Many years ago whilst working as a prison psychologist my boss would leave his dirty coffee cup on my table and would ask me to wash it up. I always felt it was not fair or professional but stayed silent. It took me several months and a lot of supervisory sessions to pluck up the courage to place a boundary around the coffee cup.
Funny how I had absolutely no problem interviewing and working with Psychopaths but setting a boundary around that coffee cup with my boss was the hardest boundary I have ever had to set.
We teach people how to treat us -- would you agree? In other words, if someone is treating us in a way that is disrespectful, and we do not place a very clear boundary around that behavior, we are inviting them to keep treating us in the same way. What's worse is that over time, the disrespect will become even more severe if we continue to do nothing about it. Most of us have experienced this at some point in our lives.
So, what is a boundary?
I know this may sound like a simple question, but I get asked this time and time again, and this is what I reply with: in essence, a boundary is a limit that you place on another person's behavior toward you, as well as a limit that you place on your own behaviors toward yourself and others. It's a two way process, which is a concept that is easy to lose sight of.
Why are we afraid to set boundaries?
Most people are afraid to set boundaries within their relationships for one of three reasons. Firstly, for fear of the other person's reaction ; secondly, for fear of appearing cold, cruel, and callous; and finally, because they view the boundaries as inflexible and more like barriers. Do any of these reasons ring true for you?
The truth is, if you've been treated badly by another person and you decide to set a boundary, the person in question will often have a bad reaction to it; you are no longer towing the line and they may push back, and will often not respect your boundary to begin with. The key here is to be consistent with your boundary and the consequences of stepping over that boundary -- only then will you start to see the change.
Shame researcher Dr Brené Brown has a wonderful boundary mantra: "say yes to discomfort and no to resentment." When you don't set boundaries in your relationships, you will often end up feeling resentful, a bit like I did with my boss. The bottom line is, a lot of temporary discomfort is much healthier than any long-term resentments you may experience.
Setting and maintaining boundaries.
Use this simple DESC formula
A simple formula that is fair and firm works best. Personally, I have tried and tested the following formula over several years, and it is by far the simplest to implement and remember: the DESC approach. For simplicity, I will use the boundary I finally place with my boss .
D stands for Describing the problem (like setting a scene). Say what you have observed, and stick to the facts. In my example, a simple way of doing this was to say, "I noticed that you often leave your coffee cup on my table and have asked me to wash it up."
E stands for Expressing how you feel. Now, you may want to tone this aspect down a bit if you're in the workplace, but in your personal relationships you should never tone it down; express exactly how you're feeling. For example, "I am starting to feel very uncomfortable with this."
S stands for Specifying exactly what you want. This is crucial, as if you don't know exactly what you want from the situation, then the conversation will become unclear and confused. Keep it simple: "In future, I would appreciate it if you could wash your own coffee cup."
C stands for Consequences . Setting a consequence is important, but being consistent regarding the consequence is even more important. Try to end on a positive consequence and ask the other person if they are okay with your boundary -- this can then open up a discussion. Try saying something like, "This will help me feel less uncomfortable, are you okay with that?"
Maintaining a boundary by practicing and being consistent.
Practice the DESC approach with a trusted friend until you feel confident to try it for real. The reason I say practice it is simply because the part of our brains that are active when we are imagining something is exactly the same part that is active when we do the actual thing. If it is a particularly tricky boundary, practice at least 15 times; it will help you wire your brain to the new boundary and the words will be easier to say when you come to do it for real.
And be consistent. In my case, my manager was a bit taken aback and ignored me for a couple of days, although this was excruciatingly uncomfortable, he never again left his coffee cup on my table, and I still got promoted. Of course, had he not respected my boundary I would have gone through the whole DESC process again starting with, "I noticed you are still leaving your coffee cup on my table after we agreed for you not to" and so forth.
Your ability to be consistent will make or break the boundary.
As an end note, if you have set the boundary and been consistent, and yet the other person is still not respecting it, then you may need to make a difficult choice as to whether this person's effect on you is destroying your relationship, self confidence or overall happiness -- and whether this is something you actually want in your life.