How to Handle Reactions to Your BoundariesAug 10, 2021
Here’s what you need to know if you don’t set boundaries because you worry about how the other person might react.
For many of us just imagining having to set boundaries with someone we love can throw us right into the arms of an oncoming panic attack, right?
We don’t like how it feels: knowing that you need to and should say something but at the same time dreading the uncomfortable feelings, the tension, the possible conflict and then the consequences of course.
This goes on within us while the voice in our head reminds us that we can only have healthy relationships if we set boundaries. And if we don’t, the voice shames us and calls us a failure.
We can’t really win.
If we try to set boundaries, someone else hates us and we feel bad. If we don’t, we have to handle self-hatred and the feeling of failure on top of not getting what we want and potentially being disrespected by someone else.
Setting boundaries can tough. It is tough especially when no one taught you that it was ok to do so.
Most of the time, when we don’t know our boundaries or struggle to assert them, we weren’t raised in a way that allowed us to be aware of what we wanted and didn’t want and express that.
During that time in our lives asserting ourselves was met with hostility and responded to with shame, anger and rejection.
So it’s no wonder that we struggle with it as adults!
However – and it’s a BIG however – we can outgrow this pattern of sacrificing our wants, needs and preferences to avoid conflict, please others and protect them from uncomfortable feelings while feeling terribly uncomfortable ourselves.
That’s what inner change work and self-empowered healing are all about. It teaches us what is required to create the amazing relationships we really want to have.
A challenge and objection that frequently comes up for my clients is fearing the other person’s reaction.
And quite rightly so!
Just because we have learnt a new way to express ourselves, to stand up for ourselves and set a boundary doesn’t mean that the other person knows how to respond to that in a healthy way.
Chances are that they aren’t … but that’s ok.
Yes! It is absolutely fine to set healthy boundaries with anyone even if they don’t understand or react in the ways you wish they did.
Here are a few perspective shifts that will help you to set boundaries when you need to set them even though you suspect that the other person won’t necessarily respond in a friendly way.
Boundaries Are Tools For Connection
Remind yourself that setting boundaries isn’t something you do against someone else. It is something you do for yourself.
It is also the very thing you need to create a healthy, secure and loving relationship. It teaches the other person how to be in a mutually satisfying and life-enhancing relationship with you.
Setting boundaries and expressing yourself is what you can control and that’s what you need to take responsibility for.
How the other person reacts to it is not within your control. You need to respectfully leave that to them.
Not setting boundaries with others deprives them of the opportunity to learn how to connect with you.
Feelings Aren’t Problems
The fear of upsetting others comes from fearing our feelings.
When we view feelings as problems, they become something negative and threatening.
We try to avoid them and we try to find ways to help other people avoid them too. Doing this makes life pretty exhausting and complicated!
Instead of feeling our feelings, understanding them and using that understanding to respond to ourselves in healthy ways, we come up with strategies to avoid uncomfortable feelings that actually hold vital information about ourselves.
Avoidance is one of 3 core issues that cause human distress and misery.
However, when we begin to see that feelings are a natural and healthy part of having the human experience, we stop seeing them as problems.
And once we manage to do that, relationships get a whole lot easier (and more enjoyable!).
We don’t need others to protect us from our feelings because we know that they are not something we need protection from and we become conformable with letting others have their feelings so that they too can learn from them.
In doing so, setting boundaries becomes like any other friendly conversation.
Are You There For Me?
Relationship security can be aptly summarised by the question, “Are you there for me?”. (I’m drawing on Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy here.)
When we express ourselves and share with someone what we like or don’t like, we hope that they will be curious and listen to us so that they can understand us better.
We want them to be there for us. We provide them with an opportunity to connect with us.
It’s hard for most people to not get defensive when it appears that someone else criticises them.
But boundaries aren’t critical – not when you own them.
Still, they can be perceived as such.
So when you set a boundary and the other person becomes defensive, know that they are choosing to perceive your boundary through a critical lens.
They have a choice in how they perceive what you communicate whether they are aware of it or not.
So if a client of mine, for example, told me about something I had said that had a negative effect on them, I would get curious. I would seek to understand what is going on for them so that I can connect to them in a more mutually satisfying and helpful way.
I also have the option to perceive my client’s feedback through the lens of failure which would make me feel sad and bad about myself. Or I could see it through the lens of criticism which has the potential to fill me with shame or anger.
My client can’t control that and so they can’t take any responsibility for how I feel because that is not within their control. It is fully within mine.
Their job is to be honest about what’s going on for them and mine is to be there for them.
This is not something I can do if I make it about myself.
Undefended listening is the master skill of boundary setting – it’s learning to receive important and precious information without making it mean something negative about yourself.
It is often tough to see someone who matters to you angry, hurt or disappointed because of something you said. (It’s important to remember here that their feelings are a result of how they interpreted what you said!)
You need to reassure yourself that you haven’t done anything wrong.
Take deep breaths.
Be ok with feeling how you feel.
Changing habits brings up uncomfortable feelings initially. Stick with it anyway. Your feelings aren’t problems. They don’t harm you. And neither do they harm the other person.
They are just a temporary experience and an essential part of being human.
Maintain Your Boundaries
You might be tempted to give in, to change your mind or to defend your boundaries.
Mean what you say and stand by that with integrity.
You haven’t done anything wrong.
It’s ok to want what you want and to clearly express what you don’t want.
Get curious about how the other person thinks and interprets what you have said but let the conversion quieten down.
If you find that the other person wants to argue, take a step back and excuse yourself if necessary.
You can have the conversation when both of you are in a calmer frame of mind.
Again, it’s not about avoiding uncomfortable conversations. It’s about choosing a time when you can engage in them with a more secure state of mind.
You Can Handle It
Write down some statements that will help you say what you need to say.
Turn them into reassuring mantras that you can say to yourself whenever you need to set a boundary.
My favourite one is, “You can handle it.”
Because you can.
If you think clearly about it, you will see that nothing bad is really happening and that you can handle whatever is going to happen.
Should someone choose to leave you because you set a boundary with them, know that that is for the best.
Two people create a healthy relationship when they respect each other’s boundaries. They don’t need to like them but they do need to respect them.
You cannot create an amazing relationship with someone unwilling to respect your boundaries.
Own Your Boundaries
Empowered boundary setting is all about you.
You own it. You own it all.
“I feel like this because I am not happy about that and so I am asking you to support me in this way.”
There is no blame in it.
There is no manipulation or attempt to control.
It’s just honest self-expression.
“This is what’s going on for me and here is how you could help if you were willing to. What do you say?”
There Is Freedom in Self-Expression
Expressing yourself is an act of self-liberation for anyone who was once shamed for it.
It is brave and bold and results in ever-growing confidence. It is a life-changing experience.
It is also something that is characterised by individual differences.
So while there are amazing suggestions for how to communicate, everyone gets to choose that for themselves.
When I work with couples, I provide suggestions for how to talk to each other in ways that lead to more loving conversations. My clients then find their own groove with it.
Their partner also doesn’t get to criticise them.
Empowered self-expression is about respect: respecting myself enough to open up and share my internal experiences my way and respecting the other person to do the same in their way.
These are just a few perspectives I wanted to share with you about boundaries. There is so much more I’d love to share and I cannot wait to finally bring out my Boundaries with Love course later this year.
In the meantime, I hope that you have found this helpful.