Healthy Boundaries – the Power of the Pause
I think it’s safe to say that we all have trouble with boundaries. Clients frequently ask me how they can improve their own boundaries so that they won’t feel bulldozed by their loved ones. They also want to know how to avoid being a bulldozer themselves.
Respecting other people’s boundaries is tricky. Not because we’re all insensitive oafs and don’t care about over-stepping, but because we each define healthy boundaries differently. I know that I’ve rolled over my friends’ boundaries on more than one occasion, and it was never out of a disregard for their feelings. In fact it was usually done in an attempt to help. But in my attempts to give assistance I’ve probably given a few headaches too, as my friends were unsure how to tell me to slow down, back off, and keep my rapid-fire suggestions to myself.
How does this happen? I think it comes from assuming that each person sees the world similarly to the way that we see it. If in my view of the world people should not ask their friends to hire them, but through your eyes this is perfectly acceptable, then you’re likely to cross over a line with me that doesn’t even exist for you. That’s how it happens….
So how do we avoid crossing over the boundaries of others and gently defend our own?
My suggestion: Slow down and pay attention to your feelings. Now don’t roll your eyes like that! I’m going to get more specific.
What I’ve learned is that when I’m on a mission – to finish a project, to arrange a meeting with someone, to cross something off my to-do list – I can become rather near-sighted.
I only seem to notice the goal in front of me. In my intense focus to get “what I want” accomplished, I can fail to notice the energy of the person in front of me at a time when it’s most important.
If you approach a friend with no agenda in mind, you can usually feel when something’s bothering him. But when you’re focused on accomplishing something, it can interfere with your ability to feel his energy and notice if he’s taking a step back emotionally.
Since it’s unrealistic of me to suggest approaching others with no agenda (we do have things to get done each day) then the alternative is to make it a point to slow down periodically and take a read of how the person in front of you feels. And while you’re at it, take notice of how you feel.
This is the best way to assess a person’s boundaries, and to notice when your own have been violated. The emotional compass that is standard equipment in every human is a valuable instrument. Remember to use it and life will get drastically easier.
If you take a moment right now I bet you can remember a time when you suggested something to another person and felt them suck in their breath or hesitate in some way that told you that they weren’t comfortable with your suggestion. Maybe in your mind you were offering to help a colleague get her project done, but in her mind you were trying to take credit for her work. You don’t have to know how she interpreted your suggestion; you only need to know that the energy between you shifted, and not for the better.
First, stop and replay the last moment in your mind, because sometimes your mistake is obvious once you replay the tape! If it’s not clear where you mis-stepped, ask. I am SO appreciative when someone asks me why I suddenly shifted in a conversation. I may feel awkward at first about being honest, but I so appreciate that the other person cared enough to notice my discomfort and ask me about it.
Likewise I’m grateful when I find the courage to notice my own apprehension and ask to pause the conversation for a moment. Giving myself a moment to reflect on why I’m uncomfortable is important. Usually I’m too flustered to comprehend and offer a complete explanation, but I usually say something like “Something feels not quite right about that idea. Can I sit with it and get back to you later today?” Then I get alone and feel my way to my truth about the situation.
As I read over this I am struck by how it sounds pretty basic – pause and notice when things feel “off”. So if it seems better fit for your kindergartener to read, then give it to him. But as basic as these suggestions may seem, it’s taken me years to figure out the importance of the pause when things feel “off”. Give yourself permission to pause, and tap into your own awareness.