A Boundary Building Crib Sheet

YES and NO are two very powerful words. They are the gatekeepers that maintain the boundary of self and other. We need boundaries to protect ourselves from things that don’t serve our well-being; however, they also need to be flexible enough to filter in the good stuff like life experiences and connections. Many of us have great difficulty building and maintaining healthy boundaries especially in situations and with people we are emotionally invested in. This is because our emotions sometimes mess with the circuitry of our rational higher brain when they interface with each other in our decision making. Finding that middle ground between masochism (YES-ing to death) and isolation (building a wall of NO) is possible, but it takes practice. I’ve created this crib sheet to help guide the process and deal with some of the challenges that come up along the way.

(1) EMOTIONAL ASSESSMENT

It’s important to really examine the emotions that come up for us when setting limits and boundaries. I often ask clients (and myself) to reflect on how they feel when they say either YES or NO. After getting a general sense of what that brings up for them emotionally, we start to examine the feelings triggered in different situations and settings where YES and NO have been exercised. This self-reflection is key in helping us to understand and eventually reframe the responses of others.

Perhaps your friend’s inability to handle your NO is about their own fear of rejection, but their passive aggressive response to you may trigger a stream of intrusive negative thinking that has you fearing you will lose this relationship if you don’t say YES. This cycle only maintains and perpetuates some pretty shitty self-esteem and relationship dynamics.

(2) IMAGINING THE OPPOSITE

What would life be like if you didn’t always say YES? How would it feel if you could just say NO without an explanation? What would change for you? These are just some of the prompts to get you thinking about the real costs and benefits of boundary building. Imagining the opposite is kind of mind blowing. One of my clients sat with the word that came up for her (i.e. freedom) when imagining what life would be like is she didn’t say YES all the time. That imagined life prioritized her own needs and took the burdens of others off her chest. It sparked a series of small changes in behavior that prepared her to let go of a very toxic relationship.

(3) COMMUNICATING OUR BOUNDARIES

This should not be confused with explaining our boundaries. People respond best to open and direct communication that is compassionate. Congruent communication is a skill that helps people in relationships understand and express each other’s needs without defensiveness. Adapting this style of communication to express our need for boundaries will help reduce the blow-back from people in our lives not used to us having them.

Some great examples are the following:

“I know I haven’t always been good at letting you know how I feel and as awesome as you are, I know you’re not psychic. This is why I want to talk to you about a few things.”

“You are very important to me and it means a lot that I can be this honest with you about my needs.”

My personal favorite and one that I find is absolutely necessary when you work in a care-taking and/or helping profession is the following:

“I want to be there for you, but there are times when I am too overwhelmed with my own stuff and life. The only way I can be present for the people I care about is if I am taking care of myself first. This is when I have to say no to certain things.”

(Insert the flock of doves emanating from the heavens)

People may still react to your compassionate dialogue; however, rest assured that their reaction tells you more about whether they are meant to remain in your life or not. A healthy relationship is one that is reciprocal and interdependent. If they truly care about you, they will support your needs even if it takes them a little time to process and understand them. For those that don’t get it, keep reading to (5) TAKE A TIME OUT FROM THE TOXIC.

(4) A ‘NO EXPLANATIONS’ APPROACH

You don’t have to justify your boundaries further than the compassionate communication outlined above. Explanations are often about anticipating and/or managing other people’s emotions. If you find yourself worrying that you might disappoint an important figure in your life by saying NO, you may needlessly over explain your boundary. You may feel the need to exaggerate your explanations to the point of lying to avoid being interrogated about your boundary. Fighting this urge is hard work and success varies depending on the situation and/or relationship.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I only recently got good at the ‘no explanations’ approach. Below is one of my success scenarios.

My then boyfriend asked me to come hang out with his friends while they watched the UFC fights on PPV. There were a number of reasons why I didn’t feel like going, but rather than list them all, I chose to say, “No babe. I’m good. You have fun with the boys.” He immediately asked me what I was going to do on a Saturday night alone. His assumption that I couldn’t possibly have any other plans or things to do was enough to trigger some irritation, but I managed not to react. I smiled and told him, “I’ll be fine. You enjoy the fights.” My lack of explanation started to trigger some mind reading from his end. “You probably want to go out to some club, don’t you? Yeah, I know what you girls do. That’s cool. You go let some bro feel up on you instead of hanging out with your man.” At this point, I wanted to punch him in the face and/or leave the room, but I maintained my calm and restated my original response with a little “sass” to reframe his mind-reading. “I’m going to miss you too baby. You have fun tonight.” I rubbed up on him like an exaggerated club dancer to drive home how ridiculous he was being. He laughed. I laughed. All was good and no more questions were asked.

If only they all worked out this way. What I will say about all the not so successful attempts is that they highlighted my triggers and vulnerabilities. Understanding where and why I got derailed helped me to revise my approach in order to react differently next time. I have several ‘no explanation’ tactics at the ready for interactions with my parents because I know from many a trial and error how my frustration and anger gets the best of me. The worst part of those exchanges was knowing I had gone off the rails, but not being able to bring myself back. When I would hear “relax, it was just a question” I knew I had failed. Prepare your ‘no explanation’ strategies before challenging situations to increase your success and reduce distress (rhyming intentional).

(5) TAKE A TIME OUT FROM THE TOXIC

If you find that your boundaries are being tested over and over again with certain individuals despite all your congruent compassionate communication and ‘no explanations’ attempts, give yourself permission to take distance. If you can’t do that for yourself, then I give you permission to take distance. You don’t have to respond to their texts, DM’s, or any attempts at contact immediately or at all. You can choose the terms by which you will engage with them and interact accordingly. They will almost definitely feel a certain kind of way about your distance, but don’t let their reactions make you feel that you’re “ghosting” them. If your relationship is one-sided and co-dependent, it is not healthy. Your silence is self-care. And speaking of self-care…

(6) REWARD YOUR BOUNDARIES

Setting boundaries that put your needs first is an act of self-love. For those of us who have trouble saying NO to others, work with the YES and recognize that boundaries can be an act of saying YES to yourself. For people with rigid boundaries, look at the ability to say YES as being in control of the gate between yourself and others. You get to choose what and who you let it. Say YES only to what feels good to your being; nothing else gets through the gate.

As you build healthy boundaries, people who do not serve you will start to exit your life. Those exits may be dramatic and may hurt for a period of time; however, you will start to be surrounded by people who not only support your boundaries, but will also have boundaries of their own. You will get to experience what it feels like for someone to communicate a boundary with you, and learn to appreciate their openness and honesty. If we all communicated our needs directly and with compassion to each other, we probably wouldn’t even need to call boundaries boundaries. They would become more like lines of contact connecting individuals to each other in a sort of collective relationship tapestry. We aren’t there yet, but it’s worth imagining.

 

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The Hooks

“Today, I will be aware of the hooks that snag me into the care-taking acts that leave me feeling victimized. I will ignore the hints, looks, and words that hook me, and wait for the directness and honesty that, I, and others, deserve.

–Melody Beattie (The Language of Letting Go, 1990)

 

Many empathetic people are drawn to the healing professions because of our natural tendency to care for others. We spend our days holding space for their well being and laying hands on their aches and pains. Our minds tune in to their emotional states and for many, the release of negative emotions accompanies the physical work we are engaged in with them. At the end of the day, we are covered in an energetic film of their stuff. Long ago in the early days of my program, an instructor told us of the importance of creating an energetic boundary between ourselves and our patients or clients. He called it a cloud – nothing could penetrate it, so whatever came off of them during a session would stay locked in the cloud. He was honest in saying this would be easier said than done. Even today, at almost 8 years into my massage therapy practice, I still have moments where I’m not sure if what I’m feeling belongs to me or to the clients I saw that day.  Guess my cloud isn’t always on point.

What muddies the energetic waters even more is the expectation in our personal lives to be the bearers of the emotional burdens of others. How much space can you hold when you’re already at a deficit? When do you get to hold it for yourself? If you find that you’re sacrificing your own well-being for the sake of “showing up” for the people in your life, you have to do a serious self-inventory. There’s no faster way to burnout than being hooked from every angle. Many of these people are family, lovers, close friends and even colleagues. Some hook consciously and deliberately; others aren’t even aware of this automatic need to reach out to you to shoulder their load. Either way, when the hooks are cast, we always seem to bite.

                          A hook???? Of course, I’ll bite!                                     

Hooks come in many forms. They can be, as Beattie described, a look, a sigh, a word or an action that triggers us to feel responsible for helping them. With that responsibility comes the behavior that isn’t in our best interest. Beattie refers to it as codependency. Another way to think about it is when you care more about their issues than they do and do the work for them, no one wins. They “depend” on you, but offer nothing in return. In their minds eye, you are the one that will predictably show up and take on their troubles, so they won’t have to. Since when did you become  emotional waste management?

The best way to avoid getting hooked is to demand, as the quote states, honest and direct communication of one’s wants and needs. If you’re too tired to listen, say that you’re too tired to listen. Say exactly what you feel. If a loved one walks into a room, sighs deeply, then slumps into a chair, acknowledge it with your eyes, but not with words. They want you to ask them what is wrong. They want you to offer help. Let them ask for it directly. Then, you can check in with yourself and empathically decide whether you can do it or not.

Saying no with love is better than saying yes with guilt.

The passive aggressive hook is one of the worst guilt provoking mechanisms out there. It also has the power to conjure up feelings of anger, helplessness, shame, and inadequacy to name a few. It’s hard not to bite on it, but it can be done. Let’s say that loved one, after slumping into their chair, turns to you and says, “You know, I had a really bad day today, but you probably don’t care. (pause) Nevermind.”

Your response?

“Ok.”

To an empath, this may feel so counter intuitive, because we do care. We care A LOT. However, trust that this simple answer is preventing you from participating in a guessing game that will inevitably lead to the tidal wave of feelings described above. They may continue to bait you, especially if they cannot tell you directly what is wrong with them. Their attempts might end up conjuring up those feelings of guilt, shame, etc. for you anyway. Trust that they know you care, which is why they are doing this manipulative hooking.

Your response?

“Tell me what’s wrong.”

Do not ask, but calmly command them to tell you. They may not answer you, but the boundary has been drawn. If they want access to your care, they will have to be clear about what is going on with them and what they need from you. This involves some level of pause and mental regroup. For the ones who do it unconsciously, it sort of turns off the autopilot and gives them a chance to think about why they are baiting you. If the issue is small or comes from a place of uncertainty rather than a true need for help, it will give them the space to reflect and the opportunity to do their own waste management. For the ones that do it deliberately, it provides a clear boundary – this hooking will not work anymore.

I don’t think I will ever be able to step out of the care taking role, nor do I want to, but my personal and professional lives could benefit from a little boundary building. Just last night, I was tested with a massive bait from a former patient. My body reacted with all the feelings of a nervous system peaked for attack with appropriate text responses at the ready. I did not use them. I chose not to respond. It was extremely hard to do that, but I was able to lay down that boundary even if the aftermath cost me some sleep.

My care for you is not limitless. It is not at the expense of my own well-being. Just as you demand I hold space for your troubles, I must make the same demand of myself. And in the totem pole of priorities, I am always at the top. I will win out every time. It’s the only way I will be of any good to myself and others.”

–me (2018)

 

Using Your Whole Brain to Avoid Drama

A few months back, my sister and I were chatting about how she had learned to cope with her kids’ misbehavior and meltdowns. Unlike the old school European tactics of our parents, she had discovered a way that built a level of self awareness in her children even some adults lack. This magical teaching tool is No-Drama Discipline (image above) written by two of psychology’s leading experts in parenting.

I decided I wanted to read this book not because I am or will be a parent anytime soon nor because it is required reading for my grad school endeavors. What appealed to me about it was gaining another level of understanding the way in which our brains react to emotional situations. While it may be geared toward parents trying not to psychologically scar their children in the process of raising them, its tools can be applied to almost any relational conflict in life.

The WHOLE brain…

The authors speak of the brain in two parts – an upstairs and a downstairs. This rather simple separation makes sense in terms of our reactions. Think of your upstairs brain as your rational, intellectual side that likes to problem solve and think through things before it reacts. It’s the part that has had many millennia of trial and error to evolve into the task master that it is. The downstairs brain is your primitive, reptilian side that reacts immediately and strongly to things that stimulate it. It’s governed by emotional reflexes and, if left to its own devices, would have kept us from ever becoming “human.” The whole-brain approach these experts describe is getting the upstairs and downstairs to work together in order to build a positive sense of self, accountability and resilience, delayed gratification and a host of other mindful things in children.

Adults can have trouble integrating their upstairs and downstairs brains too. We have ALL been there; a situation where reason flies out the window and we would sooner punch a wall than ask questions. That’s the downstairs brain running the show. This reactivity is noted by the authors as being a plea for help or a sign that a child doesn’t know how to process and express the BIG feelings that have overwhelmed him or her in that moment. Adults, too, can have trouble articulating BIG feelings, especially if there is a level of vulnerability involved. What it boils down to is if you punch that wall, will you still be loved? If you are at your lowest, will people still be there for you? If you are your worst self, can you still be lovable? The answers to these questions are in the following steps.

Step 1 – The Connection Cycle

In dealing with relational conflict, the authors emphasize tuning in to the mind beneath the behavior (77).  This is focusing not on what the person has done or said, but on the underlying why. This is sometimes easier said than done; however in the initial moments of the behavior’s aftermath, connecting with the other person begins to communicate a sense of comfort. The connection cycle begins with a physical touch, followed by validating where the other person is emotionally, listening to what they have to say and then reflecting on it. This first step demonstrates that you know the person may be in a bad way at the moment, but you are there and willing to understand them. This approach teaches our kids how to love through good times and bad, as well as promotes the secure attachment vital for their healthy, future adult relationships. Cue the word adult..

Step 2 – A little Redirection

Connection is very much about being in the present moment. While you can’t bend time to undo the offending or upsetting behavior, the “moment” doesn’t have to define the other person, the relationship or life as you both know it. With connection established, you now have a firm grip on why the downstairs brain ran amok. In order to get the upstairs brain on board to resolve the situation, the authors refer to a series of strategies in redirection. I’ve chosen the ones that best apply to adult conflict.

Reduce words – Do not nag, lecture or harp on what happened, since the why behind the behavior is known. Do not do this days, weeks or months after the conflict either. People tune out or conversely, ruminate on the negative. No one feels good in the end.

Describe, don’t preach – I’ve placed this after the above because it relates to what you say. Just describe what you observe. Take all the emotional language, assumptions and judgement out of it. If anything, ask them to help you understand what happened.

Embrace emotions -You want to make sure they know it’s okay to feel BIG emotions, but they are not a license to ACT. This is done through setting boundaries i.e. the standards of behavior that are okay and not okay, while also maintaining connection and being empathetic (97).

Emphasize the positive – Give your focus and attention to behavior you want to see repeated. Statements like “I love it when you…” or “It makes me so happy when we…” open up a dialogue that redirects from the negative thing that happened.

Creatively approach the situation – Humor and playfulness are just as fun in adulthood as they are in childhood. While some situations may be serious, there are still ways of poking fun at ourselves (e.g. Wow, I was being a crazy pants back there!) or at the circumstances (e.g. I feel like this Emoji face right now…and then doing it).

The last strategy of redirection involves teaching mindfulness. One important tool is the do-over defined as a second chance at handling a situation, which is meant to build a child’s empathy and mindfulness. Ask questions like, What could you have done differently? What will you do next time? Ask yourself those same questions.

Mindfulness is the most honest resolution to any relational conflict.

Reading this book allowed me to understand the why behind the demise of a close friendship. It also helped me to have a difficult conversation with someone I cared for deeply with more presence and understanding than if I let my hurt feelings do the talking. Moreover, it paints conflict resolution as a warm and nurturing experience; something I never experienced growing up, but I can now model for my present and future relationships. This book is LIFE!

 

To order a copy: https://www.amazon.com/No-Drama-Discipline-Whole-Brain-Nurture-Developing/dp/034554806X

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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