All of us have had difficult conversations with friends, co-workers, family, etc., where we’ve had to set boundaries. Maybe, in the course of such boundary-setting, the other person took exception and voiced their objections, and you left shaking your head, feeling verbally or emotionally beat up. You’ve just experienced the “conversation web.”

There are many reasons to set boundaries, as well as many possible reactions. The other person may just say OK, and respect your boundaries.  They may say OK, but often “forget” (maybe just because they forget, or they’re doing it deliberately).  They may be surprised or puzzled because this isn’t something you’ve done in the past.

Or they may express surprise, sorrow, or anger.  Among the reasons (and this is NOT a comprehensive list) could be:

  • fear that you are looking to end a friendship/relationship that they still value
  • you are looking to change some of your habits that no longer are good for you, but they know you that way (and even may be enablers or co-dependent) and see this as a loss for them
  • they are manipulative, and manipulators just hate it when they hit boundaries

So they get aggressive.  One tactic they may use is the “conversation web.”

You’re chatting with one other person, and they are standing too close for your comfort.  You set a boundary.  “Hey, my space bubble is a bit bigger than yours,” you tell them as you take a half-step back and bring your hands in front.  “I’m more comfortable here.”  Most people will just say OK, and leave it at that.  But this person takes offense and challenges you.  “What, do I smell bad?  It was OK yesterday, and the day before, and the day before.  Chris and Jamie are OK with it, why aren’t you?  That’s just RUDE!  Are you PMSing?  You’re making a big deal out of nothing.  You’re just too sensitive!  I thought we were friends.  You are SO selfish!  That attitude is messed up.  No wonder you don’t have any friends.”

This is the “PARTING SHOT,” where they shoot back negatives hoping to deflate you.  It really isn’t about you at all.  It’s just them taking their frustrations out on you for daring to have boundaries that are inconvenient (for them).  And you can get caught trying to justify why, but no explanation seems good enough for them.

The antidote?  The “BROKEN RECORD.”  Saying the same phrase over and over and over and over.

Because the whole conversation web is not the other person trying to get to know you better via your explanation.  It’s all about you handing over your explanation so it can be shot back at you.

Here’s a dialog about how this would work, taking the statements from above:

THEM:  What, do I smell bad?

YOU:  I just feel more comfortable here.

THEM:  It was OK yesterday, and the day before, and the day before.

YOU:  I just feel more comfortable here.

THEM:  Chris and Jamie are OK with it, why aren’t you?

YOU:  I just feel more comfortable here.

THEM:  That’s just RUDE!

YOU:  I just feel more comfortable here.

THEM:  Are you PMSing?

YOU:  I just feel more comfortable here.

THEM:  You’re making a big deal out of nothing.

YOU:  I just feel more comfortable here.

THEM:  You’re just too sensitive!

YOU:  I just feel more comfortable here.

THEM:  I thought we were friends.

YOU:  And I just feel more comfortable here.

THEM:  You are SO selfish!

YOU:  I just feel more comfortable here.

THEM:  That attitude is messed up.

YOU:  I just feel more comfortable here.

THEM:  No wonder you don’t have any friends.

YOU:  I just feel more comfortable here.

See the pattern?  We practice this in most of our classes.  Especially the online classes.  Pick a neutral phrase — short is great — that you  can repeat over and over and over again.  A phrase that references YOURSELF, not justifies WHY.  I a calm tone of voice.  With good eye-to-face contact.  And know when you can walk away.

Red flags. Those warnings that something is amiss. Also called trusting your gut feelings, listening to your intuition, paying attention to your instincts. That’s recognizing boundary violations, which is why we feel uncomfortable. We know what that feels like, and we also sometimes try to sweep those feelings aside. Have you ever ignored red flags? How does that usually turn out? Why do so many of us ignore them?

I think a large part is that most of us do want to get along with most people — neighbors, co-workers, family, clients, coaches, acquaintances, friends. A lot of us also feel that the red flag in question, the words or behavior that jolted us into this questioning mindset, is so small it’s insignificant. And besides, different people have different boundaries, right?  That’s just their particular boundary, right? Not everyone with different boundaries means harm — most don’t! Though some do, and how do you tell the difference?

In the beginning, you don’t. It’s hard to determine if that slight boundary bump was inadvertent or a deliberate boundary test as you’re getting to know someone. However, what you can rely on is that feeling of discomfort. That’s what’s important. And you are entitled to have your own boundaries.

In my self-defense classes I often ask students what they are currently doing to keep themselves safer. Most answer along the lines of not going out alone at night, or parking their car in a well-lit space, or locking doors and windows, or carrying pepper spray, or keeping their keys in their hand at the ready. Most actions that people take to keep themselves safer involve threat from strangers. Yet women are far more likely to be assaulted by someone they know, someone who’s done boundary testing to make sure you’d be a good victim.

How do you stay safer with people you know? By setting your boundaries when you feel the red flags. That might seem Self defense class red flagsuncomfortable. You have boundaries with everyone, even your family and best friends, that’s healthy. Even small ones. In a matter-of-fact manner, with confidence. Manipulators hate having boundaries set. You might experience a bit of pushback, to see if those boundaries are real. So keep them real as you set them. And set them

You can use your voice. It is a really good idea to verbally articulate your boundaries. Use your body language. Your voice and your body language should work together. Take up some more of your space bubble. Use your arms and hands to take up that space — you can talk with your hands. Stand up straight. Good eye-to-face-contact. And when you’re setting a boundary you don’t have to smile at them.

In my classes I also ask students who they want to smile at. Responses generally are family, friends, pets, small children, people I like. People I want to encourage. If you are setting a boundary to discourage a specific behavior, you probably don’t want to smile at that person! It can send a mixed message, with your words saying no but your tone saying maybe or try harder or even yes if you convince me. You want your words and body language to be congruent, to work together.

Use your feet! Control the distance between you and the other person. If someone is standing too close during a conversation, you can step back and use your hands, talk with your hands, to occupy that space.

Sometimes students are worried about making the other person angry, or losing the relationship.  I think of it this way. If someone told me that I were standing a bit too close during a conversation, I’d feel a bit embarrassed that my action made someone I care about uncomfortable.  How about you?  That being said, sometimes setting new boundaries in old relationships will come with some pushback and discomfort, as the other person may be left wondering what’s going on and feel at a loss. It may take some emotional effort, some back-and-forth, communication of intent, and even some justification. But as a result, you may have better boundaries and better relationships.

HOW you express your choice is critical.  We not only want to say what we mean, we want our body language and tone of voice to support our intent.  Here’s a simple exercise in just saying “no.”  It just uses your acting/imitation skills.  In this video I’m going to say “no” in a few different ways.  Please follow along and imitate me.  Think of it as trying on that voice, like you’re trying on a shirt.  How does it feel on you?  Sincere?  Playful?  Firm?  Uncertain?  Confining?

Did you feel the differences in how you just said “no?”

Communication is not only your intended message.  It’s also how the recipient decodes it.

Sometimes the listener misunderstood what you said.  Maybe they really wanted to hear something else so kept pressing, trying to get you to change your mind.  Maybe they never intended to accept your choice.  You can learn how to handle these situations in our self-defense classes (which are all online through at least the remainder of 2020, and until further notice).  Most classes are for women, some are for teen girls.  Other classes can be held by arrangement.

What can you do when someone you care about disregards your boundaries?  The ones you thought you were so clear about?

Depends.

Today I won’t be giving the “one answer,” because there isn’t one answer most of the time.  I’ll outline more of a process. However, the crucial approach is your focus.  If your intent is to punish someone, it will be far less effective.  Your focus should be on YOUR comfort and safety.  Focus on YOURself.

We’ll begin with the assumption that this is someone you know, as most conflict happens with people you know.  Consider:

  • What’s the fundamental nature of this relationship?  Family?  Good friend?  Neighbor?  Work colleague?  Supervisor?  Social acquaintance?  Boss?  Coach?
  • What is the history?  What is your past experience in this relationship?
  • What are the power dynamics?  Have they changed over time?
  • What does this relationship mean to you?  Not what you think it should mean to you.
  • Where is this relationship on the continuum between adversarial and collaborative?
  • How important is this person in your life?

Think about that last point again — how important this person is in your life.  A more important relationship can generally stand more discussion about expectations, hopes, and trust.  Dr. Brené Brown has noted that having boundaries respected is a significant indicator of trust, and we confer more trust on those who acknowledge and respect boundaries (including their own).

Notice I’m not saying “use these words” or “that body language.”  Those choices should follow the contours of the relationship, where you’ve been with it in the past and where you see its future.

One instance.  a student had a romantic interest abroad.  He lived in Eurpoe — when it was evening over there it was past midnight in Seattle.  He tended to phone her in his evening, usually around 2:00 am her time.  They had a few conversations about it, she asked him not to phone so late, and he would always apologize and say he’d try to call earlier but just need to hear her voice.  And he kept phoning her at 2 am.  Yes, she kept answering.

Another instance.  Actually, a number of instances since I’ve heard this same basic story over and over.  Student is dating a very smart, witty, articulate, funny person.  They usually have a great time.  However, every so often if they disagree, this person’s cleverness would turn contemptuous.  The discussion would move quickly from whatever they disagreed about to student’s “fundamental flaws.”  In some cases they broke up but got back together.  They promised they’d change — until the next disagreement.

In both instances, there was little downside for the other person to continue their behavior.  In the first case, to keep phoning at his convenience since she didn’t reinforce her boundary by not answering. In the second, to keep up personal attacks instead of working through differences.  Why are these boundaries ignored?  Maybe:

  • They don’t agree with your boundaries but won’t say that outright
  • They continue to get what they want, with no appreciable consequences
  • They are solidifying a power imbalance
  • This relationship is not as important to them as it is to you
  • They have other needs they are reluctant to express

Remember, there will be disagreements in any relationship of value.  The issues lies in how those disagreements are expressed and processed.

The next level is to recognize that ignoring a boundary it yet another boundary violation, and articulate that. Possibilities:

“Honey, we’d talked about you phoning me so late, and you always agree to phone earlier.  But that doesn’t happen.  I love talking with you, and I need uninterrupted sleep.  I’m turning my phone off at 10 pm Seattle time.  Please call earlier.”

“Honey, we’d talked about you phoning me so late, and you always agree to phone earlier.  But that doesn’t happen, and I see that it really doesn’t work with your schedule.  I love talking with you, and I need more uninterrupted sleep.  How about if we schedule our phone calls, so I can plan for more quality sleep?”

“Every time we disagree, it devolves into name-calling and personal attacks.  That’s not how I want to resolve our differences!  I’m going to call a “time out” next time a discussion begins to get off-track.  Maybe I’ll take a walk, or go for some tea.  And I’ll expect that when I come back we can come to a better way of resolution.”

“Whenever we disagree, you get angry quickly and resort to name-calling.  We discuss this, you swear you’ll change, yet the next disagreement finds the same pattern on repeat.  Being able to talk about feelings and issues is important to me, and important in every meaningful relationship I’m in.  What do you need to honor that?”

The idea is setting a more concrete boundary, involving your level of contact and time with that person.  And then sticking to it.  While ehe intent is your self-care, the other person may feel it as punitive.  So be sure it’s a boundary you are willing to enforce!

We’re now past five months into our “shelter at home” lives. Some people are experiencing more positive, quality family time. Some people have realized they needed to slow down, and now have the opportunity to re-balance their lives. They are fortunate.

Other people — even if they remain employed, can work from home, and are not in danger of food insecurity or eviction — are finding this new family closeness wearing. Finding both the time and space to “go” to work, set up children’s learning and after-school activities, and take care of the rest of life is a new juggling act. Maybe this is you? Maybe you need more support, but it’s not coming and are furthermore expected to give still more of yourself. You want to reset some boundaries. But everyone is under new pressures.

I don’t have a secret to solving all these issues. I do, however, suggest beginning with these two concepts before a conversation begins.

First, look at the bigger picture. Where are these relationships in your life? I’m assuming you value them. Are they long-term? Spouse or long-time partner? Child — youth, teen, or adult? I’m also assuming these are neither abusive nor manipulative relationships. Where do you see these relationships in the future?

Second, look at your current boundaries, and boundary-setting process. What are you feeling? What would you like to see happen, and what are your less negotiable needs?

Some guidelines to engaging for support:

  • Give thought to how to express what you need, not just what to say.
  • Include tone of voice. Practice what you want to say. Use your smartphone — record yourself and listen back. Get a trusted friend to give feedback. Does your tone express your intent? Maybe some frustration is coming out — how would that other person respond to that tone?
  • When it comes time for a conversation, acknowledge the other person’s contributions.
  • Frame it as a “we” issue. We are on the same team, in the same family, we all want positive outcomes.
  • Since you’ve already given thought to your needs that are currently not happening, state them.
  • Eliminate the word “but.” “But” tells the other person that the other shoe is about to drop. That their contribution is now minimized. Compare the two:
  • “I really value our time together, but I need more space.” This feels like an oppositional setup.
  • “I really value our time together, and I need more space.” I would add the word “also” between the words in “I need.” The tone can become more collaborative.
  • There is a time and a place to be sorry. Expressing your needs is not that time.
  • If this boundary will put additional burdens on the other person, acknowledge that.
  • Finally, there is no “secret.” It’s building relationships that involve trust and vulnerability. Which takes time and commitment.

And check out this TED talk by Dr. Senem Eren on personal boundaries for well-being. Well-articulated presentation on why healthy boundaries are essential to healthy relationships, as well as to just being physically healthy.

Since all our self-defense classes are online for the foreseeable future, we do more practicing of verbal and body-language skills to set boundaries.  If that’s your key take-away from a class, now would be a good time to check them out.

So, what’s standing in the way of you setting the boundaries you need?