If you’re like me, setting boundaries can be a scary thing. Perhaps you, too, learned very early on that insisting on a fair boundary got you in trouble, or got you yelled at, or was guaranteed to get you in someone’s bad books (and once you were in the bad books, it was very hard to get your name out of there).
It really isn’t fair. Someone acts like a bully, and regularly crosses over into your territory. Maybe they repeatedly take something that’s yours without asking (even though you’ve asked them not to), or continually take advantage of your kindness, patience, or generosity. Perhaps they blatantly disrespect any lines you’ve tried to draw in the sand, or simply do all the taking and none of the giving.
This isn’t to say that we’re helpless here. In most cases when our boundaries are crossed, we’ve allowed it. As a child, we may have learned to allow it because we were helpless and depended on the big boundary-crossers for survival. But as an adult, unless a situation is extreme, we usually participate in the violation of our own boundaries by failing to properly defend them.
Because we’re scared.
And with good reason.
I remember a few years ago, when someone wanted me to make a major change in my plans in order to accommodate their plans. My plans had been in place for months, they had just decided upon theirs. When I suggested that we reach a compromise by changing our respective plans slightly, the other person totally freaked out. Suddenly it wasn’t about the plans anymore. The words came fast and furious, hitting me in the chest like a barrage of machine gun bullets: I was a control freak. I was selfish and always had to get my way. I was mean and unreasonable.
Seriously, all I had done was gently suggest a compromise (I know I did it gently, because this person is intimidating to begin with). At no point had I ever implied that I would insist on my way, or even insist on the compromise I’d suggested. Yet the fact that I hadn’t immediately gone along with their plan was enough to unleash the beast. And it was scary.
I remember physically shaking in the face of it all (thankfully it was over email). My heart was pounding. I backed down immediately. I let them have their plans. It just wasn’t worth it to fight, not when something as mild as suggesting compromise provoked this intense a response.
All my life I haven’t been very good at placing or enforcing boundaries. I’ve been getting better, though, thanks to a book I’ve mentioned before: Boundaries, by Christian psychologists Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. There is a lot of pain and frustration out there. And resentment, more than anything else, because when we give in, time and time again, we start to seethe. Especially when we feel powerless to express our anger and feel like we’ll never be able to change anything.
It’s well known that bullies keep boundary-less people in line with anger. I find angry people very scary for some reason (even if the anger is so mild that it only shows itself through a sudden tightening of the other person’s facial muscles), and I’ll do almost anything to avoid it or make it go away. I resonated so strongly with the following words from the Boundaries book:
“The first thing you need to learn is that the person who is angry at you for setting boundaries is the one with the problem...Maintaining your boundaries is good for other people; it will help them learn what their families of origin did not teach them: to respect other people.
“Do not let anger be a cue for you to do something. People without boundaries respond automatically to the anger of others. They rescue, seek approval, or get angry themselves. There is great power in inactivity. Do not let an out-of-control person be the cue for you to change your course. Just allow him to be angry and decide for yourself what you need to do.” (p.248)
Wow. Can you see yourself in this? I always feel I have to do something when someone is angry, I usually try to do something, anything, to get their approval back, to get peace back. And it pretty much always involves giving my power away. Yuck.
How amazing that all we really need to do is nothing. To develop awareness of our overwhelming desire to “fix” the situation, and instead to stay still inside the storm, and just do nothing.
These are beautifully simple instructions, and make so much sense. In reality, though, it won’t be easy. Cloud and Townsend also emphasize the importance of having a support group (or person) to help you through this process, someone who can help you stand strong and maintain the boundary even when everything in you wants to crumble.
By the way, when I refer to anger and boundaries here I’m not referring to severely abusive relationships, where provoking anger might physically put you at risk. If you’re dealing with a bully of that degree, you need the help of a professional when it comes to setting boundaries and keeping yourself safe.
So, can you see yourself here? Do you, like me, respond to anger by trying to defuse the situation and giving your power away? Pick a relatively safe situation where you need to set a small boundary, and practice standing firm in your decision. Do nothing if they get mad. Let it blow over. I’ve tried it, and it feels really good. It works.
Copyright Dr. Susan Biali, M.D. 2013