Sometimes I would rather bend myself into a different species completely, like a rubbery balloon dog, than have to confront anyone. There’s a belief floating in the ether: the more we put up with, the better, nicer, and stronger we are.
But watching our boundaries crumble around us, while others put out metaphorical cigarette butts on everything we hold dear, is a path that can only lead to illness. In When the Body Says No, Dr. Gabor Maté proposes that when we repeatedly suppress our experiences and our emotions to placate or protect others, our bodies find ways to express what we’ve buried. This can manifest as physical illness such as fibromyalgia, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and even cancer. It can also present as mental health issues such as anxiety and major depression.
Asserting our needs is an essential and healthy part of self-care, just like brushing our teeth, listening to good music, and eating peanut butter straight from the jar. (Okay, maybe that last one’s not for everyone.) The trouble is, establishing and maintaining boundaries requires a good deal of communication, and much of that can seem overwhelmingly difficult. The following are some strategies I’ve found helpful when I need to make my needs known.
1. Give Yourself the Space to Feel Emotions Prior to Speaking
It is challenging to feel assertive when we’re smoothing away a snot-bubble with a damp sleeve. It is also difficult to keep a conversation on track when we feel like smashing every hideous decorative plate we might see. Therefore, having a gulf of time to breathe, reflect, and really feel the emotions brought about by our conversational partner’s transgressions is essential. Whether it’s acknowledging the hurt caused by a partner repeatedly talking over us, feeling the flush of anger when a relative passive-aggressively judges our appearance, or experiencing the hot shame in the aftermath of a friend admonishing our parenting style, sitting with the discomfort of our emotions now will prepare us for a more productive conversation later. We should always aim to validate our own experiences. By doing this, we will be calmer and more confident when the talking time comes, and we will experience less confusion about our feelings.
The space you choose doesn’t need to be your therapist’s couch, but it can be.
2. Create a Specific Goal
While we can’t predict the outcome of the conversation (we can’t stop anyone from rage-joining the military to spite us), we can prioritize what we want to say. If there is an issue because our partner isn’t spending enough time with us as we’d like, it would be unproductive to bring up that time they said they’d vacuum and then didn’t. In general, we should aim to keep our conversations related to one issue at a time, and we should avoid speaking just to make a point. The other reason to keep our goals clear and narrow, is that it will give the other person less leeway to bring in their own unrelated grievances (“Yeah, but in high school you—”).
Having a specific goal in mind will also save us if our conversational partner happens to have dramatic tendencies. Sometimes, when people get defensive, they throw any kind of soap operatic plot twist to derail the conversation and manipulate us.
“You can’t call me out! I’ve got knots in my legs! Also, I’m a literal chew toy! From space!“
3. Frame Issues from Your Perspective
We can try to guess what our friend was thinking when they showed up at our house at three in the morning, half-cut and with a fever of one-hundred-and-four, but it is best if we simply presume not to know. Trying to label our conversational partner’s feelings for them is futile. Instead, we should frame things by explaining how their actions affect us. Granted, these kinds of statements are squarely in Dr. Phil’s neighbourhood, but he’s not wrong. We can only know ourselves, (and even then, the waters can get fairly murky). Therefore, it is more useful to say, “I feel hurt and embarrassed when you mock my laughter in front of your friends,” than “look, I know you want to seem funny by putting me down, but fuck you sincerely.” (Although that last one can feel damn good to fantasize about.)
How I frame everything.
4. Be Clear
That being said, it is important to avoid sugarcoating the issue. If we’re not used to confronting someone about their behaviour, we might be tempted to use diminutive words to qualify our experiences and make ourselves seem smaller and unimportant. These include words such as “maybe”, “a little bit”, “kind of”, and “a tad”. For instance, saying, “Hey, uh, it sort of bothers me a little when you wipe some of your boogers on some of my furniture sometimes,” sends an ambiguous message, like maybe it’s okay if this person continues to wipe their smallest boogers under your table, as long as you aren’t looking. It’s normal to want to be seen as a nice person, but there will be people out there who will paint any assertion we have as a villainous and evil affront to their way of life. It is therefore better to take the plunge and say what we mean, even if we have to be Senator Palpatine in their mucus-glazed eyes.
This plant is the only thing as prickly and villainous as I am.
5. Know When to Listen and When to Walk Away
In a healthy exchange, our conversational partner will likely have some valuable feedback. They might explain their reasoning, ask questions, and becoming active in understanding our boundaries. They might negotiate, and this too can be productive, as long as it is done respectfully and with our mutual wellbeing in mind. Conversations like these are challenging and require us to remain calm and open, but they are ultimately conducive to the goal we’ve established. As long as the person is not derailing our experiences by being deflective or defensive, or downright mean, it can be beneficial to us to listen to their side.
However, if our conversational partner makes excuses for their behaviour, speaks aggressively, tries to intimidate us with threats or by breaking stuff, or calls us names, it is time to pack up our little hopes and dreams and get precisely the hell out of their line of fire. Depending on the severity of their reaction, we may choose not to interact with this person again. Sometimes a boundary might mean not interacting with a toxic person at all. This is often easier said than done. For instance, if this person happens to be the joint parent of our children, or our boss, it may be difficult to ignore them. But wherever possible, we should aim to cut toxic people from our lives, because this will enable us to be better friends, partners, parents, and employees in the long run.
This is precisely where some relationships belong.
6. Know When to Exchange Apologies
By now, we should have had time to reflect upon and understand the situation leading to our difficult conversation. It is important to be honest with ourselves: did we mess up? If so, giving an apology will show good will and demonstrate our willingness to work things out with our conversational partner. But if not? Unnecessary apologies can be every bit as damaging as withholding a warranted “sorry”. In the same way using words like “maybe”, and “just a bit”, can make our statements fall flat, unnecessary apologies will obscure our message. We shouldn’t apologize for someone else’s behaviour, nor should we apologize about having feelings or healthy boundaries. “I’m sorry you think I’m ugly, Grandma, but I wish you wouldn’t make rude comments about me”, is not helpful because it removes Grandma’s responsibility to cop to her shitty behaviour.
We should also note that some apologies are not worth accepting. If our conversational partner says, “I’m sorry, but here’s a string of excuses and also you’re not perfect either, you know”, then we can politely tell them to swallow that sorry because it has less meaning than a bile-filled bubble of a burp. (More politely than that, probably.)
This isn’t so constructive.
7. Make a Plan
We’ve made it through our main talking points, listened to our conversational partner’s feedback, and exchanged sincere apologies if they were warranted. Now we can ask questions such as, “can we agree not to talk politics at work?” or, “will you keep comments about my parenting to yourself from now on?” This gets closure on the issue, and ensures we have a mutual understanding of our expectations going forward. These closing statements are the last big cringey thing we need to say before we can stop feeling like hack lawyers and get back to the business of maintaining our refurbished boundaries.
I’ve got my planner ready, now all I need is your continued respect.
8. Treat Yourself
That was a difficult experience, and if we’re still shaking from the adrenaline of asking for basic respect, we should definitely do something nice for ourselves. This can take the form of a night out with friends, a trip to the movies, or a solid chunk of brown sugar. The important thing is that we feel relaxed and comforted — we stuck up for ourselves and didn’t take anyone’s crap today.
I often treat myself by looking deep into this silly creature’s eyes.
When our guts twist and we feel the hot emotions of hurt, it is important that we become aware of our feelings. By acknowledging this, we can become our own best advocates and share our concerns with others in a clear and personal way. This ultimately ensures that we are building relationships with people who genuinely care about our wellbeing.