Boundary Setting


Boundaries don't separate us from life; they enrich it

The doors of my house have locks. I not only have the right to lock my doors, but I have the duty to protect my family from thieves and dangerous people. Yet, even with the doors locked, my home is occasionally invaded by telemarketers who interrupt whatever I'm doing with the hope of making a sale. At other times, an acquaintance may call and poison the atmosphere with endless whining about how unfair life is.

Yes, life would be unfair if we were forced to listen to someone whose only purpose in life is to complain. Thankfully, life is not unfair. We have power. We can define what we are willing to put up with. We can establish what is and what is not acceptable to us. We don't have to listen to every call. We can say, "Sorry, I'm busy now. Thanks for calling. Talk to you later. Good-bye," and hang up.

In a word, we can set boundaries. Boundaries don't separate us from life; they enrich it. After all, boundaries give us the freedom to become the person we wish to be. Some, however, are afraid to speak up. They are afraid of being rejected and losing their friend. They are willing to give up all that they can become in order to hold on to the little that they now have. It is like a tadpole refusing to become a frog or a caterpillar refusing to become a butterfly. It doesn't make any sense.

If we wish to be in charge of our destiny, we have to learn how to speak up and tell others what is unacceptable to us. You can start enriching your life today, by setting boundaries. The four-step procedure is outlined below.

I'll start with a summary of the four steps and then go into the details of each step. First, the summary. 1) Begin by saying, "WHEN YOU ." (state what is unacceptable), 2) "I FEEL ." (describe your feelings), 3) 'I WANT ." (describe your expectations), 4) "IF YOU ~ I WILL ." (describe the consequences of ignoring your request).

Now for the details. 1. Define the unacceptable behavior by stating WHEN YOU. For example, whenever Mary says something her husband disagrees with, he rolls his eyes and sighs, dismissing her opinion. Mary decides to set a boundary and begins with Step 1 by saying, "Whenever you disagree with me, you roll your eyes and sigh, as if you are exasperated by something stupid I've said."

When explaining your grievance, it is important to be specific. The person you are dealing with is not a mind reader and cannot be sure of what is troubling you unless you spell it out. Note that Mary did not say, "When you belittle me." (that is too vague), but said, "When you roll your eyes and sigh." By being specific, you not only make sure the person you're speaking to understands you, but you are helping them to become aware of their behavior, which may be automatic and done without any thinking on their part.

Mary continues setting her boundary by taking Step 2 and saying, "WHEN YOU do that, I FEEL hurt. When you dismiss my opinions like that, I FEEL as if I have nothing of value to say to you." Steps 1 and 2 are not about blaming. They are merely factual statements. Mary is not accusing her husband of being coldhearted. She is just expressing her feelings, and in Step 3, she will go on to express her needs.

Mary is ready to go on to Step 3, so she continues, "I want to be in a loving, caring, supportive relationship. I expect to be appreciated and admired. When you treat me with disrespect, I feel like we are being driven apart. So, from now on, when I express an opinion, I WANT you to stop rolling your eyes and sighing as if I were a jerk. I WANT you to listen to what I have to say, consider it, and respect my right to express an opinion without being laughed at. I don't always agree with what you have to say, but I respect your right to have ano