Updated: Sep 8
I recently had a call with a client who did not know how to get "rid" of a guy who came in and out of her life. He would call or text, and eventually, she would succumb to pick up the phone or reply. She wondered why he wouldn't respect her boundaries when she said she needed space or said she was dating someone else.
We talked it through, and I told her that it's her job to create and maintain boundaries. We cannot control others (try as we might); we can only control ourselves and our actions. We also examined her behaviour of picking up or replying. She admitted that she indeed was getting some form of pay off or benefit in continuing the relationship, e.g. attention, companionship, intimacy.
She is not the only one. I've had other clients who shared a similar story with me. What's interesting was they all thought the other person should listen and stop. Why should the other person stop if they didn't?[i] The persistent person is receiving mixed messages and continues their behaviour because they are receiving intermittent reinforcement, which, according to behaviour studies, is stronger and more potent than continuous reinforcement. It's like gambling at a casino and getting some type of win periodically.
I too have been in a similar situation. In my twenties, I met someone who I thought was cool and we started to see each other. It turns out he became obsessive and started to harass me. At first, I thought his attention was flattering; however, I soon realized it was unhealthy and discontinued all contact. When he continued, I asked him to stop; when he didn't, I did not reply I just took it up with the police. This is what I mean by controlling you and your actions. It definitely takes practice, though.
In most cases, creating and maintaining boundaries is like developing a muscle. If you feel weak at first, practice and continue practicing until you feel sufficient strength. You can start small and build from there. For instance, instead of getting mad at the person who won't physically distance from you, take it upon yourself to move an appropriate distance or keep your mask on. You will save yourself a lot of grief by doing so.
Speaking about practice, here are some suggestions for you to develop boundaries:
If you are having difficulty creating boundaries, think about what is okay and not okay in the particular situation (one of Brené Brown's suggestions). It's good to know both and thinking about one will help define the other.
Create the time and space to get to know yourself better. Knowing your likes and dislikes, your needs, and your values will help you to define your boundaries or build better ones.
Distinguish what is personal to you versus what is private. I was introduced to these terms long ago, and it resonated with me. Although the meaning of the terms can overlap, in this case, something personal is something about you that is close to you and private is something hidden not to share with others or most others. If you are thinking about sharing something vulnerable, you can ask yourself "Has this person (or group) earned hearing this?" (another of Brené Brown's suggestions).
Watch/observe other people to see how they navigate their different types of boundaries. It keeps it top of mind when you are trying to exercise yours.
Think of the different types of boundaries, e.g. time, physical, emotional, financial, to help identify yours.
Again, establishing and practicing boundaries is a process, however, as aforementioned, the more you do it, the more you get good at it. As you evolve, so do your boundaries. What may not have been okay with you in one context, is okay in another. They can be firm or flexible, a fence or a hurdle. The important thing is that you have them so you can have interactions that feel healthy to you.
What is one boundary that you would like to create or firm up today? I would love to know. If it is private, however, that's great too.
[i] I am only speaking of relationship dynamics here not sexual.
Ps. If you are struggling with boundaries, contact me here for a Get Acquainted Call to see if I can help.