May 14, 2020

5 Steps for Setting Compassionate Boundaries in Stressful Times.

“Good fences make good neighbors.” ~ Robert Frost

Tune in to the news or scroll through Facebook and one thing quickly becomes apparent: unkindness is alive and well.

In times of stress, which includes our current fears and social isolation, kindness can quickly go awry.

One way I’ve seen a lack of kindness surface is in peoples’ attempts to set boundaries. Don’t get me wrong, boundaries are important, but there’s a right and wrong way to set them.

Boundaries, at their heart, represent limits of what is and is not okay. For instance, a person may need to let a boss know that although they are working from home, they still need days off. Another example may involve letting a partner know that even if they are the sole breadwinner, you still need a break from being with the kids 24/7.

In thinking through these examples, it may be obvious that boundaries are based in self-compassion, and recognizing your own needs and limitations. What may be less evident is that for boundaries to be heard, and to be effective, the receiver of the boundary needs to be treated in an equally respectful and compassionate way. What good does it do to set a boundary with a boss only to be sacked? So instead, acknowledge the stress that your boss may feel when making a request for overtime, while asserting that without a break your work is unlikely to be top notch.

Let’s look at what I call compassionate boundaries:

1. Tune in to your Feelings and Needs.

This is self-compassion in action. It’s the “ouch” that often signals a need for boundaries.

When the sting of a comment, request, or action signals that you need to create a boundary, it’s important to pause. Stop and consider what feelings are coming up for you. Are they congruent with the current situation, rooted in the past, or about something else? What is the need that underlies your request to the other person?

2. Firmly Make a Request, but Do Not Demand.

There’s a huge difference between an assertive request and a demand. A request is a polite way of asking for something. Add in the assertiveness that comes with setting boundaries, and a request becomes a way to ask firmly, but with an absence of drama. A demand, on the other hand, is a request with no option of discussion.

Have you ever felt like you had your back up against a wall? Demands are a good way to ensure that the other person comes out swinging, rather than stopping and listening. “I really want to do my best on this project, and am a morning person. Can you send my projects earlier in the day?” is much different than, “I’m sick and tired of working every weekend. Send me the information sooner.”

3. Consider their Intentions.

This is key, and can help you in forming your request, or perhaps eschewing that request altogether. Is your sister, lover, or boss really that awful? While you may have been hurt by a situation or statement, this also may have been an unintentional hurt. If someone has hurt you unintentionally, they will quickly want to rectify the situation—if you haven’t already caused them to tune you out or left them bleeding.

Maybe your sister is really excited to have lost that extra weight and shared it with you, while not considering that your scale’s been stuck at the same number for ages. It’s unlikely that she meant harm, and a gentle acknowledgment of her excitement and your stuckness will be more readily heard than a litany of her lack of thoughtfulness. “You are so thoughtless” is quite different than, “I know you are excited you’ve lost weight. Hearing about your success, I feel like I’ve failed. Can I ask that you not talk about weight loss with me?” Chances are that your sister will quickly agree to what you are asking.

If the person you are planning to set the boundary with really is that awful, you might consider ending the relationship rather than setting the boundary. While such cutoffs are extreme, they are the best solution in toxic relationships. The second thing that is helpful to ask is whether a boundary is actually needed in a given circumstance. Is it likely to occur again? How hurtful was the situation? Like the proverbial “Boy Who Cried Wolf,” the Constant Boundary Setter may be ignored or seen as overly sensitive. Your goal is to make an impact.

4. Choose Words Wisely.

What would you want to hear? Yes, you. As we saw in the prior example, how would it feel to hear yourself characterized as thoughtless or horrible? Words are remembered long after the situation is forgotten, and once delivered verbally or in writing, the damage is done.

This is not to say that you should not express your needs and feelings, but there is a way to do this. Stop and think. How would you feel if someone delivered this message to you? If the answer is “not great,” or your words are unkind or pejorative, ask a trusted person how they’d communicate something similar. And remember that nonverbal behavior makes up a large part of communication. Sighing, raised voices, and all caps in emails are less effective than a neutral but firm tone coupled with an open but assertive stance.

5. Know that you Can’t Control Outcomes.

This is the cardinal rule of boundary setting. You can (and should) set boundaries, but the other person has the right to either respect or disregard the boundaries you set. Just as setting boundaries is a continual process, respecting boundaries is a process as well.

Your children may not immediately consider that you are working late, juggling multiple projects, don’t have time to empty the dishwasher, and need them to help out more. Ask more than once if it’s important, and try not to get irritated that you are asking again (it’s a natural response, but negates the neutrality that the most successful boundaries demonstrate). If someone does not respect a boundary you’ve set, even one you’ve set more than once, there can be natural consequences. Consider the lack of plates or forks your children may encounter if they are all living in the dishwasher.


“We don’t have to agree on everything to be kind to one another.” ~ Unknown


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