Over the past few weeks, my boundaries have been pushed a few times, and I’m about ready to curl up into a ball and become a hermit.
One of the times, I’d had a disagreement with a friend. He saw a situation differently than I did, and thought I was “close-minded” for not seeing it his way, though I hadn’t been judgmental. He later apologized, but at the time, the experience was draining: he’d overstepped.
Another time, we’d paid someone to do something for us. He was disorganized, so working with him was unnecessarily convoluted. The first couple of misses, I let go: “Ok, well, we’ll see – maybe he’s just having a bad day, he had a good recommendation”, but the situation escalated. I was angry: not only did I spend time working so I could pay him, he further took my time by making tasks inconvenient – he was busy (!), so he wanted me to rearrange and comply with his schedule. At one point, he suggested I swing by his office at 6 in the morning to give him something (that he couldn’t give specifications for earlier in the week), because that would “work better for him”. (Obviously, there are exceptions: some highly qualified specialist doctors, for example, when you have an obscure, potentially life-threatening, diagnosis. You work on their schedule. This was not the case here.)
I’ve struggled, when my boundaries are pushed, with how to respond. So many of the people I admire, particularly the women, have a sort of elegance. I want that for myself, but figuring out what that looks like is tricky. Often, I want to just run away, to not push back at all.
Our dog is not particularly submissive, and he’s also athletic. Because we work a lot, early on, I’d signed him up for dog-walking services. To be walked in a group, your dog has to be screened. They ask about aggressive behaviour.
I said: “Well, he’s never attacked another dog, but he has been in some scuffles at the park with younger or dominant dogs. He has opinions.”
Dog-walker: “Oh, that’s fine. That’s normal. Some of the really submissive dogs, you take them for walks, and they just get humped the whole time.”
Whenever I’m having a hard time standing up for myself, I think of a meek yellow lab spending 2 hours getting humped by other dogs on a walk. It usually gives me the energy to go on: standing up for yourself is important.
It’s also exhausting.
I have my days, where I push the boundaries of others. With the friend who overstepped, I was firm: “I disagree, everyone is entitled to their own opinion”. When he later apologized, I accepted and moved on. I’m sure I’ve expressed an opinion in a way that others have found overbearing, so why get hung up? Good for him for noticing that he’d overstepped.
Sometimes too, I even think my boundaries are being pushed when they’re not. One of the most important things I’ve learned with Q is just how possible it is for me to work myself up over nothing at all.
For example, if I have a day where I feel less-than-attractive, and he looks at me the wrong way, I’ll get upset. This is, of course, crazy. It’s my insecurity about my attractiveness causing me to act out. (This is also not a real example (ahem! as if I’m insecure about that), but let me assure you, I’ve had my crazy moments.)
Kind people would say this is understandable, that it’s human. That’s true. It’s also true that when I observe this behaviour in myself, I have a responsibility to learn from it to become a more stable, healthy individual.
Likewise, Q has his “human” moments, and because we love each other, we muddle through together. “What the world needs now is love sweet love” is not an easy solution or a quick fix: that’s what makes the line so brilliant. The challenge of love is learning to accept others and respect their boundaries.
So, without further ado, here are my steps for boundary setting:
- Let the shock silence you. Silence will make you seem calm. Screeching “You fucking prick!”, at this point, will not help. (I’m speaking from experience here.)
- Reflect. (Note: there is a difference between: “reflect” and “stew”.) Take a moment to think if you’re reacting because of a deep-rooted insecurity that no one else perceives (such as lack-of-attractiveness, hot damn!), or because the person is actually intending harm. (Harder than it sounds.)
- Remember: often, when people intend to harm, it’s because they’re insecure about something. Further reflect with compassion and humour: is it possible that you’ve just had an insight into your fellow human?
- Decide whether or not you want to engage. I tend to engage too much, like the world’s schoolmarm. While there are some hills I will gladly die on, increasingly, I’m trying to limit my engagement to being with people who I actually care about, or who I have to keep working with. If some asshole wants to cut me off while driving, so be it.
- Isolate the disagreement: the conflict is the conflict. It’s unlikely that your entire history, and theirs, has distilled into this one imperfect moment. Their overstepping is not a sign that they’re not worthy of the air you breathe; it’s more likely a sign that you’re both tired/hungry.
- Gird your loins: get ready to speak up. Remember the little humped dog.
- Say something. For me, a simple: “let’s agree to disagree” or: “Actually, that’s inconvenient for me. Can you give me the details sooner?” sufficed. While I wanted to, in both cases, respond with: “Asshole!”, I really worked on step 5: isolating the disagreement. Their pushing was not a sign that they were assholes in general, just assholes in the isolated moment.
Usually, step 7 should slow the boundary-pushing down. If it doesn’t, repeat. Otherwise (again, from experience) you can get into some very inelegant behaviour.
Step 8 is about forgiving: people make mistakes. Remember your own mistakes. Yes, it’s exhausting, being surrounded by fools, but it’s likely you’re a fool yourself.
Step 9: Remember too that the brain works differently under stress. A couple of times I’ve been so angry that I’ve actually forgotten whole sentences I’ve said. Once, with Q, mid-fight, he said something like: “But you just said x”. I was stunned: “But you just said this.”
Neither of us remembered saying what we’d said. We both started laughing.
Usually, the people who get under your skin the most are the ones you care about the most, or are in situations that you care about, like work or your kid’s school.
Step 10: if you become a hermit, while you don’t have to deal with any of this messy business, you don’t get to spend time with the people you love. Use this knowledge to get up, and do it all over again.