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Want your relationships to work? Establish boundaries.

Our lives are about tasks, projects, and teams. Getting things done with, through, and for other people. We are social animals; we do things for each other and when we don’t, life becomes hard (and lonely).

Your life is, therefore, also about relationships, and if you want to do anything worthwhile through your tasks, projects, and teams, you need relationships that fire, for all involved.

Despite your best intentions, however, you will encounter those who appear to be with you but who, in their conduct, cause you anxiety. These can be family members, friends, romantic others, or colleagues at work. As you strive to maintain your relationship with them, they contribute no matching supportive behaviour on their part and so deplete your energy (your life force).

Just as a society hostess might divide her potential dinner party guests into drains and radiators, you can guess which category you’d put these people into.

If your relationship with them is necessary, how can you make it workable, or even rewarding? How do you make your relationships work?

How relationships work

Actually, relationships are simple: put love in; get love out. Or, be there for them and they’ll be there for you (leaders take note). Look out for them and they will look out for you. One of the greatest Commandments applies here: ‘Love thy neighbour as thy self.’ Get the drift?

With your difficult people, however, you may have been trying that relentlessly, but with no results.

These relationship maxims do work, especially when other people understand, on a deep level, that you are there for them. But, though they are simple, they are not easy, and many of our relationships don’t seem to work like this in practice.

We’ve each done our bit for love and friendship at various times, only to experience being slapped about by life. And we concluded in effect: I will never be that vulnerable again. So we run our relationships unconsciously from fear, rather than love.

Why does this happen, and what can we do about it?

Relationship breakdown

Relationships break down because we are not running them; our minds are. And our minds are not designed to run relationships but to enable us to survive, even at the expense of others.

You can witness this when two people or two nations argue over who is right. They’ll keep going because, in our evolution, minds that were right were more likely to survive than minds that were wrong.

Because minds are running most relationships, however loving, generous, compassionate and supportive you may be, you will often encounter the opposite: those who are selfish, controlling, manipulative, and who are not taking responsibility for the relationship or their own lives. They may hurt us, take advantage of us, and seem happy to walk all over us.

What can you do about it?

Set limits and be free in your relationships

Where you experience abuse, coercion, manipulation, or force, a relationship will not be rewarding. Relationships work when you, of your own free will, choose to be in one. For you to be able to choose freely, paradoxically, you have to experience being a separate entity, free to choose. To do that you must establish boundaries between yourself and others. This applies to all relationships, not just dysfunctional ones.

A boundary marks a limit, and you could say the limit of where you end, and others begin.

Boundaries mark out which behaviours you like and which you do not like - what you will accept and won’t accept. They are defined by your values and limits. Acceptable behaviours won’t cause you emotional hurt and are ‘In-bounds’, while behaviours that cause you emotional hurt and are unacceptable to you are ‘Out-of-bounds’.

In his article ‘Boundaries’, Dr R L Richmond says “Consider that boundaries have a fundamental place in life itself. Every living creature has its own territory in which it lives and defends itself against intrusion.” So, to what territory do these boundaries apply?

1. Physical – physical intimacy – personal space and touch

2. Mental – thoughts and opinions

3. Emotional – Feelings and emotional intimacy

Boundaries can also be applied to spirituality, truth, time/punctuality, and finance.

How boundaries are established

How do you establish them?

1. Unilaterally. You choose them. Irrespective of others, you decide what’s important to you; the values you wish to uphold irrespective of others. These are your core or independent values.

2. Collaboratively. All those in a relationship group agree, tacitly or explicitly, that a particular set of values apply. These are interdependent values.

R Skip Johnson, in his article ‘Setting Boundaries and Setting Limits’ defines establishing boundaries as “. . . the life skill of openly communicating, asserting, and defending personal values.”

Establishing boundaries is a fundamental life skill – fundamental because boundaries are essential for effective relationships and effective relationships are essential for your tasks, projects, teams, and for your life. He goes on to describe three pillars of boundary establishment and maintenance:

1. Defining your values.

a. Unilaterally: defining to yourself at least, your independent or core values. You do not have to convey them to others, but you do need to know them yourself. Your core values will not only guide you in your relationships but in how you live your life. The choices you make will be determined by your values. For example, you might choose in life not to gossip. This represents a unilateral, independent value that you have chosen to adopt.

b. Collaboratively: defining with others your interdependent values. Whether tacitly or explicitly, determining what behaviours are in bounds and out-of-bounds in a particular group.

2. Asserting Boundaries

Your boundaries define to others your values, which you can communicate verbally and non-verbally. In other words, in practice you adhere to or live your values.

In asserting your out-of-bounds behaviour of gossiping, for example, you might say to the talkative lunch-time group you join at work, “If you gossip, I will have to leave the conversation.”

Whether or not you communicate this verbally, you must excuse yourself and leave the group, should they begin gossiping. For in establishing your boundaries, it is imperative that you live them yourself - otherwise, your boundaries (and you) are meaningless.

3. Honouring and Defending

Ultimately, it is when your boundaries are challenged that you will define yourself. There will be those, perhaps seeking to take the spotlight off themselves, who will challenge your resolve.

For example, it is when you get up to leave the gossiping group and experience a hail of derogatory comments that your character will be measured. Your character is the extent to which you adhere to your principles under duress.

This is when you will define who you are. And in that group of accusers, actually, you will almost always have friends, and even if they haven’t the courage to show themselves then, they will respect you.

When you consistently honour and defend your boundaries, you will be recognised and respected as a person of principle.

Aren’t boundaries divisive? Cruel even?

Surely, setting limits on a relationship is divisive and even cruel? It can seem so but, actually, the opposite is true.

You cannot be there for another when their behaviours toward you are causing you physical, emotional, or mental hurt. To be there for them you must be able, in yourself. To be there for them, you must first, be there for you.

If you fail to apply consequences to others’ unacceptable behaviour you are, in effect, rewarding them for it, thus training them to repeat and even increase their unacceptable behaviour.

Establishing boundaries protects you, leaving you free to help them and others. And by applying consequences, you help modify another’s behaviour to what is socially acceptable.

How to establish boundaries in practice

Suppose you have someone in your life who postures as your friend but regularly behaves unacceptably, causing you hurt; or someone in your team who postures as helpful, collaborative even, but in meetings is anything but, taking care to challenge you and make you look small.

And let us imagine that this situation has persisted for at least six months and, more likely, for two years or more. By now, the behaviours and your responses to them have become habitual. Your responses, by the way, are ineffective because the situation persists, causing you and others continued, and probably escalating resentment and hurt.

So you hear about boundary setting and decide to apply some boundaries to your current situation.

Likely result: failure - initially at least. Your boundaries will be challenged, upset will ensue, and you are likely to cave-in in the face of broad upset. Why?

Because first, you must be grounded.

Let’s take it apart, step by step:

1. You experience some sort of hurt, yet again, arising from someone’s unacceptable behaviour.

The bad news for you is that it’s not about them! You cannot change their behaviour (not directly at least). It’s about you! You have to change YOUR behaviour. The good news is you do have control over that.

Remember, while you control your own behaviour it's not up to you in life to make any other person happy or kept on the straight and narrow. (unless they're your minors!) That's their job. Their happiness is down to them - your job is to manage your own.

2. Use the hurt that you experience as a red flag that boundary management is needed. Boundary management is a fundamental life skill that we all need to practice if we want relationships to work.

There are some excellent phrases in the literature which point to whether boundaries are needed and what they mark out:

  • Up with this I shall not put.

  • This is okay; that’s not okay.

  • A boundary: the point at which my love for me equals my love for you

  • A boundary: the point at which I end, and you begin

  • A boundary: the point at which my accountability ends and your accountability begins. And I choose responsibility (though not accountability) for both.

  • A boundary: the point at which your actions could impair my ability to fulfil my purpose, or the team’s ability to fulfil its mission.

  • Boundaries: Clear is kind; unclear is unkind.

If you apply these phrases to your situation, they may clarify your need for boundaries.

3. Concluding that boundary management is necessary, you must do the foundational work required for you to be able to uphold your boundary/values in the face of uncomfortable challenge.

Foundational practice: grounding

In my experience, asserting boundaries, and honouring and defending them is a function of self-respect. To a certain extent, when you know who you are, are comfortable with who you are and know what you are about, establishing and applying boundaries takes care of itself.

Self-respect is about being grounded and centred in who you are and dealing with the world from that solid base. Often, when my personal boundary setting fails, it’s because I am insufficiently grounded.

There are three types of grounding that support maintenance of your boundaries:

  • grounding with yourself,

  • grounding with another, and

  • grounding with your future self.

How in this particular situation, can you ground yourself sufficiently to deal with the inevitable boundary challenge you will encounter? There are both longer and shorter-term responses.

We’ll begin with the shorter-term responses that address your particular situation, and then look at longer-term practices that address situations like this and most of life’s situations.

Shorter term: grounding with yourself

In both the shorter-term and the longer-term, it is critical that you know your own mind and are at one with yourself. This means regular, daily alone-time during which you contemplate what’s important to you; your personal principles and values, and how they apply to this situation. This is grounding in yourself.

Life, with its attendant busyness (a product of the mind) does not support this practice. That’s what Blaise Pascal was referring to when he said, “All the unhappiness of men (and women) arises from one single fact; that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber." We do not make time to listen for, comprehend, and align with our deeper thoughts.

Once you are clear what represents to you in-bound behaviours and out-of-bounds behaviours, think through how you will respond in this particular situation when your boundary is crossed. Role-play to yourself. Be clear on how you will respond.

Shorter term: grounding with another

Then talk over the situation and your chosen responses with someone you trust. Someone who may become to you an accountability partner. Have them confirm to you that your likely responses are in-bound and reasoned. This is grounding with another.

In the absence of an accountability partner, another shorter-term response is to read or YouTube similar situations and how people respond and have responded before. Also - there are some great podcasts around dealing with toxic situations including "Conversations with my Best Friend"

These actions ground you in being prepared for this particular situation, and will enable you to respond with confidence. But there are longer-term practices that, as you apply them, will enable you to be resolute in most situations.

Longer term grounding strategies

Longer term, if you are inhibited in your relationships by childhood traumas and abuse, you may wish to seek therapy. Often, when we can’t establish or maintain boundaries it’s because of a deep feeling of worthlessness which therapy can dispel.

If you find that you self-sabotage your projects and relationships with unconscious limiting beliefs, you might find a transformational programme such as Landmark Worldwide’s Landmark Forum extremely useful in identifying and getting complete with your limiting beliefs. Both the Forum and therapy enable you to ground with yourself.

Meditation is a foundational practice for both life and establishing boundaries which I will discuss in a later article.

Longer term: grounding with your future self

Meditation and daily contemplation are one of two practices that have greatly increased my ability to establish and maintain boundaries. The other is identifying my purpose, vision and mission and, as Dr Benjamin Hardy says in his book, ‘Be your Future Self Now’, considering how my future self would want me to act in this circumstance. In other words, regular daily contemplation of your purpose, vision, mission, and principles, and the practice of being your future self now, increases massively your ability to establish and maintain your boundaries.

And what if others’ behaviours do not change?

First, their antagonism is all about them and not about you and second, your response is all about you and not about them.

At a certain level, their ego (their idea of who they are) is trying to hook you with their stuff; they want you to react. It takes the heat off them. The key is not to react but to respond, and you do this by establishing and asserting your boundaries.

If such people must be in your life, establish and assert your boundaries more rigorously. Set stricter values and boundaries so that they find it less than pleasant being around you. The aim of a boundary is not primarily to change their behaviour but to protect you from theirs. Yet the secondary effect of their not being able to hook you is that they begin to look elsewhere. They melt away and may even come to regard you with respect.

If they don’t need to be in your life, let them go. You do NOT need to accommodate them or to make them happy. That’s for them.

None of the great Teachers was ever a doormat to irritants, persecutors, or aggressors. They did not tolerate them and in that, they modeled the way.

Here is their guiding principle and yours: Know thy Self, and to thine own Self be true.

In summary

Your relationships are your life. Running them is simple: you put love in; you get love out. But it’s not easy, for there will always be those who, coming from fear rather than love, will seek to hurt you physically, emotionally, mentally with their unacceptable behaviours.

The essential life-skill of establishing boundaries enables you to define in-bound and out-of-bounds behaviours. Your ability to maintain and defend your boundaries will be defined by: how grounded you are in yourself; how grounded you are with another, and how grounded you are with your future self.

Practices such as daily meditation and contemplation of your purpose will enable you to be guided by your principles and values in your relationships, establishing your boundaries and able to come from love rather than fear.

By Christopher Jones-Warner

Further reading

I recommend the following books:

  • Boundaries – Dr Henry Cloud and Dr John Townsend – a classic in this field

  • Boundaries for Leaders – Dr Henry Cloud

  • Boundaries – Dr R L Richmond

  • Atlas of the Heart – Prof Brene Brown – a compendium of emotional intelligence

  • Be Your Future Self Now – Dr Benjamin Hardy – groundbreaking.

  • Setting Boundaries with Your Adult Children – Allison Bottke – a manual for identifying and managing your enabling behaviours

And articles:

  • Setting Boundaries and Setting Limits – R Skip Johnson

  • Boundaries – Dr R L Richmond

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