Holding the line

Boundaries are important because they teach others how we want to be treated and they help us...
Boundaries are important because they teach others how we want to be treated and they help us protect what is important. Photo: Getty Images

In the next part of our personal foundation series, this week we’re talking about boundaries, writes Jan Aitken.

Jan Aitken
Jan Aitken.

I’ve noticed when I work with people on boundaries that the relatively simple concept can make  some feel really uncomfortable. It seems there is fear around setting boundaries, usually because people are scared if they set boundaries they’ll upset others, push them away or be seen as stroppy.

That’s not quite the case. Simply, boundaries are imaginary lines that you draw around yourself to define how you want to be treated. Boundaries are about what others can and cannot do to you or around you. Your boundaries act as a filter and either permit, or not, certain people, behaviours or situations to enter your defined "space".

They are important because they teach others how we want to be treated and they help us protect what is important to us physically, emotionally and spiritually. Boundaries support healthy and respectful relationships, with ourselves and others. Without them you can feel taken advantage off, pushed around and unvalued. That stuff hurts and ultimately it negatively affects us emotionally and physically.

Sure, when you manage to say no to someone or take a stand on how someone treats you nobody gives you a medal. To start with it’s possible you’ll get a sideways look or a grumble rather than a prize for holding  to your boundaries. That’s what can make boundary maintenance uncomfortable. What it comes down to, though, is a decision. Ask yourself this: do you want to take a stand and feel a bit uncomfortable defending your boundaries, or do you want to feel resentful every time you let someone cross them?

Think about  the aspects of others’ behaviour towards you that you find upsetting, hurtful, draining or just plain disrespectful. These things will indicate a "soft" boundary that might be better strengthened.

Here are some examples of how boundaries can be "stepped on" to help you get the idea: People gossip to you about other colleagues and friends and you really don’t want to listen.

Others unload and dump on you.

You’re the one who gets things done, so everyone gives you their stuff to do. You’ve been given a nickname that upsets you.

People often talk over you.

Others like to "have you on" and have a bit of a joke but it is actually hurtful to you.

A teammate, acquaintance or colleague flirts with you and it makes you uncomfortable.

Unfortunately, people won’t just know what your boundaries are, you’ll have to "train" them! So it’s also helpful to plan how you might inform people of how you want to be treated. That’s a more gentle approach as opposed to leaping down their throat and becoming aggressive when they step over an unknown boundary. That can be very confusing for people.

Here are some ideas of ways to approach this: "That’s hurtful. Please stop."

"When you do (or say) ... . I feel ...  please don’t do (say) that again."

"What you just said is inappropriate. Please don’t say that again."

"I’ve been doing some work on boundaries and I want to share with you what is OK and not OK to happen between us."

"You know how you joke around about ...?  Well, it hurts me and I ask you to respect this and to stop doing it."

"I can’t help you with that project/job etc."

(Avoid the detailed reasons why; that’s not needed).

"When you ... I feel uncomfortable, please stop doing it."

Remember, reward is an important part of training! When someone does respect a new boundary during the "training" phase it’s good reinforcement to politely acknowledge it, perhaps with a "thanks" or "I appreciate it".

- Jan Aitken is a Dunedin-based life coach.

For more go to www.fitforlifecoaches.co.nz.Twitter:@jan—aitken


Coaching tips for setting and maintaining strong boundaries

• Start small and when you’re comfortable move to the bigger issues.

• Get clear on exactly what the boundary is. Where are you going to draw the line? If you’re not clear on what your boundaries are, others won’t be either. Take responsibility for letting others know where the boundaries are, don’t expect people to just magically know.

• Decide on consequences ahead of time. You don’t want to be flummoxed and unprepared when it happens. What are the consequences if someone crosses a boundary? If there are no consequences, there might as well be no boundaries.

Something needs to happen when others step on your toes. What will it be?

• Expect violations. As sure as the sun comes up each morning you can guarantee that if you set a new boundary, that boundary will be tested. The result of testing will be one of two outcomes: either you’ll prove that you don’t really mean it, or you’ll demonstrate that you do.

• So be consistent. If it’s not OK to call you names today, it shouldn’t be OK tomorrow. Your boundaries must not change with your mood, the day of the week or the phase of the moon! If they do you can’t blame others for being confused about what’s acceptable. Every time you allow a boundary to be violated without consequences, you’re back to square one.

• Get used to boundaries. Boundary-setting is not a single-shot deal. Be prepared to defend the boundary every day. It will become easier as the boundary becomes part of who you are. Some people will understand right away, others might take longer. Some may decide never to respect a particular boundary. That’s OK; they’ll have to get used to the consequences.

• Setting boundaries is not a way to vent your anger or get even with those who have been stepping all over you, boundaries are not a weapon! Set your boundaries because you want to look after yourself.

• Remember, most importantly, if you want others to respect your boundaries then you must respect theirs.


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