Cathryn's Articles for Stepmom Issues and Relationships

Boundaries for Nice People- Part 2: Tactics
Boundaries for Nice People: Part Two-Techniques to Support your Personal Boundaries

By Cathryn Bond Doyle.

In Part One of the article “Boundaries for Nice People” we review personal boundaries with the intention of becoming clear about why and how we might allow our boundaries to be violated, ignored or non-existent. The goal is to become aware of where we can add or strengthen our boundaries to create more safety and happiness and less stress and pain in our lives. In this second part, I present some practical tactics that can bring about positive changes in your daily life and in your relationships.

As you begin to set and hold your boundaries, be prepared for the people around you to be jostled by your new behavior. One of my coaches often says, “Nothing changes until you do.” As you begin to behave differently, the people around you will change. In her book, “The Dance of Anger,” Harriet Lerner explains that when you react differently (hence unpredictably) people in your lives will do whatever they can to get you to act “normal” again and return to your old ways. She labels this phenomenon “change back.” It’s fascinating to see this “change back” behavior. When you watch for this attempted change back effort, you can resist the pressure. You’ll be conscious of what’s happening. It can actually be a clue to you that you’re making progress.

The suggestions in this article are drawn from my life, my research and the lives of my clients. Review these ideas. Pick and choose the ones that feel right for your situation. Tweak ‘em where needed, then give ’em a try.

“This is NOT OK with me anymore.”

This exact phrase is a recent addition to my collection of strategies and the results have been terrific. This statement does not require justification. It’s powerful in its’ clarity. The main point here is to realize that you have the right to say this direct statement. Funny how surprised and relieved you may feel when you give yourself permission to say this to another. “Anymore” is a key word here as you may feel you can’t change your mind once you have allowed a particular behavior in the past. Guess what? You can change your mind. You have that right.

Here’s an example:

One day a 78-year-old woman came to me because she was tired of having her grown children speak to her in rude and/or angry ways. We talked about her situation and she decided to try one of my newly favorite tactics for boundary setting. The next time one of her kids was rude she was going to say, in a calm voice, “Speaking to me like that is not OK with me anymore.” We did a few role-plays to give her the chance to work through the nervousness she felt when she imagined how it would feel to speak up after all these years. At the end of the session, she left ready and willing to stand up for herself next time any of them spoke harshly to her.

A week later she called to tell me “it was a miracle!” One of her daughters spoke to her in a disrespectful, dismissive tone and this courageous woman said “Speaking to me like this is not OK with me anymore.” She went on to explain that her daughter stopped immediately and apologized profusely. My client got off the phone with a renewed sense of hope that things could really be different. She changed her behavior and her results changed.

Just say “Ouch!”

The next time someone says or does something that hurts you. Rather than reacting, counter-attacking, getting even or running away, try looking back at them and saying “Ouch!” Plain and simple, once again, you can make your point and disengage from any previous chain reactions. The first time I said this to my stepson (he was 7 at the time), he stopped in his tracks and said curiously, “What happened?” I told him that what he just said hurt my feelings. He looked at me, seemingly prepared (based on past experience) for a lecture or a consequence. After a weird moment of silence, he volunteered, “I’m sorry!” and we were able to get back to what we were doing.

A straightforward verbal “Ouch!” is a great way to make people aware of their negative impact without having them feel attacked or defensive. If you can deliver this with humor, it is usually well received when the impact is unintentional.

Assume all mind-reading licenses have expired…require words.

Ever felt angry or hurt when someone didn’t do something you wanted or expected, only to realize that you never actually verbalized your wants or expectations? It’s common, yet still creates disappointment and stress. “He should’ve known.” “If he loved me, he would have done X.” “She actually never told me to…” Next time you’re hoping, wanting or expecting something to happen, ask yourself “What can I do to make sure this happens the way I want it to happen?” As you take responsibility for creating the experiences you want, you may find that you’re talking more specifically and more directly than you have in the past. Ask for what you want. As you set clear boundaries, you’ll be stepping into a more powerful role and out of a less victim-y role. The other benefit is that you’ll definitely reduce or eliminate the opportunities for misunderstandings.

“Stop right there!”

In “Verbally Abusive Relationships,” Patricia Evans points out this simple and effective tactic. She suggests you put out your hand, palm forward and use a firm but calm voice. If you are a talker, this will be a bigger challenge. However try it because you may weaken your own boundary by perpetuating a conversation that really needs to end. By saying, “Stop right there!” or “Stop it right now!” you’re saying, no more conversation until the other person calms down, stops yelling, blaming or doing whatever it is that’s upsetting you.

If someone is taking their anger out on you in unhealthy or unjustifiable ways, you have every right to say, “Stop” or “I can see you are angry, how can I help?” But if they are just trying to be hurtful, learn to say “stop right there” and remove yourself from the line of fire. If this tactic appeals to you, check out the book as she reviews dozens of variations for many situations.

Be willing to have someone angry with you.

This can be a difficult one for approval seekers and peacemakers. If you find yourself willing to do (or endure) almost anything to avoid someone, anyone, from being angry with you, you may want to strengthen this boundary. This “characteristic” makes it easy for people to manipulate and control you. All others have to do is threaten to become angry with you and you become putty in their hands. How much of dignity and self-respect have you sacrificed, in order to avoid facing the anger of someone you love? Do you think the other person will stop loving you or leave you if they become angry with you? Be clear that any relationship worth having and keeping needs to have space for the healthy expression of anger.

Learn to stop doing for others.

In the interest of connecting with another, you may find that you’re volunteering to do things before asked. You may spend time, money and/or energy doing unasked tasks or favors and then find the recipient of your favor, unimpressed or unappreciative. This is a painful clue that you may be over-doing. Pay attention to how often you do any unasked chores for others and experiment with “not-doing.” As caretakers and pleasers will attest, not-doing can actually be very challenging. The benefit of not-doing is that it frees up time, energy and money to spend on your self-care. That benefits everyone in your world. By being conscious of what you will and will not do for others, you begin to teach others to value your contribution.

Wayne Dyer said, “You teach people how to treat you.” Make sure you are choosing to do for others and that your boundaries are clear to all involved. By not-doing, you will get very clear on your motivation for your actions. This will also help you decide where to draw the line.

Recommended Reading

“Where to Draw the Line” by Anne Katherine

“Verbally Abusive Relationships” by Patricia Evans

“The Four Agreements” by Don Miquel Ruiz

“The Courage to be Yourself ” by Sue Patton Thoele

"The Power of the Apology” by Beverly Engel

Each of these books offers insights and ideas for how to respond in new ways and with new attitudes to the situations we face daily. The authors are candid, the examples are clear and the recommendations are creative.

Practice new actions in your imagination.

There’s great value in rehearsing your new behaviors within the safety of your imagination. Sometimes, people are initially resistant to practicing with me as they feel the nerves just thinking about it. I confidently explain that these nerves will indeed dissipate once we practice and let them run their course. Avoiding the nervousness doesn’t help the situation. Practicing does. What are you going to do differently? How do you think the person will react? How will you handle an attempt at change back? Can you imagine yourself staying calm and standing firm with your new boundaries? Run through as many different options as you can imagine. As you do this, you will feel the shift and as you begin to imagine yourself being successful and courageous, you will feel the power and joy flow into you. Really!

Establishing or enforcing your personal boundaries is a process. Take your time. Look for small ways to begin. Be patient with yourself and forget about being perfect. Trust yourself and start with changes that feel good and right and true for you. It’s inspiring to watch the changes that occur as you begin to take action on your own behalf and place a value on your own well-being.

©2001 Cathryn Bond Doyle . All Rights Reserved.
Stepmoms on a Mission®
PO Box 7, Medford NJ 08055