DR. JAN NEWMAN
It’s that time of year again.
The kids are back in school. All the vacations have ended. Work is back in full force. Our schedules keep filling up with “have tos” and “musts,” but we don’t timeblock our gravity needs – what I sometimes call those essential needs that we have.
Gravity needs like sleep, exercise, sunlight, social connection, intimacy, and play. We get to those things later. Before we know it, our calendar is filled with so many things that we can’t do it all.
If you do some detective work on your schedule, the culprit is hiding in plain sight: having problems setting boundaries with others.
Try to remember a time when you did something for someone when you didn’t have the time and didn’t want to and also realized that it wasn’t really important.
What do you remember? How did that person behave right before you agreed to do it? How did their behavior make you feel inside before you did it?
Note: When I say “feel inside,” I mean what did you notice about your autonomic nervous system.
Did your sympathetic nervous system kick into gear with increased arousal – heart rate increase, muscle tension, stomach distress. Or was it your parasympathetic nervous system signaling a pause or freeze response where you felt tongue-tied and like you had lead in your shoes?
Types of Boundaries
There are many different types of boundaries that can be established in relationships. Here are a few:
PSYCHOLOGICAL BOUNDARIES establish limits around whether or not you share or disclose information about yourself, thoughts, beliefs, values, or feelings.
EMOTIONAL BOUNDARIES establish limits around whether or not and how much or how little you let other people’s behavior affect you emotionally.
You may not be able to control how their behavior makes you feel inside, but you might establish boundaries to limit your exposure to that person so that you can reduce the likelihood that they could try to use their behavior to control or manipulate your emotions.
PHYSICAL BOUNDARIES establish limits around whether or not you let someone touch or be near your body or those of your children or other loved ones. This would include things like hugging but also any sexual activity.
Signs of Discomfort When You Sense Others Are Uncomfortable
Whatever you noticed in your body – fight, flight, or freeze – one thing you likely felt was discomfort. Our nervous system is susceptible to signs of distress. The more distressed the person and the more you care about them, the more intense those signals will be.
And that’s before we even get to the thoughts. Sometimes you might actually move towards the issue and be on the cusp of saying no, and then the shame monster comes for you with the automatic thought playlist of the day: “If you say no, you’re going to hurt her feelings” or “He’ll never ask you for help again” or “You’re so selfish.”
When I worked with children, I had an 8-year-old tell me that being embarrassed was really “social fear.” Wow. Yep. From the mouths of babes.
“All humans are motivated to seek pleasure and avoid pain, to seek hope and avoid fear, and finally, to seek social acceptance and avoid rejection.”
So, instead of setting the limit, you agree. And in that moment, you feel relief. Why?
What does our brain hate more than anything else? Pain and uncertainty.
What does it seek more than anything else? Relief from that pain and uncertainty. And there’s the rub. Relief feels so good in that moment – in the short term. In the long run, however, it can have unfortunate consequences.
It’s like taking an Advil every time you feel the slightest headache. You’re trading temporary relief for long-term stomach problems.
Brene Brown said in an interview on boundaries that setting boundaries changed her life. She says it was much better than she had thought for the past 35 years: “that people were sucking on purpose just to piss me off.”
She couldn’t be loving and generous with others because she resented letting someone put their stuff on her.
“Before [I understood how compassion works], I had thought that people were sucking on purpose just to piss me off.”
How Can Putting Ourselves Last Be Reinforcing?
It’s more of a flight reaction to sympathetic nervous system arousal – to manage the stressor by avoiding short-term pain. Yet the long-term pain is coming back for you like a boomerang.
You’re like a human pain reliever. That sounds so manipulative!? But wrong. People can learn without knowing why. Behavioral psychology is powerful. (Bookmarking all the science here for the next article or my podcast!) My dog can also learn to manipulate me. He whines and follows me around (unconditioned stimulus), and I want to remove that stimulus, so I give him a bone (negative reinforcement). I have now taught him to whine for a bone. This also applies to people.
WHAT? No, I’m not saying resentment is fun or rewarding inherently, but resentment and its cousins, what some of my clients call “plotting” or “revenge plotting” can feel like you’re “doing something.”
So, instead of saying something. You plan on saying something. You tell your partner what you’re going to tell your boss or colleague. You tell your friend what you want to say to your partner but can’t. Like rumination, this type of “plotting” is doing something. In behavioral psychology, it’s positively reinforcing. You could get much more from having a rewarding social relationship with the person, but it does give you some dopamine.
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter of seeking, craving, and yearning, and yes, that can also be plotting.
In other words, resentment can be a very active process for some people. However, although plotting and “revenge plotting” can be reinforcing, it is only so for a moment. Long term, it’s unworkable and clearly accomplishes nothing. (Yet if you’re a plotter, big huge hugs, because it makes TOTAL sense that your brain would do this, especially if you’ve got a lot of programming to put others’ needs above your own).
There is an active focus on what was denied and missing, which can be very destructive for relationships. And it is the antithesis of what some suggest is the essential ingredient for healthy relationships: compassion.
How Does Setting Boundaries Create Compassion?
“Everything else you’ve said makes sense, but I’m just not seeing how setting boundaries is compassionate. They’re not going to like it.”
This was the jist of what a client said to me recently when we were discussing setting boundaries, and it has been echoed by many others. And it makes so much sense to me why they say that.
We’ve got alot working against us here.
Our nervous system is programmed to avoid pain and uncertainty including the pain of another human’s distress or the potential that they will reject or abandon us.
Because I work primarily with high-performing professionals, many of my clients have achieved many indicators of what the world would call “success.”
Although that success is very often the product of their hard work and effort, they will sometimes describe feeling shame or guilt around asking for their needs to be met due to conditioning from their past environments. For example, if a parent becomes anxious or angry when the child expresses a problem or difficulty, this can “teach” the child that expressing his or her needs could be unsafe or “not worth it.” Over time, the child becomes used to not having their needs met.
Many successful people have also had a lot of programming around “not failing” and “doing what it takes” and “not letting others down” and “being a team player.” This is often social code for – put your needs second. Oh, and yeah, you’re supposed to like it too, so suck it up and deal – “hey, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”
Compassion involves feeling another person’s pain and wanting to take steps to help relieve their suffering. The word is derived from Latin and means “to suffer together.” That last part is highly relevant to setting boundaries. Boundaries are a primary tool to create compassion, and both people will likely suffer together when it happens.
Quick bookmark on self-compassion: Relatedly, the compassion you can hold and act on with others is very related to the self-compassion you can cultivate. According to the research, self-compassion has three elements and three shadow or opposite elements listed in parentheses: self-kindness (vs. self-judgement), mindfulness or mindful awareness (vs. over-identification with thoughts and emotions), and common humanity (vs. isolation from others). In another article, I’ll write more about self-compassion, but for now, you’ll just have to trust me. Boundaries are an act of self-compassion, which is why they are a primary force that drives compassion for others.
If you’re a parent, you know how difficult it is to see your children in pain. If they are sick or complaining about an injury, you would do anything to stop it. If they’re just whining about it, it can still evoke the same desire. Your brain is hardwired to stop distress in your child, so your nervous system is firing on all cylinders.
Here’s an example where setting and enforcing a boundary would likely be easy.
Suppose your child has a very high fever and begs you not to give them medicine. What would you do? What if their fever got to 104, and they’re begging you not to take them to the hospital? Crying and screaming, “Please don’t take me! Please don’t take me!” You would take them.
The distress and uncertainty of what could happen if you don’t set the boundary is greater than the distress that is currently happening. The risk is acute and clear, so the choice is clear.
I remember my son doing this when I didn’t have the white cherry flavor of Tylenol he liked best, and his fever was really high. I could validate his fear and discomfort, but ultimately the boundary had to be enforced. “I get it buddy, you like that flavor better, and my number #1 job is to take care of you, so I’m asking you to please take it to feel better.”
Let’s take a different example in the workplace, where it’s much more complicated.
Why? Often because the values behind what you’re doing aren’t clear. The why and how aren’t as clear as they are with those with your kids or family. The desired target is more likely a fixed outcome, which usually is likely to get rid of discomfort.
For example, a young, new employee is having some issues with her performance, not following up on client emails, being defensive when corrected by peers.
Her supervisor is reluctant to give feedback or mention this to HR because he is afraid of how it might be received or that it will “make her feel bad” or “cause alot of headaches.”
Predictably, the behavior continues, and the team becomes more disgruntled.
The employee is also feeling extremely anxious about her performance but being the “new” person on the team, and is not sure how to talk to someone about this anxiety. Unfortunately, this anxiety is now manifesting as self-protection, which is not how the team sees it. They see it as defensiveness.
Let’s say the employee makes a mistake that affects a critical project for the company and angers a very important client. The supervisor is furious. The supervisor then not only gives the critical feedback of this instance but unloads everything else, and the employee is blindsided.
Sure, short term, not telling the employee felt better for everyone, but only short term. It wasn’t workable or sustainable long term. Over the long term, it hurt everyone involved, the company, a client, and not least of all the employee.
Especially, with young or new employees, feedback is often a blessing and something they are looking for especially when it’s appropriate for the developmental stage that they’re at in their career. If a supervisor punts on that repeatedly, then they might be getting that feedback when it’s way too late – much harder to hear and much harder to use effectively.
“Each time you break your boundaries in order to ensure someone else likes you, you end up liking yourself that much less. ”
The more compassionate thing is to share the suffering – the supervior feels the discomfort of giving some tough feedback and the employee feels the pain of receiving it.
It’s important to remember the goal here. The goal isn’t a specific outcome and it’s definitely not being pain-free, so that the person doesn’t feel pain or you don’t feel pain. Remember, compassion is shared suffering. There might – read likely – be some discomfort on both sides.
The goal is the process and forward movement. Are you setting the boundary in a way that aligns with your values and how you want to be in the world?
If you’re setting a boundary because it relates to something or someone that matters deeply to you (including yourself), and you set that boundary in a way that is in line with how you want to act (e.g., with kindness, nonjudgementally, etc.) you’re doing something instead of trying to do something humans really stink at – not doing something (e.g., not hurting her feelings, not making him mad).
When you take an action in a relationship like this, your nervous system eventually becomes happier because you’re giving what it wants. So, the “fight” response of the sympathetic nervous system that can make your resentful if boundaries aren’t set recognizes the forward movement, which is, in many ways, meets the “fight” need.
Your dopamine system is also happy because you’re “doing something” – that is, acting towards something instead of doing all this suppression and avoidance.
Finally, and most importantly, when you set boundaries you are helping the other person. You’re no longer allowing this person to offload their nervous system onto you. You’re not taking on that stress and then trying to stuff into the closet that’s already overflowing with other people’s stuff. It frees you up to be kind, warm, generous, and, loving.
Well, it’s like, duh. Right? Of course, they’re not going to like it.
There is supposed to be resistance to the status quo for your brain. Even bad status quo is easier than change, and your brain hates pain and uncertainty more than anything.
When you lift a 30-pound weight, you expect resistance so it feels normal. I’m going to go ahead and tell you now, this is like lifting weights. The person’s resistance means that what you’re doing (again – if done for values-based reasons) is changing the dynamic and potentially creating a learning experience. Better than doing nothing by far.
Brown also talks about how this step allows you to assume the best in people. You don’t have to worry about protecting yourself because you will set the boundary upfront.
“Daring to set a boundary is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others”
Ok, so now that we’ve talked about the benefits of boundaries. What do they look like? In my next post, we will talk about that and provide some examples and scripts of how that works!
Ashar, Y. K., Andrews-Hanna, J. R., Dimidjian, S., & Wager, T. D. (2016). Toward a Neuroscience of Compassion. Positive neuroscience, 125-142.
Snyder, K. S., & Luchner, A. F. (2020). The Importance of Flexible Relational Boundaries: The Role of Connectedness in Self-Compassion and Compassion for Others. Psi Chi Journal of Psychological Research, 25(4).
Kristin Neff (Researcher on Self-Compassion)
My all-time favorite blog on wit, wisdom, and loads of boundaries! Captain Awkward – You don’t need to be cool to be kind.
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