How Firm Are Your Boundaries?

Many of us have that one family member who seems to set out to set us off. This can be exacerbated during the holidays when we have a lot of family in tight quarters. Whether it’s a politically based discussion or attacks on our character, it leaves us wanting to roll our eyes and questioning why we subject ourselves to it.

We can choose to remain silent and endure the annoyance or we can learn to set boundaries with these challenging family members. Interestingly, a lot of the questions I get from people about a bothersome family member can be managed through the use of boundaries.

Basically, setting a boundary is communicating through words and actions how someone is allowed to treat you. Do you remain quiet when someone derides you? Do you walk out of the room? Do you tell them that’s enough? Boundaries can be rigid, flexible, or anywhere in between.

Boundaries also come with consequences. If you set no boundaries, typically the antagonistic behavior will continue or get worse. If you set a boundary, it is common for the boundary to be tested, sometimes pushing in an attempt to put you back in a place of being controlled. The good news is most boundaries are respected when consistently used. There are some extreme cases where people are cut off as punishment for setting a boundary.

In my experience I have noticed that boundary violators tend to follow a progressive pattern of reactivity when boundaries are set, similar to this:

1)   Attempts at persuasion with the intent to ignore the boundary. “Oh, you don’t really mean that.”

2)   Tears accompanied with claims of the boundary setter not understanding or maybe not loving the boundary violator.

3)   An explosion or tirade along with accusations of the boundary setter ruining something.

4)   If those don’t work than the silent treatment may be employed.

5)   Sometimes the boundary violator will even try to get others to ally with them against the boundary setter.

I’ve personally had to deal with all five before. As a result of holding firm to my boundary, I was given the silent treatment for over a year. Is that hard to deal with? Absolutely! I was painted as the villain, but it was worse dealing with the toxic behavior of this person than being cut off. Setting a boundary freed me from the continued negative pattern. Even now, my interactions with this person stay in a reasonable “comfort zone” because I won’t allow it to deteriorate.

So, how do we deal with those challenging family members?

First, decide if it’s worth setting a boundary. Is it a small irritant that can be ignored or something that truly bothers you? Is it affecting others, like your spouse who is wishing you would stand up for yourself?

Second, set the boundary in private. Don’t make a scene about it and don’t wait until you explode. If you can, set the boundary before the holidays even begin. Pull the person aside and tell them you’d like them to stop doing whatever it is they are doing. Be respectful and calm. If you take an accusatory stance they will respond with defensiveness. Instead, own what you are thinking and feeling. Using “I” words is best. “It bothers me when you say or do X. I would appreciate it if you would stop.”
Next, be very clear with what you want. I’ll use an example from the boundary I had to set. There was a history of this person complaining about others. I, in turn, would ask them to stop. I started gently with, “I’m sure they can handle this situation on their own without our needing to intervene.” Then it progressed to, “I really don’t want to hear about this.” When it continued I finally had to firmly say, “It isn’t appropriate for you to be sharing this with me. I’m not going to listen to it anymore. Please stop.”

Finally, be prepared for the fallout and be ready to hold firm with your boundary. Most people who have a pattern of violating boundaries will stick with resorting to numbers 1 – 3 above before respecting your boundary. Decide ahead of time how far you are willing to take your boundary setting. In my situation when the person didn’t stop when I asked them to, they began escalating the situation. I made the choice to reinforce my boundary by physically removing myself.

Think of boundaries like a toddler throwing a tantrum. If, as a parent, you give in after ten minutes, you teach the child you have a breaking point and it reinforces their tantrum behavior. If you don’t give in, they eventually stop throwing tantrums. Similarly, if you give in to a boundary violator, they will continue to violate your boundaries knowing they will eventually win.

Remember, their behavior is their choice. If discord results because you respectfully set a boundary, that is the choice of the boundary violator.

You decide how people will treat you. Setting boundaries is a great way to guide that. If you’d like to learn more about boundaries and how to set them, the book, Boundaries, by Cloud and Townsend is the best on the market. I’ve probably recommended it to 75% of my clients.

For those of you who have had the extreme happen – being cut off, I am going to discuss how to handle that in my next piece, Finding Yourself Uninvited at the Holidays.

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