Drawing Boundaries Helps Forestall Anger/Stave of Bullies

13 tactics for setting limits

Posted Dec 11, 2018

Jamie wasn’t bullying Sydney.
She hadn’t spread rumors insinuating that Sydney had thrown herself at Ty (or that she had always been ‘a bit sluttish’).
She simply complained about how unavailable Sydney had become, speculated about her ‘new’ stuck-up behavior, and hinted that she was a ‘user’ (who only had time for her friends when she needed a ride).
According to Sydney, this was not as bad as the eye-rolls in the hall, the loud sighs and pointed rudeness at the lunch table (‘yeah, we don’t really wanna hear about that now…’) or the exclusion from social media.

Sydney responded to Jamie’s behavior in ways we all would have lauded: she made plans with her and tried to talk things out, one on one.  This confrontation was hard for Sydney, but she used 'I' words, 'admitting' that she might seem to be ignoring her friends and apologizing for her inability to balance friendship and romance.  She gently detailed how Jamie’s behavior made her feel and left the mall feeling that this ‘rough patch’ was behind them.

Unfortunately, when Sydney got to school on Monday, she discovered that Jamie had taken much of their conversation out of context, and shared it with peers.  Mocking her ‘I-word’ feelings, Jamie matter-of-factly reported that Sydney even 'admitted' she didn’t have time for her friends. She used Sydney’s own concessions to humiliate her, and to damage her social relationships (and she did this verbally, as anti-bullying initiatives taught her the perils of posting to social media—let alone catfishing or doxing). 

Sydney was hurt and furious — But clearly, so too was Jamie.
What next?  What went wrong?

For Sydney and so many other young people struggling with frenemy behaviors, boundaries are murky (can not clicking a “Like” button be a slight?).  Moreover, messages about anger are unclear (most anti-bullying campaigns de-legitimate anger responses, then scramble in the face of articles like “Parents Should Encourage their Girls to get Angry—and to show it," which appeared in the Washington Post this past week).

To my thinking, young people, especially girls, would benefit from some preliminary emotion work. 
How many girls would not waffle if asked “is it needy (or greedy) to want more from a relationship?” (e.g. is it ok for Jamie to want more from Sydney?) How about “is it a betrayal of the girl-code to put your feelings first?” (is Sydney allowed to privilege her romance without fearing she might be punished by her girl-friends?)

Before we dilate on the legitimacy of girl’s anger (whose repression, the Washington Post article reports, is linked to their privileging of relationship), we need to talk about girl’s tendency to lose themselves in a relationship. They may know the answer to these questions is ‘no’ but may well be unable to enforce this answer, as attempts to establish boundaries can feel tantamount to rejecting (and be felt as rejection).

Jamie, Sydney and many of us would greatly benefit from enhanced skill sets for drawing boundaries. Clear limits lend themselves to defining (and better addressing) emotional needs and can stave off the pained, angry responses that turn into Mean Girl behaviors. 
Sydney’s attempts to clarify her position did not achieve the hoped-for results--but should they have been expected to? Is her next move to walk away, foreswear the bond, rupture relationship (and bury her hurt/anger)?

Here are some tips that might have helped Sydney respond to Jamie, or help her with the legitimate anger she now feels:

  1. Expect that your boundaries will be violated.  Others have needs that, when asserted, will infringe on yours.  
  2. Do not resent others for transgressing boundaries, as it is inevitable.  Resentment is born of helplessness, and you have options—the first of which is to hold violators accountable. If you accept that infractions are inevitable, and gently note it in the moment (‘don’t go there’), resentments will not simmer below the surface.
  3. Have a sense, beforehand, of how to handle violations to your boundaries. Likely a glance will not be enough to forestall Jamie’s ‘observations,’ but a glance at anyone listening to her (and maybe your own small sigh or eye-roll) will send a quiet message: “I hear you, and I am exasperated by what you are saying.”  (This message might be more for the benefit of those listening to the exchange—but it is asserting a boundary.)  You might also matter-of-factly walk away, stating you have something else you need to attend to. Give the violator space to take in your boundary, and re-group. S/he may not be able to do that, but you have responded. 
  4. Expect that you, not others, will have to maintain your boundaries. Simply because you draw a line does not mean others can, or will, respect it. (And in fact, adolescence is about pushing boundaries.) Be clear that it is your job to be vigilant, and resist infractions. (I have a friend who, enforcing boundaries, smiles apologetically as she says ‘I feel a bit uncomfortable when…’ in an attempt to stave off negative response. Feminists /therapists may not recommend this tactic, but her non-threatening approach works very effectively for her.)
  5. Practice being consistent.  It is hard to establish boundaries when every other person (or every other situation) is an ‘exception.’
  6. Expect to deal with anger.  Others have a right to be displeased with your boundaries. That does not make you wrong, or a bad person. Resistance—in the form of displeasure or anger—is scary to girls and women. It threatens the rupture of relationship and/or rejection.  Much easier to avoid confrontations and difficult emotions by waffling over boundaries.  A fuller understanding of how vagueness may cause more pain in the long run can help defray the anxiety of setting limits.
  7. Expect others to try to ‘guilt’ you into relaxing your boundaries.  Manipulating guilt-feelings is the most common way others prevent us from setting limits on a relationship. Knowing this, in advance, may help you shore up your susceptibility on this account. (Capitulating in the name of friendship can start you down a slippery slope…)
  8. Be aware that deferring to the unhealthy demands of others is a form of enabling.  And enabling can translate as support of Bullying behaviors.
  9. Accept the legitimacy of other’s pain, and of their opinion of the situation.  There is often no clear right or wrong, just a situation which affects everyone differently. No need to become defensive and attempt to privilege your perspective over hers, as her feelings are as legitimate as yours. Sometimes situations are untenable, and what is needed is an ability ‘to agree to disagree.’
  10. Avoid the impulse to ‘fix’ the other person’s perceptions and perspectives.  Simply state your own. Healthy relationships rarely come down to either/or propositions.
  11. Avoid the trap of believing that establishing / reinforcing boundaries jeopardizes the relationship.  You may need to walk away for a while, but this gives you a greater chance of salvaging your relationship.
  12. Develop your voice.  When you are clear, to yourself, about how you feel (and why), you are better able to parry the thrusts, feints, ‘suggestions’ and criticisms of others.
  13. Don’t expect that this will be easy to do—or even, that you will master feelings of discomfort that surround setting limits. Baby steps in this direction may merely result in your increased ability to tolerate uncomfortable feelings—but this is no small feat. It is a first, necessary step in bolstering your ability to maintain boundaries.

In sum, anger can be an appropriate response to many social infractions.
But be clear--anger is often reactive; a loud, pained outcry that may not be assuaged by calm assertions like “it upsets me when you say I am a user, and too stuck up for my friends.”

An ability to draw and continually police firm boundaries can lessen the frequency of painful anger-responses that arise from unmet emotional needs.
So feel your anger-- but first, try strengthening your boundaries. And perhaps understand that if/when you are targeted, your anger may entail some frustration at yourself for failing to establish and maintain your limits.  

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