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Relational Boundary Setting | How to find the "yes" in the "no"

Boundaries: Where I end and you begin.

Traditionally, the conversation about boundary setting has been about helping people understand the importance of saying "no" to someone and then focuses on motivation and building up the courage to follow through. However, in a Relational Boundary Setting approach, we go one step further, by focusing on helping people find where there "yes" is in their "no". When we do this, we invite others into more fulfilling relationship with us, rather than pushing them away.

In this blog post, we discuss an existential analytic approach to setting boundaries by exploring:

  • Why it can be difficult to set boundaries;

  • What it means to find your "yes" before you share your "no";

  • Understanding when boundary setting is appropriate; and

  • 10 steps for healthy communication of a boundary.

Setting boundaries can feel very difficult.

Consider this scenario:

You visit your family about once a month for a dinner together. You enjoy visiting them and have had a good relationship with them, and would likely consider seeing them more often if you didn't have other commitments.

During these dinners however, you notice that your sister tends to dominate the conversation and frequently interrupts you when you are speaking. You notice how this pattern makes you feel, and how it impacts your interest towards continuing to find the time to make these dinners work.

On one hand, you feel irritated and wonder if your sister is really even interested in what you have to say; and on the other hand you wonder if you're blowing this out of proportion and consider staying silent to keep the peace (besides, you only visit them once/month).

What would you do?

Has anyone else been in a situation like this one before? There have been many times in my life where I have felt something similar. Especially the feeling that I'm "making a big deal out of nothing" or my tendency to judge my feeling of irritation as indicative of my own problem (e.g. "I shouldn't be feeling irritated over something so small, what's wrong with me?"). However, these problems still exist, and often get worse when things are left unsaid; and may lead to hurt relationships in the end.

Boundary setting can be very difficult. Especially when:

  • The situation is ambiguous.

  • I am not sure if it's my place/role.

  • It is unclear if it's my responsibility.

  • I am unsure about the outcome.

  • I wonder if it's worth it? Will the cost outweigh the benefit?

  • I worry about not having the skills to match the complexity of the situation.

  • I am concerned that it may be harder for myself than the other (power imbalance).

  • It may destabilize the relationship.

  • I fear that I may intrude or hurt the other.

  • I or the other person cannot endure, the situation would be too much.

  • I fear rejection or the perception of rejection by the other.

  • I dread reciprocity (if I set a boundary, the other might set one with me).

One of the biggest barriers to boundary setting is the tendency for people pleasing: when we are afraid to show up honestly because we fear the risk of hurting the other person—or of them thinking poorly about us (see my blog post about people pleasing and lying here!). Setting boundaries takes real courage. It accepts that there is risk and is prepared to endure the unknown possibility of how another might respond. It reminds me of some advice that I received from a friend years ago:

"It's like you're on an elevator going up. If you jump off now, it'll likely hurt, then get better. But if you don't jump, the elevator will keep going up, and jumping off later will hurt much more, and the damage could be too much for the relationship."

Finding the "Yes" in the "No."

Setting boundaries is a great exercise in personal development as it progresses my own idea of who "I" am and what is important to me. Consider the definition of boundaries offered above: Where I end, and you begin. Every person needs a border--it shows that I am limited, that there is a "shape" of me.

“Boundaries are finding & knowing myself and standing for that self in the context of the other.” -Alfried Längle

When I am trying to find myself, I start with setting "No" boundaries first. My own "me" needs a border and the "No" helps set this border. It protects what is really wanted but it does not reveal what is really valued. In setting a "Yes" boundary, I share what I want, what is really valued to me.

“Yes” boundary: clearly stating the value and the behaviour that matches it

“No” Boundary: protects the value by forbidding behaviour that encroaches on it

Part of why boundaries can be so intimidating to set, is because often times, we don't actually know what we want, and can't feel confident in what we are saying! We don't actually know what we are protecting, and therefore, have trouble standing with ourselves in our communication. In other words, when I only share what is bothering me, I push the other away without giving them an orientation of what I am actually wanting--I don't invite them into relationship with me. This can leave a feeling of awkwardness, emptiness, and vagueness, because the boundary has no real orientation; and can therefore lead to discomfort in the relationship. So, before I share my "no", I need to gain a greater understanding of what my "yes" actually is.

Healthy boundary setting is a balance of responsibilities to both myself and the other. In other words, I am not only responsible for others in relationships, I am also responsible for myself and my values. Consider the aforementioned example. When I notice that feeling of irritation or hurt, this gives great insight into what my values are.

"What does this feeling of irritation tell me about what I find valuable? What question is this feeling asking of me?"

If I am open to what is there for me, I may discover that the value is related to (in other words, my "yes!):

  • My interest of being seen and known by my family;

  • My care for mutual space, so that everyone can share in a more equitable way;

  • To build more meaningful relationship and intimacy with my family

“The way my sister shows up in conversation threatens this value, and doesn't allow me to experience meaningful relationship with my family.”

To be concrete with this scenario:

  • My no: feeling like I'm unable to share, because my mom doesn't allow me to, which threatens what is valuable to me.

  • My yes: the desire to share what is happening in my life, to build greater intimacy in my relationship with my family, the principle of mutual space.

Remember: Behind every "No" is an inner "Yes". In other words, the reason why we say "No", is because we have a "Yes!" By sharing both the "No" and the "Yes" boundary with others, we not only protect what is valuable to us, but we also invite someone into more meaningful relationship with us!

When is Boundary Setting the Answer?

Boundary setting can be an effective strategy in protecting your “yes” while clearly identifying the “no” for the other. Often times, it brings people closer together and adds value in the relationship. However, effective boundary setting must be done very thoughtfully and under particular conditions. Against common wisdom, boundary setting tends to be inappropriate outside of the following four conditions:

  • I have the impression that the issue is damaging in some way.

  • I am motivated to prevent harm to myself, other, and/or the relationship.

  • I can accept that the other is a person, separate from their behavior.

  • I feel prepared to handle their response.

Communication: 10 steps for setting a boundary.

Whenever we are setting boundaries with another, we can/will cause hurt feelings; as boundaries are experienced as a form of distancing self from others. Part of setting boundaries is bearing or helping the other with the hurt. When I am setting the boundary, I am also asking, can the relationship sustain this distance?

“Boundaries cannot be set ethically without regard for the other.” -Alfried Längle

When considering how you might communicate to the other, here are 10 principles to follow:

  1. Responsibility: I must recognize what the value is that I feel a responsibility towards, and establish legitimacy (see below in next section).

  2. Integrity: I ensure privacy, out of care for the other.

  3. Empathy (before honesty): I consider how to gently prepare the person what is coming.

  4. Compassion: Asking the other for permission (e.g. "may I tell you something that has been bothering me lately?")

  5. Knowledge of Vulnerability: Recognition that boundaries can be difficult to receive and to express (e.g. "This feels difficult for me to say, and it also might be difficult for you to hear...).

  6. Conscientious: Use tentative language. "I wonder... is it possible...perhaps..." This type of language invites dialogue, rather than judgment.

  7. Respect: Express concern to not offend the other or cause conflict (e.g. "I feel afraid that if I don't communicate this the way that I want to, it could offend you or cause a bad feeling in our relationship; and I really don't want that.")

  8. Dignity: Assertive, not aggressive. Boundaries are not appropriate from a defensive posture, as this does not invite the other into relationship.

  9. Clarity: Speak for yourself. Stating clearly from the facts of your experience, not your interpretation of the experience (without should or must). Express how it is for you, as this is the only thing you can really be sure of and really own.

  10. Freedom: Open space for the other to respond. (e.g. "What do you think about what I just said?")

This existential analytic approach of Relational Boundary Setting allows for you to feel more confident in where you stand and in what you share; giving the other more solid ground to stand on when they receive your boundary.

What did you think of this blog post? Is there anything that surprised you? Can you give your best shot at applying boundary setting to the case example above?


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