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5. Setting Boundaries, Part 1

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Boundaries Face to Face, p. 29

As a youth, I was a Boy Scout. Scouting was a big part of my life, and Troop 4 was a very active troop, with lots of camping and activities. During the latter years of my scouting experience, I was in my teens and getting close to earning my Eagle rank. As a teen, however, I was also experimenting with becoming an individual, which involved some rebellious attitudes. During one weekend campout, when we were putting up our tents, I used some pretty rough language to make my buddies laugh. It was the wrong time to do this, as our scoutmaster, Mr. DeKeyser—whom we called "DK"—was walking by.

DK pulled me aside, looked at me, and quietly said, "You're too close. Don't mess up."

That was all it took.

DK's six words were enough. I knew what he meant. He knew I knew. No more was needed. He never brought it up again. From then on, I curbed my tongue-as much as a teenager can anyway-and stayed pretty much on track until I got the Eagle.

Be emotionally present

Being emotionally present and connected while we are confronting another person is the first essential of a good conversation. It truly requires a work of grace in us.

A boundary conversation is very difficult because it feels unnatural—and it IS unnatural, in that the natural person within us does not think this way.

Ways to help you "be there" in your boundary conversation:

1. Be warm
Remember that although confrontations can be uncomfortable, this does not mean you need to be angry, detached, or distant from the other person. As much as you are able, be warm and available to them. If you are warm, the other person is much more likely to receive what you have to say.

2. Be in a conversation, not a lecture
Let the other person respond. Listen to her heart even if you don't agree with her position.

3. Discomfort versus injury
Be willing to suffer discomfort—to a point. The point is the line where you pass from discomfort to the place where you're actually getting hurt. Not let the person in too deeply, or end the conversation until a better time to protect yourself. But if the talk is more about being uncomfortable than being injured, keep on pressing through to reconciliation.

Be Clear About "You" and "I"

Boundary setting takes into account that two people are involved. There can be problems when you don't clearly distinguish your feelings and opinions from the other person's. The process of problem solving and reconciliation can quickly get bogged down. You see this when people say things like "You need to change this" rather than "I need for you to change this." There is an "I" who has a desire and a request, and there is a "you" who is being asked to change something.

If you are not clear about "you" and "I" in your confrontation, the other person:

  • may feel controlled by you
  • you may assume feelings they don't have
  • they may balk at whatever you want

Some suggestions to clarify your communication:

1. Look at it emphatically.

Do you like it when people try to put words in your mouth? Do you connect with another person when she tells you what you are feeling when it is really what she WANTS you to feel? No, you disconnect. Remember that though boundary-setting is hard, so is receiving a boundary-setting. So allow the other person the grace to have their own responses to your opinions.

2. Be clear in your own mind.

The more clear you are ahead of time about what you want in this relationship and what you are asking the other person to do, the better things will go. Write out, or talk through with a friend, exactly what the "I" and "you" parts are. Many conversations have broken down when the other person says, "So what do you really want?" and the confronter gets flustered.

Dr Phil: "What I want from you that I'm not getting is_____"

3. Speak from YOUR need, not the other person's

Tell the other person, "I really need more help from you around the house, or I don't think I can be as close and loving to you as I want to be." This is much better than, "You need to do more around the house." He may not experience that need, and he is likely to resent you for telling him what he needs.

When people say, "We need to talk," they are confusing their wishes with that of the other person. It's much better to say, "I need to talk to you."

Small details? Yes, but words matter. In Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, John Gray says to ask, "Will you take out the trash?" rather than "Can you take out the trash?" One appeals to the person's will, the other questions his ability.

Another boundary violation: "Oh, you shouldn't feel that way." Don't tell another person how they should be feeling!

Another: "It's stupid to think that way."

4. Be humble

You have no control over the person you are confronting. More than that, you are asking for something you need from him. This is a humble position, and it helps to accept it. Saying "I want" and "I need" is a way of letting the other person know that he is important to you, that you do need him, and that you are aware he might see things differently. It's not a comfortable position, but it's the best position to take-the other person is free to choose is he is not controlled by you.

As much as possible, stay away from the "we need to" and "you need to" traps. Speak from your own experience, your own heart, your own needs. This increases the likelihood that your side will be heard, because you have clearly identified it as YOUR side. No one likes to be told who he is or what he should think.

Clarify the Problem

Don't lose focus and end up going over a whole list of offenses that overwhelms the person being confronted.

Don't start with "It seems you don't pick up after yourself as regularly as you should" and end up with "What about the time you forgot the kids at the mall last year?" DON'T GET HISTORICAL! You may have so many unconfessed issues with the other person that in the momentum of the conversation, you bring up everything else you have a problem with.

Look at 3 important elements of the problem itself and what you would like to see happen:

1. Clarify the nature of the problem

Be clear and focused on what the problem is really about.

This step may have more than one level to it. For example, a husband might say to his mother, "Mom I've noticed that you are pretty critical of Laurie's cooking and parenting. You put her down a couple of times in front of everyone at the party last week. I don't know what this is about, but it seems you are seldom pleased with how she does things." Notice the two levels: the specifics, and then an observation about the nature of the specifics. This gives the other person clear information about what you are concerned about.

2. Clarify the effects of the problem

Include not only the facts and realities about the problem, but also what it does to you and the relationship.

The husband talking to his mother might say, "Laurie gets discouraged, because she knocks herself out for you. The kids are confused about why you are so mean to their mom. I'm embarrassed because I feel caught in the middle. And you and I get disconnected, because even though I love you, Laurie is my wife and she's getting hurt. So it makes things worse for me, you, and all of us."

3. Clarify your desire for change

Avoid the mistake of stopping with the negative aspects of the problem. Doing that can make the person feel:

  • as though she just got dumped on,
  • with no way to resolve the problem,
  • or feel that there is no way to please you
  • or that you are insatiably critical.

Instead, let her know what you would like to see that would change the situation and solve the problem. This gives her hope, a structure, and a chance to do something to make the relationship better.

The husband might say, "Here's what I would like you to do. If it's a small matter, drop it. I don't bring up little things you do. If it's a big thing, pull Laurie aside quietly and tell her your concerns. She is very open to constructive feedback. And finally, notice the good things she does, and talk about them in front of everyone. I would really appreciate it. It would bring me closer to you, and I think the whole family would be happier."

Balance Grace and Truth

Jesus was the perfect combination of grace and truth. John 1:17—"For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." People need both grace and truth in relationships with God and with each other.

Think about a time when someone told you the truth without love. You probably felt attacked, judged, or condemned. No matter how accurate the truth, it hardly mattered, because the hurtful feelings erased the truth in the confrontation. In good boundary conversations, truth needs grace for the person to safely receive and digest the information.

Now reflect on a time you received grace without any truth. Grace comforts us and keeps us safe and loved, but it doesn't provide reality, structure, direction, or correction. You may have come away from that encounter feeling refreshed and encouraged, but without the path or insight to know what to do next.

Lead with Grace
It's always best to start with grace, as it sets the stage for the other person to be able to tolerate the truth. Tell the person, "Before we get into the topic, I want you to know I really care about you and about us. I want us to be better, and I want us to be on the same team. I hope I can convey that to you even when we talk about the problem."

Don't assume that the other person automatically knows these things. In fact, in a boundary conversation the other person often needs more reassurance of the grace.

When in doubt, go for grace. The damage done by a lack of grace is more severe than what's done by a lack of truth. With grace alone, you stand a chance of being able to have another conversation later. With truth alone, the judgment could possibly rupture the safety of the relationship so much that things fall apart.

Stay on Task

P. 45-46, Boundaries Face to Face

Here is a common crazy-making script on confrontations:

You: "Sharon, I'd like to talk about a problem in our relationship."
Sharon: "Well, what about all the things you do?"
You: "Like what?"
Sharon: "You never call when you're going to be late, you work too much on the weekends, you don't spend enough time with the kids, you don't help around the house. . ."

This little script illustrates a common problem in having the talk: the inability to stay on track and on task. A good confrontation has a specific and clear focus. It can be reduced to one or both of two things: You want the other person to start doing something you want or to stop doing something you don't want. If all goes well, each of you understands he other's view and feelings, and you agree on how things will change. This is how the conversation above could be kept on track.

You: "Sharon, I'd like to talk about a problem in our relationship."
Sharon: "Well, what about all the things you do?"
You: "I know I do things that irritate you, but I want to focus on my concern right now."
Sharon: "Sure, it's always about you."
You: "I'll be glad to talk later about want you want to talk about, but for now, I'd like to talk about how we can stay within our budget."

Often, what complicates things is the other person's defensiveness. In other words, the other person doesn't want to be faced with either the problem or the problem's effects on you.

Chuck Lynch, in You Can Work It Out, says that often when he starts laying out areas of personal responsibility, someone says, "I feel like you're picking on me." This is often the first time the person has been forced to face the x-ray of their relationship and it's ugly!

Very often, people who have longstanding patterns of negative behavior and attitudes have also developed character patterns that help maintain those problems. They have some internal resistance to seeing themselves as wrong, flawed, or responsible. So, in the face of all reality, feedback, and circumstances, they turn a blind eye to their immaturity or hurtfulness. The problem either

  • doesn't exist or
  • it's not as bad as you think or
  • it's your fault.

The other person wants to deflect and divert the attention anywhere away from what she is doing. Then you find yourself sidetracked and lost.

1. Be prepared

Don't be surprised or upset. Accept this as part of that person for now until they decide to change.

2. Hear them out to a point.

It's always best to give the person a chance to be heard and understood. You cannot go wrong with that position, as you're giving grace before moving in with truth. You might say, "I didn't realize that you feel so nagged by me. I really want to look at that, and if I am doing that, I want to change it."

Note, however, that we said "to a point." When a person is open to feedback, she needs her point to be heard, and then she is ready to hear yours. When you are dealing with a character problem, it is different. After you have heard her out, she may still not be open to hearing you. She always has another excuse, or she blames you again. It is not good for either of you for this to go on indefinitely.

3. Make several attempts to get back on track

Again, giving grace, simply listen, empathize, and get back to the issue at hand. Say things like, "I really will take a look at my part there; I don't want to make the problem worse. But I'd like to get back to what I was saying about your drinking. . ."

Don't give up quickly on this. Many people try to stay on topic, but then feel it is hopeless and they shut down. The message they are sending to the other person is that a little resistance will end things. Be persistent and let him know you will keep bringing this up because it is important to you and the relationship!

4. Make the defensiveness an issue

If the person has a pattern of diverting things, bring that into the light. Don't keep getting sidetracked by excuses. Say, "I have noticed that every time I talk about our problem of how to allocate the chores, it seems you get angry or change the subject. I really do want to own my part, and I will be glad to when we deal with your part. But it's hard for me because you keep diverting things. Can you tell me what is going on when I bring up problems, or how can I give you feedback in a better way?"

Don't blame; inquire. The person may be feeling judged or put down, and simply reassuring him that you are on his side will be enough to get back on track.

With Ray: "How would you like me to point things out to you so you don't get defensive?"

Use the Formula, When You Do "A," I Feel "B"

One of the most powerful and effective ingredients of a good boundary conversation is explaining to a person how her attitudes or actions influence you: "When you do 'A,' I feel 'B'." In other words, you show how what another person does affects your emotions.

Opening your heart can often get through to another person, because it connects to the love and care he or she has for you. It helps them move away from winning an argument and into being involved in the relationship.

This ingredient is also very important because it avoids blame and assault. Telling how you feel describes an internal reality that the other person might not be aware of. This is the opposite of the "blame barrage," where someone runs through a list of the all the other's infractions. Not many people can remain open and undefensive when hit with that. They become more invested in protecting themselves from all the badness, guilt, and condemnation being thrown at them.

Keep the following in mind as you bring your feelings into the boundary conversation:

1. Concentrate on feelings, not thoughts

This is hard; it is easy to use the word feel and then say a thought. "When you negate my words, I feel like I shouldn't say anything." It would be better to say, "When you negate my words, I feel hurt and disconnected from you."

See "Why Marriages Fail" at

  • Escalation
  • Invalidation
  • Negative Interpretations
  • Withdrawal and Avoidance

2. Identify your feelings

This may take work. Know the difference between being

  • hurt
  • sad
  • angry
  • frustrated
  • afraid
  • anxious

One mistake many people make is identifying angry feelings as hurt feelings. Have friends help you know when you are hurt and when you're angry.

3. Stick to your experience

Not what you think the other person is doing. Instead of "When you negate my words, I feel like you don't care about me," say, "When you negate my words, I feel alone and unloved."

4. Avoid the statement, "You make me feel. . ."

Though it is true that the other person highly influences you emotionally, convey to her that this is about your reaction to her rather than about her power and control over you. If you avoid this kind of blaming statement, it keeps the other person from reacting to being blamed: "I made you frustrated? How can I do that? Those are your feelings. I can't control what you feel." Making an association for the other person solves a lot of problems. Instead of saying, "You frustrate me," say, "When you are constantly late, I feel frustrated and unimportant."

5. Own your part of the feelings.

You are not ascribing fault as much as opening a window into your heart so the other person has access to your world. "I know sometimes I get hurt too easily, and that's not you, that's me. But last night, when you made fun of my dress at the party, I really felt attacked and embarrassed."

6. Be specific, specific, specific

Give the other person a description of what he really said or did, or what tone of voice he used, so that he has a picture of the situation. "When you teased me about my weight at the dinner table tonight, I felt hurt."

Saying "When you do 'A,' I feel 'B'" is, at heart, not only a way of confronting, but also a way of reaching out to the other person. Allow yourself, as much as it is safe, to let him or her see this part of your heart.

Next Lesson: Setting Boundaries, Part 2

Related Topics: Boundaries, Christian Life, Messages, Spiritual Life, Women

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