I hear it all the time:
“I don’t know how to set a boundary without hurting her feelings.”
“I just sort of moved away from him. This happened a couple of times. I think he finally got the hint.”
“I like her, but I don’t want to go there with her.”
“I just didn’t know what to say, and now our relationship seems formal and strained.”
I’ve gotten so many questions about this lately, that I thought it was time to write down what I say to everybody. So without further ado…
Marcia’s Handy-Dandy Script for Setting a Boundary
(Yes you can write this down ahead of time!)
Honestly, this is what I do all the time when I need to make my boundaries clear. It’s awkward at first, but with practice, you’ll be not only making your standards known, but actually having people feel good about it!
STEP ONE: What is your “yes” with this person? In other words, outside of this exchange, do you feel drawn to spend time with her? Do you find him interesting? Do you want to spend time together for the holidays?
If there’s a yes there, then explore that with them:
- “I enjoy x with you.”
- “I find y interesting about you.”
- “I’m curious about z.”
STEP TWO: Say what you’re available for (friendship, community building, a short visit, dance class, whatever.)
- “I’d like to spend more time doing A with you.”
- “I’m open to doing B with you.”
- “I’d like more of C with you.”
STEP THREE: Say what isn’t working for you. Stick with facts. Be specific.
- “I noticed you touched my leg a couple of times.”
- “I noticed I feel stressed out by my schedule.”
- “I noticed the box was moved from the shelf”
STEP FOUR: Share what feelings came up from the incident. (Optional, but often helpful)
- “When you did that, I felt scared.”
- “When I heard that, I felt anxious.”
- “When I noticed that, I felt exhausted and didn’t want to deal with my feelings.”
You might also share any stories you have about what the thing you noticed.
- “I made it mean you were interested in me sexually.”
- “I imagined that you didn’t care about me.”
- “I thought you’d be pissed off if I said something.”
Note: Try to avoid shaming or blaming as much as possible by keeping it as matter of fact as you can. It’s possible that it’s a misunderstanding or that there’s a different explanation for the behavior.Or maybe you just need Santa to play lifeguard at your family gatherings this year?
STEP FIVE: THEN set a boundary (Generally, I get good results if I do the steps before.) A boundary consists of an explicitly drawn line, and/or a gentle redirection to where you want them to go.
My favorite lesson I ever learned from my lifeguard instructor, Miss Johnson, when I was a teenager was, “When you blow the whistle, don’t tell ‘em what you don’t want them to do, tell ‘em what you DO want them to do! Cuz if you tell them, “Don’t run” they’ll skip or hop or do something else that’s dangerous. Tell ‘em to WALK!”
Setting the boundary could look a lot of different ways:
- “I’d like to keep X off limits if we’re going to continue doing A.”
- “I’m not available for Y.”
- “I find it hard to deal with Z, so I prefer that you do B instead.”
- Or just, “Do X.”
When you put all five steps together, it sounds something like this:
“I really am thrilled you want to come visit for the holidays, as I love spending time with you. I noticed I’m feeling really stressed by my schedule right now, and when I heard you wanted to visit, I imagined that you’d feel hurt or angry if I didn’t block out a whole bunch of time for you. I’d like to have a visit, but let’s keep it to only Thursday afternoon, instead of a whole day.”
“I’m really enjoying getting to know you. The way you listen has me feel really seen and appreciated. I noticed you were touching my leg a few times the last time we were together. I felt uncomfortable with this. I’d like to keep physical affection off the table if we’re going to continue spending time together.”
Try to avoid saying “but” or “however” in your boundary-setting. These words negate whatever you’ve just said before, and can leave the other person feeling like they’ve gotten caught up on a bait-and-switch, or can leave you feeling a little wishy-washy.
What’s your biggest boundary struggle?
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