Resources for Recovering Resilience: Setting Limits and Boundaries

[Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being is on its way to bookstores (April 17). Below is an exercise from Chapter 9: Developing Relational Intelligence.]

  1. Ask a friend to help you in this exercise of finding the sweet spot in setting a limit or boundary, not tapping into aggression or collapsing into being a doormat. The point of the brain training here is for you to be able to differentiate your needs and views from another person’s and to assert them skillfully, not reactively. Settle into your own mindful empathy before you begin.
  2. Identify one limit or boundary you’ve been reluctant to set: an earlier curfew for your daughter on school nights; a limit on interruptions from a coworker; saying no to a brother-in-law who expects to camp out in your living room rather than stay in a hotel when he and his family visit. Your friend plays the role of the other person.
  3. Clarify in your mind how setting this limit reflects and serves your own values, needs, and desires. Then try to understand the values, needs, and desires of the other person. Jot down notes if you wish. Notice any common ground between the two of you; notice your differences. Notice your own experience; come to a sense of groundedness and presence in your body.
  4. Initiate the conversation about limit with the other person. Begin by expressing your appreciation for their listening to you. State the topic; state your understanding of your own needs and of theirs. Check to see if your understanding of their point of view is accurate. Coach the friend in the role of the other person as needed, but keep the focus of the exercise on setting the limit independent of the other person’s reaction. Refresh your empathy by tuning into what you are experiencing in the moment and what the other person may be experiencing; refresh your mindfulness to be aware and accepting of what is happening.
  5. State the terms of your limit, simply, clearly, and unequivocally. You’ve already stated the values needs, and desires behind the limit, so you do not have to justify, explain or defend your position. This is your limit. Reiterate the terms of your limit as many times as is needed for the person you are talking to – your role-playing
  6. In this exercise, your role-playing partner does accept the limit. Notice how you experience this success: notice any changes in your view of yourself in relationship and in your views of your sills in relational intelligence.

Good to know about setting limits and boundaries:

Developmental psychologists have found that the human brain is capable of distinguishing between self and others by six months of age. The capacity of theory of mind takes that development further as we mature. More important for taking our place in the world as independent, resilient human beings, by four years of age our brains are capable of recognizing and accepting that other people may be having thoughts and feelings different from our own. Your thoughts, beliefs, impulses, feelings, or reactions to a topic, event, or reality may be completely different from mine at the same moment – and vice versa. And that’s okay.

Theory of mind allows us to develop and maintain an inner subjective reality – a sense of self – that is separate from other people’s opinions and expectations of us. It allows us to be ourselves and other people to be who they are, regardless of our needs or projections. We each have our own inner subjective reality, whether we’re fully or only fuzzily in touch with it.

This capacity to differentiate our own thoughts, feelings, reactivity, and response from another person’s helps us step back from the assumptions, rules and expectations about how we and others should feel or behave. (Secure, resonant relationships enhance this capacity of theory of mind; less secure or unempathic relationships typically don’t. So not everyone fully develops this capacity by age four.) Stepping back from “should” is essential for responding flexibly – reminding us that different options are available and that they are valid, a sine qua non of resilience. The exercise above supports the brain’s capacity to stay open to learning and change.