Setting Limits and Boundaries

Setting Limits and Boundaries

Setting limits and boundaries is an essential skill of relational intelligence.  You need to be able to trust that you can protect yourself from abuse or unfair treatment, regardless of the other person’s reactions or threats to connection, in order to stay safely engaged with another person.  Otherwise you risk becoming a doormat, too quickly acquiescing to the other person’s needs even when they do not reflect your needs, staying connected at sometimes too high a cost.  Or you can sacrifice the connection to stay safe, cutting off and not engaging, withdrawing emotionally, just going through the motions. (These dynamics can go on in couples and families for years.)  The vitality and growth necessary to keep the relationship alive and healthy are lost.

1.  Identify one person you want to practice setting a limit and boundary with. Maybe not the most challenging or most intimate relationship to start with.  Practice on someone easier to give yourself – and your brain – a chance for success.

2.  Identify one violation of a healthy limit or boundary you want to correct with this person, any unwanted intrusion into personal space, any disrespect of personal beliefs, any disregard for personal welfare.

3.  You may try requesting a positive behavior change as you learned in Negotiating Change. If that doesn’t satisfactorily resolve the situation for you….

4.  Identify what limit or boundary would address your need.  Here you are learning to ask someone to stop a negative behavior, probably harder for both you and them. Meaning: what do you need the person to stop doing for you to feel safe, respected, valued, protected, etc.

5.  Identify at least three consequences if the other person continues to violate the now defined limit or boundary.  An ultimate consequence might be to end the relationship.  But many steps before that, a consequence of lost opportunities or privileges of connection, a requirement to recruit other people to help persuade or resolve.  At this step, the other person may understand and agree to the consequence, but even if they don’t this is still your consequence that you will enforce if there is continued violation of the limit.

6.  Identify how you would enforce the consequence.  Frankly, this is the hardest step of the exercise, particularly for women who have been socialized to be the connectors in relationship, to go along to get along. Knowing how you will enforce the consequences is essential for you to trust that you can.  (This is why you are practicing with easy and little at first.) 

7.  Enforce the consequence the very first time the limit and boundary is violated.  This is essential not only for strengthening your response flexibility and the response flexibility of the other person, but for the response flexibility of the relationship.  Both of you acknowledge what has happened and what can be learned from what has happened, and repeat, repeat, repeat until respecting the new limit and boundary is the new habit.

8.  If the steps above don’t resolve the unwanted behavior satisfactorily, try Communicating without Shame or Blame to clarify what the issues are and what the resistance to the change is. And then try again.

Practicing the skills of setting limits and boundaries deepens your trust of yourself and in the process of relating.  You can initiate communication and take risks in relationship that you might not otherwise believe to be safe.  This strengthens your response flexibility and the resilience of the relationship itself.