We all teach those around us how to treat us, but often we do it unconsciously. We operate within a certain framework of standards that teaches others about our boundaries, we say what we expect of them but allow the exact opposite, or we easily give in to their wishes and demands.
The fundamental flaw in the teaching method we use with fellow humans is that it relies on words instead of actions (“But what can I do? No matter how many times I try to explain, nothing happens!”).
Reality proves that people, just like animals, learn only through actions; empty threats teach those around us that our words shouldn’t be taken seriously.
If I’m “running” after someone who’s expressing anger or sadness in order to get attention, I’m teaching him or her that manipulations pay. Giving in to a child upon the excuse that the drama he or she might create isn’t worth the fight, teaches the child it’s worth creating a drama to achieve his or her goals. And when the employee complains that the tasks she was given are above her capacity yet stays late at work to complete them, she teaches her boss that despite her frustration she is the best candidate for the next task.
Setting healthy boundaries
Due to fear of rejection and the continuous attempts to be loved that we make in order not to experience it, we are constantly shifting between submissiveness and aggressiveness, and find it difficult to set healthy boundaries.
Those who tend toward submissiveness pay a high price when they repeatedly suppress their anger, and those who tend toward aggressiveness pay a price, too, when by being aggressive they are intensifying their anger and inviting a harsh counter-reaction.
Effective boundary-setting includes the following steps:
1. Defining your boundaries—Boundaries are a personal matter that should reflect your preferences and needs.
Sometimes you know what boundaries you need to establish to feel comfortable; at other times your actions teach you what’s right for you through your emotional reaction to circumstances.
2. Defining the outcomes of crossing them—Once you have decided what boundaries you want to set, you need to determine the outcomes of crossing them.
It cannot be an empty threat such as, “If you do that, I’ll be really angry with you,” or a meaningless statement such as, “That’s absolutely unacceptable!”
It must be something concrete you are willing to stand wholeheartedly behind. Empty words will only teach the other side that he can keep doing what he wants, as at most he (or she) will have to bear some complaining and yelling.
3. Setting your boundaries—When you establish a new boundary, you should first explain your decision and the expected outcomes of not respecting it. It should be done in a calm manner, without apology or blame, as if you were a traffic cop raising a stop sign.
Boundary-setting is usually bound with changing a status quo; thus, if you do it without prior notice, in a moment of anger, it will be perceived as unfairness on the other side. Claims such as, “For twenty years I’ve been doing everything for you,” or, “Enough, it can’t go on like this anymore,” won’t lessen the sense of injustice the other person experiences.
The same metaphorical stop sign could be raised in events that do not require the entire process, in which it’s necessary to clarify to the other side, “That’s it!” or, “This is out of bounds.”
Many parents, for instance, insist on “helping” their grown-up children establish a relationship, discipline their own children, or manage their finances, while their children try to talk them out of it in any possible way—with reason, with tears, or with anger—but the parents won’t budge.
What’s required at such moments is to assertively say to the parent something like, “I’m not going to discuss it anymore,” and if the parent goes on, to add, “If you keep talking about it, I won’t answer.” Then to stand by your words.
If you try to set boundaries with your parents, but then you run to them every time you need reassurance, don’t be surprised if they don’t respect your boundaries.
4. Maintaining your boundaries—When you deny someone a benefit he or she was regularly given, you should expect resistance in the form of anger, blame, rebellion, or crying.
At this point, you should stand firm behind your decision until the spirits calm down. Since it might be challenging, it is important that the rationale behind your actions is clear to you.
It’s not the technique, however, that really matters, but the answer to the question, “If it’s so simple, why doesn’t it work at the moment of truth?” Most of us fail to set boundaries not due to lack of knowledge but due to conflicting motives that influence our decisions, including:
Unwillingness to pay the price—It’s perfectly fine to decide that the possible outcome of setting boundaries might be too high—that I’m not willing to hear the “no” my partner might say if I won’t compromise on the attitude I expect, or that I’m not ready to quit my job if I don’t get the promotion I’ve asked for.
Many avoid taking action yet keep complaining about the situation, unwilling, either, to accept it as it is.
Unwillingness to fully understand the situation—We often refuse to come to terms with the other person’s level of consciousness and thus, with his or her ability to change, and pointlessly complain, “I told him how much it hurts me, so I expect him to consider my feelings!”
Instead of accepting the situation and setting our boundaries accordingly, we fill ourselves with negative energy through our repeated complaints and internal resistance to the circumstances.
Internal conflicts—A mother may find herself struggling with setting boundaries for her child because she needs him or her to keep being her baby, pities the child, or is afraid to lose the child’s love. And a woman who’s looking for a committed relationship may find it difficult to give up the momentary comfort offered by a man who’s only looking for a casual relationship.
Childhood fears, superstitions, and false perceptions—Childhood fears, such as fear of rejection, or superstitions, such as the fear that something bad will happen to someone close to us because we didn’t comply with his or her wishes, may unconsciously drive our decisions.
Outdated social conventions and fictitious perceptions, such as “the good person who is never angry” or “the good wife who does everything for her husband,” may lead us to ignore the inner voice that reminds us of our boundaries and instead judge ourselves for our feelings and reactions.
Setting clear boundaries is an act that declares: “Enough!” or “I am the one who’s in charge here,” just like the animals do when they use rituals that signal to each other, “This is my territory,” to avoid unnecessary fights.
To set healthy boundaries is first and foremost to respect ourselves and to act in a loving way toward ourselves.