Boundary-Setting for Adults with People We Know

Written by Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director

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Healthy boundaries prepare us to take charge of the well-being of ourselves and our loved ones. This article from the Relationship Safety Handbook for Teens and Adults and the Kidpower Skills for Child Protection Advocates Workbook describes what makes it hard, what to say, and how to persist in the face of common negative reactions.

Your safety and well-being are more important than anyone’s
embarrassment, inconvenience or offense!

Ellen Bass, Co-Author of The Courage to Heal and Founding Board President of Kidpower

Boundary Principles

  • We each belong to ourselves — I belong to myself – my body, my time, my feelings, my personal space, my thoughts, my spirit, all of me. And other people belong to themselves.
  • Some things are not a choice. As adults, we can speak up but we cannot always control what other people will think, feel, say or do. As adults, we can leave or stay, but we cannot always control whether a relationship or situation at home, work or school will change to better meet our needs.
  • Problems should not have to be secrets – and neither should touch, teasing, gifts, or favors.
  • Keep telling until you get help. Getting help can mean — telling the person who is creating the problem to change his/her behavior; telling someone who has a position of authority with respect to the situation; gathering with other people to deal with the problem together; asking for personal support from someone outside the situation completely; or even taking legal action.

What Makes it Hard to Set Boundaries?

  • Internalized beliefs: not worth it, have no right, dangerous to say no, my role is to please others
  • Triggers: emotions, behaviors, thoughts, and words that cause us to explode with feelings.
  • Longing to belong: wish to be accepted, loved, wanted, or included by another person or a group.
  • Having grown up in a home where appropriate boundary-setting was not allowed.

Effective Communication of Boundaries with People we Know

Communication and conflict-resolution programs teach people to set boundaries by talking about their own feelings, the other person’s specific behavior that is a problem for them, and the specific behavior from the other person they want to see. Figure out what YOU want! Although you will find ways to state your boundaries in your own words, practicing with the following model can help you organize your thoughts:

  • I feel … (state your feeling in terms that are all yours rather than attacking the other person)
  • When you … (state the specific behavior that is a problem to you; try not to use words like “you never” or “you always”)
  • Would you please …or just Please. …(say what you specifically want the person to do)

You might say to a co-worker, boss, friend or acquaintance“I feel uncomfortable when you make sexual jokes (or other prejudicial sexist, homophobic, racist, etc. remarks). Please stop doing this in my presence.”

You might say to a date“I feel pressured when you act disappointed because I said, “No.” Please accept my ‘No’ gracefully.”

You might say to a boss“I feel upset when you often expect me to stay after work for a last-minute emergency. Can you please make a plan so that I can usually finish my work during my regular hours?”

You might say to a colleague“I felt upset yesterday when you presented my great idea as if you had thought of it by yourself. Would you please be clear when ideas come from me so people can see that we are working collaboratively?”

You might say to a friend, family member or partner“I feel upset when you put our relationship on the line because I take time for myself. Would you please understand that I want to do some things without you?” OR, “I feel hurt when you blame me for not understanding you. Would you please accept that sometimes misunderstandings happen?” OR, “I feel cut off when you jump in with suggestions. Would you please just listen and tell me you are sorry I am having a hard time?”OR “I feel insecure when you criticize me while I am learning something new or doing something hard for me. Would you please just let me practice and be supportive?” OR “I feel unappreciated when you only talk about what you are unhappy about. Would you please give at least equal air time to what you feel good about?” OR, “I feel sad when you talk (or act) as if I am not there. Would you please include me as being important?”

You might say to a housemate, “I feel annoyed when I have to clean up after you. Please put things away.”

Common Negative Reactions to Boundaries

It is normal for people to dislike being told what to do. Be prepared to deal with reactions such as:

  • Denial: “I never did/said/meant that. You misunderstood me.”
  • Minimizing: “You’re overreacting…. You are so sensitive…You are making a big deal out of nothing… It was just a joke…Don’t you have a sense of humor?” … “I am sorry this [insulting/unfair remark or action that you are setting boundaries about] was so hard for you to hear.”
  • Counterattacking with emotional coercion including guilt or blame: “How can you say that to me…Don’t you care about me…You are just saying this because you only think of yourself…I will NOT be okay unless I get my way … You will make me leave/get sick/get hurt/kill myself … You’re jealous… You’re crazy… You have too many problems…You’re defensive.”
  • Denying your right to have a boundary: “I will do whatever I want. You can’t stop me. You HAVE to do what I want or else you will lose –our relationship/your job/money/time with your children…I am your –boss/parent/teacher/child and you MUST do what I say…I’ll hurt you! … JUST SHUT UP!”
  • Being so devastated that you feel tempted to take care of him or her: “I am so awful for saying that…. I am sure you won’t want anything to do with me anymore…. I am just too messed up to be with anyone…I hate myself for having done that… I can’t deal with this…. I can’t talk about this anymore.”

Possible Positive Responses

First, get centered. Instead of reacting automatically by getting mad or giving up, you can decide what to do. You can:

  • Acknowledge feelings. “You sound upset.” … “I appreciate your concern.”
  • Express caring. “You are important to me even though I don’t like what you did.”
  • Restate your boundary: “This is important to me because ______. I feel…when you…. would you please….” … “Now that you have told me your feelings, I do not want to have you bring this up again.”
  • Find a common ground. “Let’s see if we can find a solution that will meet both our needs…Perhaps we misunderstood each other…What do you think you said/meant/did? This is what I think I said/meant/did.” …”I am sorry this upset you. I would like to talk when you feel ready to listen.”
  • State a consequence that is realistic and balanced for this situation. “Stop or I will leave…Stop or you have to leave…Stop or I will report you…. This behavior needs to change or our relationship will need to change.”
  • Take a break and try again later. “Let’s give ourselves some time to calm down so we can think more clearly…. Let’s get some rest and try to talk when we are less tired.”
  • Leave quietly and get help. If someone is threatening or violent or any time your personal safety is at risk, leaving is almost always the safest thing to do. Making threats about fighting back is dangerous.
  • Request clarification. “I am confused. What was your purpose was in making that comment?”
  • Write it down. Writing things down gets people’s attention and creates documentation if you need it.
  • As a last resort, know when and how to use physical self defense. If you are in danger and cannot get away safely, remember that you have the choice to defend yourself physically, leave and get help.

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About the Author

Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director
Kidpower Founder and Executive Irene van der Zande is a master at teaching safety through stories and practices and at inspiring others to do the same. Her child protection and personal safety expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Publications include: Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe, the Kidpower Safety Comics series, the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults, and The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People.
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