time he has a breakup, demanding your attention no matter if it's 2am or you are at work. If you don't answer he berates you for being a bad friend or calls incessantly. You let him know from now on you won't pick up the phone in the middle of the night and will call him back when you can and will calmly end the call if he guilt trips you. He has lots of options-he's welcome to call back without the attitude, he can ask you to call him back, he can make plans with you that are mutually agreeable. You aren't cutting him off, you are really actually inviting him in- just with a line drawn around a specific behavior that causes you pain. He in turn, has a choice to accept your terms or not and end the relationship. But he does not (or should not) have the option expect to be friends on only his terms. Maybe you ask, do you even want to be friends with him? Well that is part of what you are figuring out. If you set a boundary, it is an opportunity to observe. You may discover your friend can respond to your needs. However, you may learn some difficult truths rather than hold onto hope without basis, that your friend can care for you in the way you need. You may resist the knowing and try to convince yourself that maybe you didn't say it the right way and keep trying to explain or give it just a little more time, but eventually you will know and it's your decision what to do next.

Boundaries take effort to build and to maintain. Most people react to boundaries with some discomfort, usually a bit of guilt or embarrassment that they hurt you or made you uncomfortable, but they are generally supportive of your efforts and accept the request with little fuss. However if you have people in your life that aren't looking out or paying attention to your feelings and needs, they are likely ignorant of or purposefully missing the signs you have been sending. People of this sort aren't good at managing their own feelings and meeting their own needs. In rarer cases, some people simply aren't concerned with other people's feelings. More often however it is a matter of emotional distress and lack of tolerance for pain. Some people believe if they feel pain, something is wrong, that their pain is stronger than they can tolerate and someone (you, you tender, caring human being) must immediately solve it, soothe it, somehow make it go away. If they have a need they may not be able to resist reaching out despite your limits. Even your request for a boundary/limits can trigger their panic or perception of rejection. They don't want to be alone with their feelings and may see you as refusing to do your job and may double down on getting you back into your old role. Why change? They like the way things are, it's you that has the problem. They may push back and their efforts may increase in intensity to find your breaking point (and they likely know all your vulnerable spots, making them quite effective). They may try to convince you it is too hard, too unfair or they are too confused to figure out how to change. Resist defending, stay put and (very important) stay calm. You do not want to argue as that is often viewed as a direct hit or it may be seen as an opportunity to negotiate the boundary. Own that yes, this is different, it must seem hard or confusing, yes you can see how they might feel you are stubborn/too sensitive/not loving enough, yes you could be wrong, but this is your best guess and you're going with it. Give it time, follow through on strategy and let them sit with their struggle. If you recognize an area of some flexibility, you'll do that all on your own and let them know. It will be a choice freely made. If or when they can make the change and find the door, you'll be there with open arms.

Coming soon, Part 2: Identifying the boundaries you want and strategies that work. In part 2, I'll discuss how to identify "the problem", how to find your own power and communicate with others about your intention for change.


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