The first step in learning boundaries is to become aware of when your boundary, your line, is being crossed.
You don’t have to DO anything – just become aware of it. It will feel bad. Don’t skip that beat.
Sometimes when our lines are crossed, and we are used to it because it happens so frequently that it feels normal to us, we barely feel the boundary violation, if at all.
I want you to start tuning into your gut and become aware of the feeling that happens when your line is crossed. It won’t feel good, it might feel rude, violating, invasive, hurtful, wrong.
Begin to be aware of the jab and then –Step 2- LABEL IT.
When someone makes a joke at your expense, instead of just saying to yourself, “Asshole,” “Bitch,” say, too, “Boundary.” Be aware he/she just crossed over your line, over your boundary. You don’t have to do anything else. You don’t have to say anything or do anything. Just feel it, label it. Recognize that your boundary was crossed and acknowledged that to yourself. Nothing more. Simple enough? Are you willing to do it? Are you willing to practice this for a few days?
The next step, number three, is to give yourself credit for having recognized and labeled the boundary violation.
Say yeah, good job. Good for me. This counts. I’m doing good. Step 3 is learning to be on your own side. It is learning to BE WITH yourself in your process. Be present. Be your own coach. If you are not used to giving yourself compliments or hearing them from anyone else, this will seem strange, weird. It may even feel stupid. Keep practicing it. You’ve got to get rid of whoever’s voice is beating you up- your mother’s? Your father’s? Perhaps a grandparent’s? Replace it with your voice saying, “Good job.” After you have practiced these three steps for a while – feeling it, labeling it, and giving yourself credit – it’s time to start thinking of Step 4.
Step 4 in boundary setting involves figuring out – in retrospect – what you could have said or done.
What words would you have liked to have said?
Would they have been helpful?
Would they get you the results you want?
If not, you must figure out what words WOULD have been helpful.
If your wife says to you, “You’re not a man. You’re just like another child!” I consider that a boundary violation. It’s rude, it’s disrespectful, it’s unloving, and unkind.
Is it okay for you to be treated that way?
So, in retrospect – not at the moment – you must figure out what words would have helped you.
“F_____ you, bitch!” probably aren’t them.
There may be a part of you that wants to say that – that’s normal – but when you think about it, will it get you what you want? Will it get you the love and respect that would feel so good? Will it get you a harmonious, win-win marriage? Au contraire. You are working on lose-lose if you respond in such a way.
So what words could have HELPED you? Helped you feel good about yourself, helped you hold onto your self-dignity, and helped you change the imbalance of power in your relationship?
First of all, there’s not ONE right answer.
There are lots of right answers. This is the place where you brainstorm. Guess. Try things on. Remember, this is a process you are doing by yourself, in your head. Thinking. Figuring out. Remember, too, you are competent. You are capable. You can come up with a good answer.
So often when I ask one of my clients, “What could you have said?” they respond with, “I don’t know.” GONG. WRONG ANSWER. You’ve got to know.
This is the time in your life to know. How old are you? How old do you have to be before you know? The time is now P.S. Nobody is born “knowing.” They have to think it through and figure it out. You have a good brain. You can figure it out just like other people do. THINK. So, let’s come up with some options. Brainstorm. Remember, some answers will be better than others. Some wouldn’t have worked at all. That’s okay. This is a time to guess.
Here are some options of words that might have been helpful (no guarantees – sometimes you have to try many keys to open the door).
- That’s so insulting to me. Are you really wanting to insult me or are you wanting our marriage to get better?
- I’m sorry. I don’t want you to have that experience. I understand what you’re talking about. I’ve acted like a child and I’m committed to changing that.
- Wow. I’m sorry that’s your experience of me. I want you to have a different experience. I want you to able to depend on me. That’s my goal.
- You know, I have had childlike behavior in the past, but that’s not who I am anymore. I need you to get out of the past and update your image of me. I’m not doing those behaviors anymore. I wish that would sink in for you.
- How can I make it different for you? (Then validate, validate, validate what she’s saying, pick one item, and commit to change that. Then CHANGE it.)
- I want to hear what you are upset about, but I can’t hear well when you are insulting me. Can you say it in a different way?
Remember, in this step you are not actually talking about it to your partner. You are not actually SAYING these words to her – you are THINKING them. You are, in your head, trying on different responses that might have been helpful and effective.
After you’ve practiced this step for a bit – 2 weeks, 3 weeks- then it’s time to do the next step in boundary setting, Step 5, which is learning to say the words out loud AFTER the incident.
Going back and talking about it to your partner when she is in a relatively calm place. Now I don’t know you. I don’t know your partner. I don’t know how escalated your relationship is as far as damage, so I don’t know which of the above- if any- would be appropriate or helpful. But you do. Try different ones on and be aware of the results. If you feel you need help at this step, get a therapist to help you. The main thing is TRY words out. This is like a science experiment. Experiment. Note what encourage the storm. Note what calms it down.
If any of the above escalates the situation, you MUST be willing to draw a strong line, Step 6, that says, “You must stop verbally abusing me.
I will not talk to you if you are going to throw verbal insults at me. I want to talk about it- but not be called names in the process.” If the insults continue, you MUST leave the room and/or house making it clear you will no longer put up with verbal abuse. You must make it clear that you are not running- you’d be glad to stay and talk about things if she will speak to you respectfully – but that you will NOT stay to be verbally abused or beaten up.
The message needs to be: I want to hear you but I will NOT be verbally abused.
Give her a chance or two to self-correct. If she is unable to, you MUST refuse to be verbally abused and remove yourself. Remember, you are doing a science experiment- don’t let your anger get involved. So many men I work with say, “That’s hard.” No kidding. Of course it’s hard. That’s the WORK part that’s needed to make an effective change in your life. Change does not magically happen just by wishing.
In fact, the kind of change I’m talking about- where you get your personal power, feel free, feel happy, and are able to give and receive love- isn’t going to happen without focused effort.
It’s not going to come automatically, naturally. What comes automatically, naturally, is what you’ve already been doing. And it hasn’t worked. I’ve heard Harville Hendrix, author of Getting the Love You Want, say to respond in a conscious way- purposefully with clear thought- is somewhat counter-instinctual. It’s NOT what comes automatically. What has come automatically to you- fight or flight- HASN’T WORKED.
Another way of putting it is learning not to play ping-pong.
Ping-pong is where couples shoot insults, snide remarks, poisonous darts, blame, back and forth, back and forth between each other. She says something rude, you say something rude back, she responds with an even deeper cut, you make fun of it, etc. Back and forth, back and forth.
Have you noticed this is not effective in creating a loving, mutually respectful marriage? It IS effective in creating damage, wreckage. If that’s your goal, then ping pong is the way to go. But if having your authentic power and love in your life is your goal, you must learn how to let the ping pong ball fly past you, WITHOUT hitting it back.
Again, “That’s hard.” Yes, it’s hard. It’s counter-instinctual. But very important.
Step 7 in boundary setting is practicing responding to a ping-pong ball in the moment, but not shooting the ball back.
Having an effective voice in the moment. Admittedly, this is very advanced, mature behavior. It will take practicing the first six steps a while before you are able to do Step 7. But you will get here- keep trying.
So often when I tell clients that they must learn NOT to play ping-pong, and to let the ball fly by without shooting back, they hear: be a doormat, be silent, suck it up, just take it.
That’s not what learning how “not to play ping-pong” means. I’m not saying, “Do not respond to a ping pong ball, “I’m saying, “Do not respond to a ping-pong ball by shooting the ball back.” Yes, you must respond to it – but do not play the game.
When you are playing ping-pong with your partner, exchanging put downs or poisonous darts, you are getting no where as far as making your relationship better.
You are getting somewhere in making it worse. If you learn to let the ball fly by you and how to respond in a purposeful way, THEN you can effect change in the system.
How do you do this?
Call yourself on it when you’re playing. That is, be honest with yourself and admit to yourself when you’re playing. Then stop. Close your mouth and walk away. In your private space figure out better words to say.
What I’m talking about is learning the difference between being proactive (responding) and beingreactive. Playing ping-pong is reactive. It comes automatically. The WORK part is learning to take a breath, let the ball fly by you, figure out words that would be helpful, and SAY THEM. (You’ve got to have a voice).
This article is an excerpt from Patti Henry’s book: The Emotionally Unavailable Man: A Blueprint for Healing and has been published with the author’s permission.
About the author
Patti Henry is a psychotherapist who has been in private practice since 1988, working with men and women individually, as well as with couples. She began her career developing women’s programs in psychiatric hospitals in an attempt to empower women. Her focus and research shifted, however, when she noticed how desperately men needed healing as well.
Ms. Henry received her graduate training at the University of Houston where she did her independent study and research on Codependency: Learning to Break the Cycle. She has appeared on the PBS series, Mental Health Matters, as an expert in marital therapy.
She is the author of The Emotionally Unavailable Man: A Blueprint for Healing.
To know more about Patti, visit her website www.patti-henry.com.