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Setting Boundaries: How to Draw the Line When You Have No Idea Where to Put It
Have you ever felt at a loss when you needed to draw the line with someone?
Have you put yourself at a disadvantage when you failed to draw the line because you couldn’t think of a way to do it ?
Have you ever felt mistreated when someone drew a line to your disadvantage?
Setting boundaries is one of the most important parts of relationships. It is more important to satisfactory relationships that just about everything else, since without agreeable boundaries, most relationships cannot function well. The expression, “Good fences make good neighbors,” is true.
At the same time we all have had experience with poor boundaries, boundaries that are too loose or too strict, boundaries that are self-serving and boundaries that feel abusive.
So what can we do about this?
Step 1: Know Yourself And Your Needs
This first step in setting boundaries is to make an appointment with yourself. Make yourself comfortable with a notebook so that you can brainstorm your ideas.
You need to create a map in your mind that enables you to confidently respond to boundary conflicts. When you have that map in your mind, you will feel more relaxed and will be able to handle conflict in a way that works for you and the other person.
This is what you have to come to terms with:
- What are my most important values? Being clear about your values helps you identify good compromises. Values are the core of your boundary strategy and what you most need to honor.
- What are my most important priorities? It is easier to say yes or no, when you are honoring your most important priorities.
- What is non-negotiable for me? Non-negotiable items are related to your values or conditions in your life like your health. It could be family time, diet requirements particularly if you are ill, or values related to doing harm to yourself or others.
- What can I be somewhat flexible about? Scheduling issues typically fall in this category. An example: “I can work between 7AM-6PM but have to leave no later than 6PM to pick up my children.”
- What can I always be flexible about? The answer could include family emergencies, activities that are important to a family member, where I jog, and where I live.
- How do I typically handle trade-offs? Do they usually work for me or not? There is nothing wrong with making sacrifices, but if they are too frequent they can leave you feeling resentful.
When thinking about setting boundaries and making compromises, you are considering the totality of your values, your limits in terms of time and energy and your desire and ability to sacrifice. These are all important issues to understand. Getting a handle on them keeps you from making commitments in a soft moment when your time will not really allow it, causing you to neglect a more important priority.
Since boundary situations are often unique and complex, it is worth purchasing some books on the subject. Here are two that can help:
- Boundaries: When to Say YES, When to Say NO, To Take Control of Your Life by Henry Cloud and
- Boundaries Where You End And I Begin: How To Recognize And Set Healthy Boundaries by Anne Katherine, M.A.
Step 2: Planning For Problem Situations
We all have difficult boundary situations. Some will involve a bossy person, a passive person or someone who has different values. Whatever the difficult boundary problems you face, you can help yourself a lot if you plan for them. These are some planning considerations:
- Identify the boundary situations that are most difficult for you.
- For each difficult situation imagine a time when a conflict was resolved poorly and one that was resolved to your satisfaction.
- can you identify when conflict causes problems for you? For example: a passive person might sigh or complain as a way to get your attention and take care of their problems. If you give in to the pressure, you have taken on a problem that is not really yours to solve. Sometimes we do not see boundary issues for what they are because they come disguised as something else or because we like to be helpful.
- Try to identify when you start to feel manipulated. Is it when someone is unhappy? or complaining? Is it when someone makes decisions for you? or has expectations that are never discussed or explicitly agreed to? Does someone take your things without asking? These situations usually exist because someone has successfully made themselves more important than you.
- Identify when you are uncomfortable taking action. Is it when someone is very sarcastic, dismissive, or contemptuous? Is it when someone has power within your group or social approval for their behavior that makes them hard to challenge?
- Identify whether the challenging situation is one that lends itself to the direct one-on-one approach or a longer perhaps more indirect strategy where you need to have a group on your side to effect change.
- Identify when you need to treat yourself as important as everyone else.
Step 3: Develop Your Strategy
As a general rule, most people want good boundaries as much as you do. Most people are not looking for unnecessary problems.
If you respect others and treat their concerns as valid, they will likely do the same since reciprocity is an ancient rule in human relationships. Therefore when you are willing to listen the another person, it is common courtesy that do the same. It is not unreasonable to want to be listened to as well.
It also helps to be in a problem solving frame of mind. If you ask questions to find out where the other person has some flexibility you can then offer solutions in the form of suggestions, alternatives or even substitutes for what is being asked of you. Since not everyone understands boundaries, you may have to be a leader on finding an agreeable solution.
If I were to create a formula for a boundary setting process it would be:
- Establish a positive intent. “I love how my blouse looks on you…”
- State a concern. “That blouse was a gift and is important to me.”
- Ask questions if necessary. “We need to figure out a holiday schedule. What is your situation and do you have any ideas?”
- Ask for what you need in a way that respects the other person. “I like to help when I can but I need for you to ask if you want to borrow my things.”
- Get agreement. “Does that work for you?”
Successful problem-solving is a combination of respect and creativity. When you combine both, your chances of a positive outcome increase.
Step 4: The Tough Cases
The first thing you have to do in tough cases is to give yourself permission to have the problem. If you feel bad about it you will be less effective in solving the problem.
You also need to give yourself permission to fail, because only then will you be loose enough to come up with solutions. Not everyone is cooperative and if you can accept that with good grace, it will help you to relax about conflict. It also helps to know that walking away from a conflict is sometimes necessary and not a sign of failure.
When you have a difficult or stubborn situation, it can help to come up with way to change the existing dynamic.
Here are some ideas:
- Change the other person’s perception of your value so that you are perceived as important to the other party.
- Change the social dynamic. You could refuse to interact when someone is unreasonable or use humor to loosen people up when they have dug in their heels. Charm works wonders.
- If necessary, throw in the towel. You may have heard the story about the villagers who caught a monkey by putting peanuts inside a coconut shell. The monkey found and grabbed the peanuts in the shell. However, he could not hold on to the peanuts and run away from the villagers at the same time. All he had to do was let go and he would have escaped. Sometime letting go is the best way to solve a problem.
Step 5: Implementing Your Strategy
Your experience and comfort level should guide how you decide to implement your boundary implementation strategies. You can start with minor situations with people you know or a boundary that is very important to you.
Step 6: The Key
I believe that the key to setting boundaries and good relationships lies in being in a constructive frame of mind. When the people around you know that you see the good in them, they will be in a positive frame of mind when working with you.
It also helps to have a sense of humor and to be creative.
Good relationships are challenging because we are all both alike and different at the same time. Just making the effort to work on boundaries is something for you to feel proud of. You are creating a better world with each positive step. Every time you find positive interpersonal solutions you essentially help reduce some of the fear and unhappiness in the world. That is a great gift to yourself and others.
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