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1. Match your words with your energy.

A little-known fact about boundaries is that they have less to do with what we say and more to do with how we say it. Ideally, our words and our energy match, creating congruence. If our boundaries are diffuse or rigid, congruence is unlikely.

This is best illustrated by the sentence “I’m fine.” How we say this can mean anything from “I’m doing well, thanks for asking” to “I’m actually not fine, and maybe we could talk about it later” or even “I’m not fine, I’m furious, and it’s all your fault!”

A mismatch between our words and energy requires others to decode our statements, which can create confusion and anxiety. It also indicates that we’re operating from a diffuse boundary.

A mismatch between our words and energy requires others to decode our statements, which can create confusion and anxiety. It also indicates that we’re operating from a diffuse boundary.

Alternatively, if we slam out of the house and turn off our phone, we’ve just created a rigid boundary, cutting off the relationship altogether.

If we’re not fine, and especially if we’re angry or hurt, and we would like to operate from a clear boundary, the best move is to own it and ask for some time. This could sound like, “Thanks for asking how I am. I’m not OK, but I need a bit of time alone before I can talk about it.” This congruent way of communicating honors us and the relationship.

2. Offer truth, good wishes, and no excuses.

People know when we’re lying, fudging, avoiding, or agreeing resentfully. Thanks to the energy accompanying our words, it just feels icky. So, what to do when we need space for ourselves, but we still want to protect the other’s feelings? How do we communicate from a clear boundary?

One useful formula is Truth, Good Wishes, and No Excuses. Start by being honest, and avoid any kind of excuse. Saying, “I can’t come because my sister will be here” not only invites negotiation (“Bring her along!”) but also creates the potential for judgment or hurt feelings about your priorities (“You could see your sister anytime”).

Skipping the excuses avoids both of those detours.

Conclude by offering goodwill to care for the connection.

These are some examples of clear-boundary responses that follow this formula. Notice how they create space and honor the relationship at the same time:

Declining invitations: “I won’t be making it, but I hope you have a lovely time.”

No second date: “It’s not a fit for me, but I wish you all the best.”

When a meeting runs long: “I have a hard stop at 5, but I’d love to chat another time.”

Saying no to a request for a favor: “That’s not going to work for me, but I hope you find a solution!”

Deflecting an intrusive inquiry: “I really appreciate your concern. It’s so kind of you to ask.” Full stop.

(Check out “Walking Your Talk: The Path of Personal Integrity” to see how your words and deeds connect — or don’t — to help you see where you really stand.)

3. Take up your space, your whole space, and nothing but your space.

When we talk about people with “bad” boundaries, we usually mean those who take up too much space: talking incessantly, standing too close, emoting too dramatically, and eating more than their fair share of the pie. Someone who parks a noisy, gas-guzzling truck across two parking spots or drags an oversize roller bag onto the plane.

Yet while the “too-much-spacers” do impinge upon the rights and needs of others, they also take care of their own needs, and they’re genuinely baffled by those who don’t.

It’s important to recognize that those of us who don’t take up our space or care for our needs create just as much of a burden on a relationship as the gas-guzzlers. Whether we call our diffuse boundaries self-sacrifice, martyrdom, or codependence, our burnout and resentment also land on everyone else’s shoulders.

If we want to do something truly relational, we must first make sure we can give our time, energy, or service freely, without strings or expectations.

For example, heroic, “selfless” acts  can almost never be repaid. We might think we’re helping when we offer a kidney to a distant relative even if it will put us out of commission for weeks, or when we allow our sister’s family to stay rent-free in our home for a year while we sleep on the couch. Such grand gestures can create a chasm of indebtedness that makes it almost impossible to maintain a balanced relationship.

If we want to do something truly relational, we must first make sure we can give our time, energy, or service freely, without strings or expectations. Then we honor the other person’s boundary by asking their permission before we help. Finally, we give them the dignity of returning the favor — or at least paying it forward.

Your playing small doesn’t serve the world,” writes author and spiritual teacher Marianne Williamson.

Indeed, one of the greatest acts of love — which is also the greatest demonstration of clear boundaries — is taking up our space, caring for ourselves, and meeting our own needs, thus freeing up everyone in our lives to do the same.

This was excerpted from “How to Set Clear Boundaries” which was published in the November 2022 issue of Experience Life.

Jane
Jane McCampbell Stuart, MA, LMFT, CPCC, RMFT

Jane McCampbell Stuart, MA, LMFT, CPCC, RMFT, is a licensed therapist and certified coach. She specializes in the healing of trauma and PTSD. Find her at therapyjane.com.

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