Updated: Jul 11, 2022
When we struggle to set boundaries, it’s not because of the boundary itself, but our fear of the other person’s reaction.
I often have people tell me that they struggle to set boundaries. A boundary can be ‘No, I don’t want to come.’ Or ‘I don’t want your advice or opinion’. Or, “I can’t help out.’
Just a few words. Not difficult to say. In fact, if I gave you the space to practice, you likely wouldn’t really find it difficult to repeat those words. Some of you may find it difficult, but for the most part, repeating a sentence is quite easy for most.
There are 3 reactions I’ve witnessed in people in respect to setting boundaries - the first is not applying boundaries and doing what’s being asked (even if they don't want to). The second is ignoring it, hoping it will go away with the complaining to others about the boundary. The third is being over rigid with boundaries and so ‘strict’ with others that behaviour becomes almost defensive.
These reactions aren’t ideal and each is displaying a fear or concern re the outcome of the boundary. Let’s take a look at each one individually.
The first - Doing what you’re being asked to do generally comes from those who people please and self-abandon. I suppose this could be linked most closely to a hyper-vigilant nervous system response. Taking action to correct an issue and solve it. A person who caves in is likely to feel resentment towards those with whom they’d like to set a boundary with. They did what was asked and because they felt uncomfortable about it, stew and get in their head about the other person and their behaviour. Creating stories of ‘they never…’ and ‘they should…’
The second - Ignoring it and hoping it will go away, people who do this are also concerned regarding the reaction that might come up. This is generally from a place of trying to avoid the confrontation in the first place. This person is not being clear in their communication and is often vague, creating opportunities for errors and misunderstanding. In this situation the person is almost expecting the other person to ‘just know’ that they shouldn’t be asking or talking about a particular situation.
The third - Being over rigid with boundaries can come from when there is a fear of losing any element of independence or autonomy. Requests from others can be seen as a threat. There is no opportunity to talk things through, you cut the cord and are not flexible in any given situation.
What else can happen when we begin to learn to set boundaries? Well, we have a tendency to over explain and justify our reasons. Bearing in mind, that this isn’t necessary. Your reason, whatever that might be, is completely valid. I covered this more in another post, giving examples of how boundaries could be set in different situations (please use the search function in the group itself to find this searching ‘boundaries’).
The overall message here is that when boundary setting is difficult, look beyond the boundary itself and figure out what the preoccupation is.
There is generally an underlying fear present. This could be along the lines of ‘They won’t like me’ ‘They won’t consider me in the future for XYZ’ ‘They will leave me’ ‘They will shout back at me’
The fear isn’t for the boundary itself, but the other person’s reaction.
The concern can be to lose the connection to the other person in some way. A worry about how the other person might view them and what the consequences could potentially be from that judgement. Generally there is a fear of losing something. (For those who display avoidant attachment the fear could be the fear of getting closer and creating intimacy, so losing the idea of independence.)
Understanding your fear and what the underlying reason for you reacting that way, will show where you need to work on. It could be working on feeling secure that if people walk out of your life because they don’t respect your boundaries, were they worth having around in the first place? Or, if you are concerned they may not like you anymore, could it be that you yourself don’t have enough love for yourself to know you create your own worth and only you determine its value? Is it dealing with other people’s emotions you find terrifying and you have been running away from your own?
My invitation to you is this, next time you have a boundary you’d like to set, listen to yourself - what’s the story? What’s the fear? This is where your work is.
Do you have a default reaction or do you tend to wander between the three depending on the person and/or circumstance?
Have you realised what your fear is of setting a boundary?
Are there some people you struggle setting boundaries with over others?
Are there some situations you find more difficult than others to set boundaries?
Let me know in the comments!
Carla Crivaro is a trauma-informed and certified Sex, Love & Relationship Coach, she works with men and women internationally to reach their goals in delicious sex, profound love and authentic relationships. Carla helps men and women understand themselves and each other, sexually and relationally, in and out of the bedroom. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.