Boundaries. Boy, is that a tricky word. Because in psychological terms, it means setting a limit in order to take care of yourself and your needs that might “fly in the face” of what the other person believes or wants.
And while we all know that boundaries are important – and certainly warranted – many of us do not know how to set them effectively. I sure didn’t!
In fact, I remember very distinctly how reactionary and ineffective I used to be in setting boundaries. First, for a long time in my life, I didn’t even set them. I allowed myself to be walked all over, or treated poorly, or guilted, or even frightened by another person but didn’t do squat about it.
Then, of course, I’d end up resentful, angry, and often feeling sorry for myself. What a recipe for disempowerment!
When I finally did begin to set appropriate boundaries (with the help of some counseling), I did so, but in a place of total REACTION rather than from a grounded centered place. For example, Tim can have a temper from time to time and start speaking to me in a way that feels very attacking.
My response? “You can’t talk to me that way! This is unacceptable! I won’t take this from you!” (Stomp stomp stomp out of the room).
Now at least this was a boundary, but I was clearly totally triggered and not in a place of power. I allowed the other person’s behavior to significantly disturb my peace.
The next step in my “evolution” of boundary-setting came from an unusual place: from a parenting system called 1-2-3 Magic. This is that system where when a kid misbehaves or won’t follow a direction, you count slowly to 3 at which point there is a time-out or other consequence.
So in this video, they show clearly the difference between a mother who is very, very upset when they count:
“THAT’S ONE!” (With red face and veins popping out!).
And a mother who simply says “That’s one” in a calm tone with neutral facial expression.
What’s significant here is that the calm mother, in counting to 3, stays centered – does NOT allow the child’s behavior to get under her skin – and when she gets to “3” the time out is just a normal consequence of the child’s having not complied rather than something appearing punitive and out of control!
This means that 1) the boundary is more respected, 2) the kid didn’t “win” by upsetting mommy so much as to disturb her peace, and 3) the mother herself experiences centeredness rather than agitated reaction!
Believe it or not, this example helped me to practice staying calm and centered in the face of Tim’s anger when he’d get triggered and speak to me very aggressively. Instead of the angry “I’m out of here!!!” response, I began to adopt this:
“Tim, I do want to hear what you’re saying, but the way you are delivering it is making it very hard for me. If you can’t lower your voice and pull back what feels like very aggressive energy right now, I’m going to leave the room and we can try to talk about this later.”
Very calm. Very assured. And not “hooked” into escalating the argument myself by meeting his energy with my own aggressive response!
And guess what… this turned out to be very effective for both of us. I was REALLY taking care of myself when “in the line of fire.” And, even BETTER, by maintaining my calm in setting this boundary, Tim began to be able to willingly – right in the moment – take a deep breath, re-center, and speak to me more respectfully.
The moral? Boundaries aren’t to be used to lash out at the other person, or hurt the other person – they are to be used calmly and thoughtfully to take care of ourselves. We need to use our own “tools” to stay grounded as we convey a limit… it’s much more loving for all, does not escalate, and ends up allowing us to stay in our own power as we take care of ourselves.