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The 'Secret Sauce' to Setting Boundaries in Relationships

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What does it mean to “set boundaries” in one’s personal relationships?

To me, it means not being a doormat; it means standing up for myself. It means facing conflict with integrity rather than shrinking from it out of fear.

But how, exactly, are personal boundaries set? Are there some magic words you incant to assert them? Or is the “secret sauce” something nonverbal? I’m still learning.

There are times when words do the trick. For example, my mother was constantly talking hatefully about my father even though they’d been divorced for more than 30 years. One day, I’d had enough.

“Mom,” I said, “if you keep talking that way about Dad, I won’t be driving you to your doctor’s appointment.” She stopped! Apparently, I’d gotten through to her by giving her a concrete choice. I wished I’d done it before.

But many situations require quicker thinking then I can seem to manage. If somebody I’m with starts revealing personal information about a mutual friend not in attendance, how do I interrupt and say I don’t like to gossip? I don’t want to sound preachy or superior, but if I let it go, I feel complicit in something ugly. In a case like this, I should probably stick my hand up in a “halt” gesture and say simply, with a smile, “Please, don’t continue.”

Unfortunately, these moments come and go so fast, I never seem to think of it. Where are my words when I need them?

As a writer, I look to words as solutions, so I’m always a bit unnerved when they aren’t the answer. I once sought a friend’s advice about what to put in an email to a hostile relative regarding an upcoming holiday. I wanted to set a boundary by saying, essentially, “If you can be friendly, we’d love to have you.” While I was fussing over the wording, my friend looked at me. “Why are you inviting them at all?” she asked. I had to stop and think. Did I have to invite the person? What was required was not words, but an honest look at what I was doing. Could I accept that the person wasn’t going to change and make a decision from there?

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Then there’s the fact that setting boundaries is rarely a one-time deal. For example, I wish I could say to a friend, “I’m sorry to bring this up, but I hate it when you’re 20 minutes late to everything we plan to do together” and have the person (a) understand how difficult it was for me to say it, and (b) permanently change their behavior. Alas, it’s not their responsibility to make things easy for me — and I certainly don’t have control over their behavior.

I often forget I can set a boundary by leaving the room. I was once mercilessly berated for an email I had sent, to the point I was in tears. I had already sincerely apologized, but the person kept going until I was far too flooded with emotion to think. How I wish I had said something clever, like what a friend later suggested: “Wow, you’re scary when you’re mad. Let’s talk when you’re feeling better.” But without my also getting up and leaving the room, I wouldn’t have gotten my message across. It’s a matter of “show, not tell,” to borrow a writerly adage.

I’ve noticed if I can focus on my own bodily sensations, such as a fast heartbeat or shallow breathing, I can sometimes remember the option to leave the situation. “You’re scary when you’re mad” is a great zinger, but it wouldn’t have worked without my taking action. By staying in the room and trying to work things out with an irrational, unkind person, I violated my own boundaries and was complicit in my abuse.

Would the gossiping friend have gotten the message if I’d physically removed myself from the situation? Would the hostile relative have gotten the message if I hadn’t invited them? Would my mother have behaved better if I’d consistently left the room every time she started in about Dad? Could I be that brave, time after time?

As I said, I’m still learning.

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Unsplash

Originally published: August 20, 2020
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