It’s Friday night and Michael is driving a little to quickly. He’s racing the clock to get home in time to take his son to hockey practice and pick up his daughter from karate. At this moment, Michael is a menace to everyone on the road. His cell phone rings, and his assistant informs Michael that he is needed back at the office. Michael is ready to blow.
Michael, a 49-year-old business owner, and father of two, thinks he has to be perfect. He plays the role of family peacekeeper and problem solver. Professionally, he is involved in all aspects of his company. On this particular Friday evening, Michael hits the wall. He suddenly realizes that he has lost control of his own life and is spending his days entirely in the service of others. Michael experiences an overwhelming surge of resentment towards everyone. He feels anger towards his family for their constant demands. He feels anger towards his assistant for calling him at all hours.
How much unwelcome behaviour from those around you do you tolerate to keep peace in your life? Anger is a clear signal that someone has crossed your personal boundaries. A boundary is a line, a demarcation point, which marks the limits of your personal space. How can we expect others to know our limits if we don’t clearly define them? How often do you agree to take on one more assignment, because you don’t know how to say no?
Our boundaries protect us from being manipulated by others, and they define what we consider to be acceptable and not acceptable by those who interact with us. Many of us, like Michael, do not clearly establish our boundaries and end up trying to accommodate everyone. It is our responsibility to take care of ourselves and take responsibility for how we allow others to treat us.
Michael needs to let those around know him when they are acting in ways that are unacceptable to him. First and foremost, Michael must believe that he has the right to protect himself. Furthermore, in order to be effective he must educate his colleagues, family and friends on where his boundaries lie.
Tips for Michael
- Create a list of the actions and requests that are unacceptable from others.
- State your boundaries in a clear manner.
“My evenings are for me and my family. I do not schedule business calls after 6pm.”
- Inform others how their behaviour affects you when they cross your boundaries.
“I feel frustrated and I am unable to enjoy time with my family when I have to take business calls at home”.
- Teach others how you want them to behave.
“Please do not call me after 6pm in the evenings.”
- Advise others of the consequences if they continue to violate your boundaries.
“If you call me at home after 6pm I will not accept the call. I will, however, be happy to address your concerns tomorrow at the office.”
Careening around the city in his car, seething with pent-up anger is not the time for Michael to have a conversation about his boundaries. He should not attempt to define his boundaries when he is angry or defensive. Upon regaining his composure, it will be critical for him to relay his new boundaries in a neutral tone of voice. He will want to project confidence when requesting respect for his boundaries in both his words and in his body language.
While Michael cannot prevent others from continuing to cross his boundaries, he can prepare himself for when it does occur again. Without appearing to be confrontational, Michael can design and communicate consequences that he will enforce upon further violations. At the same time, he must avoid making idle threats and ensure that he intends to follow through with his stated consequences. The goal for Michael is to teach those around him what he can and cannot accept. It cannot sound like a threat, an ultimatum, or a rejection. It is simply a clear statement of his limits.
While this is a rather simplistic version of what can often be a huge issue, the approach taken with more complex issues will be similar. Frequently, we feel selfish when we state our boundaries. However, we don’t do ourselves any favours by always trying to please others, at our own expense. Establishing healthy boundaries helps us feel more secure and works to reduce our anxiety levels. The art of setting meaningful and effective personal boundaries is often a completely new skill. While initially it is difficult, with practice it becomes almost automatic.
Armed with his newfound ability to protect his personal space, Michael feels a great sense of relief. He has taken a major step in taking control over how he allows other people to treat him. After several weeks of practice setting and enforcing his boundaries, Michael reports that he has regained some control over the demands exerted upon him by others, and that he is no longer a menace on the road.