My friend Emilie once told me how she'd set a firm boundary. I didn't know that's what it was called at the time, but here's what happened.
The much-loved cat of a friend of hers died suddenly and the friend was devastated. She turned to Emilie for support – a lot of it – which took the form of phone calls and text messages, several times a day.
It was unfortunate that Emilie was not exactly a cat person. Plus, she didn't think of herself as particularly close to the bereaved woman. So after a few days, she texted back: "It's really sad that your cat died, but you need to find someone else to support you through this now. I'm not that person for you."
This is the kind of direct communication most of us avoid. But author and therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab believes that setting boundaries like this, with friends, partners, co-workers and bosses, can lead to healthier, more honest connections – and, importantly, greater peace of mind.
She shares how to do it in her bestselling book, "Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself."
It was bold of my friend Emilie to draw that line. I'm not sure I'd have been able to do it – at least, not without a lot of apologizing, which is not helpful when setting boundaries, Glover Tawwab says.
"I often wonder, what are you apologizing for?" she muses. "Are you apologizing for having needs? Are you apologizing for being honest? Are you apologizing for asking for safety in your relationship? What are you apologizing for?"
She recognizes that we often reach for "sorry" to make ourselves and the other person feel more comfortable. But it doesn't help the situation.
"If you set a really hard boundary and someone is upset, saying 'I'm sorry' doesn't take away their pain – and you still want your boundary," she points out.
With or without an apology, the idea of verbalizing a boundary request makes most of us squirm. Won't the other person get mad, or upset? And what about the guilt that we'll feel by imposing our will like that?
"Yes, guilt is a part of the process," Glover Tawwab admits. "With boundaries, it tends to be [because] we think we're doing something bad, and a lot of it has to do with our programming.
"Our program is saying, 'I cannot set this boundary with my mother, I cannot set this boundary with my partner, I cannot set this boundary with my boss.' And so once we set the boundary, we feel terrible because our programming is: 'I cannot set a boundary.'"
Glover Tawwab is a sought-after therapist and relationship expert, so I ask her what she tells people who suffer from boundary-related guilt.
"Deal with the guilt," she replies succinctly, adding: "There's no way to prevent it, in some cases. There is no way to really ignore it."
And switching the focus to yourself can work wonders.
"When you feel guilty you have to reassure yourself," she says. "You have to be conscious of making healthy choices and not trying to harm people. So when you feel guilt, it's not about, 'How do I get rid of it?' It's, 'How do I live with it?' Because the guilt is from your programming."
In short, we need to change how we view our behavior, from: "I'm doing a bad thing," to: "I'm doing something that is healthy for me."
Will we lose friends along the way? We might. But maybe not as many as we fear.
"I've certainly set some boundaries where people have ended the relationship with me because they didn't want to respect my boundary, and I have to deal with the fallout from that," Glover Tawwab says.
"But in most cases, the boundaries I've set have been honored. That is the typical response to boundaries – that people want to be in the relationship with you and they want to figure out how to make it work. So they're willing to honor your boundary."
Emilie is still friends with her cat-loving friend. In fact, they're closer than ever. The relationship feels more honest now, she says. And they never talk about pets.
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