Boundaries: How to Stay (Safely) in Your Lane
Oh, it’s so tempting to veer into another lane and take up the entire highway as long as nobody’s in your way. Or, it’s so nice to inch over into your partner’s side of the bed, spread out more and even hog his/her pillow and blanket. Or, how tempting and delicious it seems to be to give your grown kids some of what’s really on your mind since they should know what we think. After all, we’ve lived longer and have such brilliance stored up just for this very moment. Ha!
We all have the urge at times to cross over into the metaphorical or literal side of the road where we don’t belong and offer up whatever we think someone else should know. How generous of us to bestow our pearls of wisdom, be they kind or sometimes not. However, we’ve learned at our ripe old ages that maintaining boundaries are very important in all our relationships—both for those we love and care about and our own happiness.
We have been reminded of this countless times in the last year, first when we read a wonderful article in The New York Times last Oct. 20, 2019, titled “A (Short) Guide to Better Boundaries” by Jolie Kerr about this very topic. It contained some useful, specific suggestions on how to do so; some of which we’ll share below.
The article got us thinking about how each of us has tried to stay in our own lane when we wanted to share advice over the phone, in person. by email or text with certain friends and family members including our grown kids. Stop!
We’ve trained ourselves to resist or at least have resisted most of the time (and boy is this hard to do), even though we’ve surely thought--why don’t you take that job that will really challenge you, why are you allowing your friend Jane to speak to you that way or why are you spending your hard-earned funds on this or that?
By listening rather than giving advice, we are strengthening our relationships. This is especially important in our relationships with our kids. Why sabotage their decision-making with our advice. By listening and not jumping in with our solutions, we are helping to bolster their independence and self-confidence.
Here are some tips to help each of us stay in our own lanes so we can reach our destination—a happier us and better relationships. Taking detours into others’ lives and lanes usually results in bumps along the way.
- Ask first.Before you grab your honey’s pillow or tell your friend they’re gaining too much weight, ask. Try this on for size. Would you mind if we shared that pillow? Or regarding the weight, may I share a concern or better yet, may we talk frankly about something that’s a concern for me about your health. You may get a “no” and if so, move forward without regret. Or sometimes you’ll get a maybe and even a “yes”! However, a warning. Just because you speak your mind with permission doesn’t mean the person will always take your advice or like it. Some relationships do crash and burn.
- Slow down and think before you speak.Before you butt in, think about how you would feel if someone crossed into your lane and asked you what you’re about to ask or say. This one is something we’ve heard forever and mentioned in various blogs—do unto others as you want done to you. It’s about respect.
- Never explain your decisions unless you feel like doing so.You don’t have to get defensive and tell anyone why you are doing this or that; it’s within the boundary you establish about what you allow in and don’t, about what you feel like sharing or not. It’s not up to the other person to get answers for all they ask. It’s your choice. They don’t like it? That’s a shame, but you cannot control their reaction. The boundary is your armor. Maybe, the relationship or friendship doesn’t work for you if they don’t heed your message, inch and then push into your lane. Say it out loud, “I don’t want to discuss this.” It’s like a traffic warning.
- Use the “I” statement rather than you.Put it on yourself. As Kerr brought up in her article, but which we already knew, it’s the cardinal rule of good relationship counseling to use “I” rather than “you.” Tell how you feel. If you want to explain, say, “’It upsets me when I feel judged or cornered with questions I don’t want to answer.” At a recent spa getaway, a new acquaintance told Barbara when she heard she was getting a pedicure. “You’re spending XX dollars on a pedicure when you probably can get it for half that at home?” Barbara replied with a smile, “yes,” and left it at that. She set a boundary that was essentially sending this message: “This is not up for discussion. It’s my decision.” When feeling cornered or judged, don’t engage. Either cut off the conversation as Barbara did, change the topic or leave the room.
- Keep all in perspective.A small infraction such as telling someone you don’t care for their lipstick color when they didn’t ask you for your opinion is rude but not a hanging offense. It’s how you say it and why you’re putting in your two cents. You could say, “That’s a pretty color but I really liked the red shade you wore last week with that sweater.” The reverse applies if you’re telling a person how they should act in a situation perhaps in handling their child’s issues when not asked and you haven’t all the information to make a judgement is a misstep. If someone fails to heed your boundaries—it might be time to say something. If they don’t hear you after repeated attempts, consider trying one last time. If that doesn’t work, think about taking a break from the relationship or ending it.
- Lie low.As a recent psychologist Jonathan R. Aronoff, Ph.D., in Stockbridge, Mass., advised a group on a motivational walk that Barbara was participating in, “When bullets fly, don’t stand up.” In other words, as Barbara interpreted his words, stay out of the line of fire. Sometimes, the best action is inaction and just to sit and wait. Consider carefully how you want to handle a situation such as a friend telling you how to work out a problem with another friend. You might say, “I need to solve this myself.” If the friend continues to throw advice at you unsolicited, it might be time to say something in a kind way using your “I” messages. If it escalates and the person still doesn’t get it, be more direct but heed the consequences of anything you might do or say. Silence works, too. You can always respond later. Better to do so verbally rather than in emails or texts that can be misinterpreted.
- Be true to yourself.If you fear repercussions of stating directly how you feel about someone not respecting your boundaries, don’t give in to them just to keep the peace. No one likes to be trampled. But most important, stick to your values. It’s your lane, not theirs.
- Practice what you preach. The same message applies here. Try to do unto others as you want them to do unto you. Respect is a two-way street. And if at first setting boundaries or respecting others’ boundaries seems hard—like the first time you stepped into a car and drove on your own trying hard to stay in your lane—know that practice makes perfect, or at least is a very good start.