Each of us has the right and the responsibility to assess the roads which lie ahead, and those over which we have traveled, and if the future road looms ominous or unpromising, and the roads back uninviting, then we need to gather our resolve and, carrying only the necessary baggage, step off that road into another direction. If the new choice is also unpalatable, without embarrassment, we must be ready to change that as well.”
— Maya Angelou
I write this post knowing it may not be a popular one. You see, it is my experience that many people who deal with relationship problems in general, and especially family estrangement ones, don’t do very well with identifying, setting and especially not enforcing boundaries. This is a very big problem. The very big problem becomes insurmountable when we also blame other people for it.
Setting boundaries is like sailing. We identify the direction we wish to go. We put up our sails, and we use all our resources to keep ourselves traveling well. Sailing requires all sorts of awareness and the ability to use a variety of resources to stay on track.
A good sailor doesn’t expect everything to be calm. In fact, quite the opposite. A good sailor expects the friction and tension of wind and water.
Relationships and boundaries are like this. It is a natural, healthy part of relationship to experience “push back” when we set boundaries. Just as we want things to happen and people to behave in particular ways, so too do other people want the same of us. The tension or friction of relationship occurs when our needs, values, beliefs, expectations collide with those of another person.
Sometimes these points of tension are really worth defending. Sometimes they are not. Either way, if we have a boundary around an issue, its up to us to clearly articulate it for ourselves and for the other person or people. A reader gave a lovely example of boundary collision in relation to a man who had great handy-man talents, who was being taken for granted in his church. Eventually, when church members continued to take advantage of him, he left the church. Now, I don’t know this man, or all the details of his circumstances, however, I do know:
There are many steps to enforcing a boundary before we really need to think about abandoning relationships.
We can blame other people for not respecting our boundaries, and not doing what we think or feel that they should – without ever having conversations about it, negotiating terms around it, allowing for and working with push-back and considering ways to maintain relationships even in the event that there are boundary disagreements. Maybe my reader’s handyman friend went through the steps, and if he did, he would be well ahead of many of us.
Boundaries start with identifying we are uncomfortable.
My reader’s friend realized that he was being asked to do more than he feels is reasonable, more often than he was willing to tolerate. The next step in boundary setting is clearly articulating our position. “I’m happy to provide emergency handyman help or support, however, if you need regular support I will give you my business card with my rates. Maybe we could work out an agreeable fee for my service?”
The next step in boundary setting is we observe how people manage our boundary.
In the first instance people may feel defensive or uncomfortable with having their behaviour challenged. They may give all sorts of reasons why they have not, or will not, accept our boundary. They may get angry. They may try to make us feel guilty or bad. They may even threaten to leave us. “At this church we all contribute our skills and talents. You know we don’t have a budget for maintaining the church. Surely you aren’t expecting the church to pay you for the little contributions you make?”
The next steps are up to us. Push-back is normal. We train each other about where our limits begin and end.
Having set a boundary, our responsibility is to continue to:
1. Consider the other person’s perspectives and evaluate if they have a fair point and reflect on whether we need to drop our boundary, modify or negotiate it, or defend it.
2. When we have decided, we need to communicate our decision, clearly and simply. “I didn’t realize that the church has no maintenance budget, however, I cannot continue to provide my time and service free of charge. Perhaps we need to look at how we can generate a maintenance budget for upkeep and repairs?”
3. We need to accept that people may not rush forward to agree with and support our boundaries, and that we will have to enforce them, sometimes many, many times. This is our responsibility. “I’m sorry to hear that the water faucet in the church kitchen is broken. Would you like me to give you a repair quote?” and then we stick with it, and go about our business and we let people sort out their expectations and needs because that is their business.
4. We give things space and time (unless of course the boundaries are ones which secure our basic safety and well being, in which case we will have much less wiggle room!) We continue to treat people well. We continue to maintain our position.
5. We evaluate the outcome. Is this person someone who will come to see and respect that we do have a boundary and that we will maintain it? Will the push-back gradually drop off, and then stop? Maybe in the case of of my reader’s handyman friend, it didn’t. Maybe the ongoing push-back was more than he was willing to engage with and maybe that is why he left his church. On the other hand, maybe his handyman friend didn’t understand there is a process for setting boundaries, and that:
A huge part of the responsibility for ensuring that our boundaries are respected, is actually about our behaviour and is our responsibility.
Maybe he didn’t know that there were many other ways of dealing with enforcing his boundaries, apart from leaving.
We train people who we are in relationship with, through the consistency of our behaviour, to know that we say what we mean and we mean what we say. If we aren’t saying what we mean, and meaning what we say, that is our problem and only we can fix it. We can expect when we set a boundary that there will be a process of enforcing and reinforcing, not because people are intrinsically trying to mess with us, but because that push/pullis a natural part of boundary setting. We do it too!