Jessica could feel Aaron’s grip tighten around her waist as he pulled her closer to his lips. His passion for her was intoxicating and yet something in the pit of her gut was saying no. Aaron was everything she wanted in a man. In fact, a part of her had craved this moment for a long time. Why then, did she feel so torn and confused? She had deep feelings for Aaron and the last thing she wanted to do was hurt him or discourage him. If she said no now, would he ever make a pass at her again? And if she did say no, how should she say it? These questions confused Jessica even more and her fear immobilized her so that she was unable to speak. In the end, she was swept away by Aaron’s passion, but her conflicted emotions didn’t allow her to fully enjoy her dream come true. Instead of erotic splendor, what she experienced more closely resembled being pulled apart.
Like many people who don’t know how to assert healthy boundaries, Jessica found herself simply giving in rather than risk the relationship. Can you relate?
Most of us have been caught between a desire to maintain the congenial aspects of a connection and a desire to avoid something we are not ready for. And most of us have little clue how to navigate these seemingly contradictory desires so that our needs and the needs of those we care about are fully met.
One reason we have difficulty with boundaries, is because we are not taught how to say no in a way which preserves our connection with others. In fact, most of us are never taught how to say no at all.
I have a vague memory of feeling entitled to say no as a very young child. But by the time I was five years old, my no was of no consequence. My strict and dogmatic father had instilled in my young mind a fear of defying authority. In time my acquiescence would extend to the church I was raised in and eventually to peer pressure in college.
I doubt that parents who demand compliance from their children realize to what extent they are setting them up to bow before the pressures of conformity from less than ideal sources. But if we teach our children to simply obey, they are more likely to feel compelled to follow the group even if that group indulges in dangerous behavior.
As adults we often struggle to hear our inner knowing, that part of us which has thoughts and feelings which can sometimes run counter to the wishes of others, even those we are close to. Finding the courage to speak our truth, let alone assert a healthy boundary can seem daunting.
Perhaps a first question might be what is a healthy boundary?
Boundaries create a safe container and each of us needs to know what is contained within our personal boundaries. Your preferences and needs define who you are and what works best in your life. While expanding your world to include the unfamiliar can be a fulfilling growth experience, it is important to balance that open minded approach to life with a sense of what works best for you. Some experiences might be right for others but limiting or even destructive for you. It is your responsibility to know what you need at any given moment and learn how to communicate that to others.
Some people fear that boundaries will leave them feeling lonely. Others are terrified of hurting those they love with their no. We are after all social creatures and it is only natural that we are concerned about our impact on people who are important to us, especially when we depend upon love, companionship and even resources from those people.
I learned to assert boundaries when I was newly sober and seeing a therapist for my anger and depression. Until then, I had no idea that failing to assert healthy boundaries could backfire on me producing all sorts of emotional fallout such as resentment, anger and even depression. I thought my emotions were something to be controlled. What I didn’t realize at the time, was that rather than control my emotions, I needed to learn to channel those feelings into positive action instead of negative reactions. As I became more honest with myself about my feelings, I was better able to assert my boundaries .
Today in my work as a relationship coach, my clients often struggle with resistance to learning healthy boundaries. In an effort to encourage them, I often refer to airline safety instructions which state: “put your oxygen mask on first, then help your child/friend/relative to put their oxygen mask on.” Since most people have traveled in a commercial jet at least once, they get it. But my analogy references the fact that we are better able to help others if we attend to our needs first. That is an important aspect of healthy boundaries. But my dear friend, Tom, recently shared this with me:
“I always thought that appropriate boundaries meant me keeping certain people and energies away from me. Saying ‘no’ to other people. But now I understand that good boundaries also involves me containing and not extending my energy system too far outside myself into territory that is not mine to protect. Saying ‘no’ to myself. ”
I like the way Tom has shifted the “no” from others to himself. That feels more empowering to me.
After reading Tom’s words, I more fully grasp a major fear which I suspect is present for a lot of people – fear of alienation and separation. This was not intuitively obvious to me because I grew up in a home where I had zero privacy and no self-determination and therefore the idea that I was entitled to healthy boundaries was immediately attractive to me. But now I get that others might have a deeper fear of losing connection than I did when I first learned to assert boundaries. And learning how to assert healthy boundaries can arouse that fear for them.
So how do we resolve our need to have our desires honored with our need to feel loved and accepted?
Believe it or not, one of the simplest ways to practice asserting healthy boundaries is to teach your loved ones to say no to you. In fact, if you know how to take a no with your heart wide open, you will be much more adept at saying no with your heart wide open. And that really is the key – keeping your heart wide open!
Below are tips for saying no while creating more love. Rather than wait to try these techniques on a loved one, why not invite them to practice these steps on you? The good will extended by inviting their no will go a long way toward establishing trust and increasing intimacy.
Look for the Yes which Follows Your No
If you think that someone has to win and someone has to lose, then you will find it very difficult to say no with love. It will feel like you are hurting someone you care about. But if you believe in win/win propositions, then you will be better able to envision a compromise or alternative which can meet your needs and the needs of another. On the other side of your no, exists your yes. If you fully express your no, you will be better able to find your yes. To get to your yes, use the three steps I call Assert, Affirm and Invite.
Assert, Affirm and Invite
This three step process is a very effective formula for increasing more intimacy, love and partnership while asserting healthy boundaries. First you assert your boundary, then you affirm the value of your relationship and finally you invite this person to join you in a win/win alternative scenario.
It goes something like this:
” That doesn’t work for me but I really love that you want to spend time with me. I would love to spend more time with you too. Would you like to do this (insert your win/win alternative) instead?”
Even if the other person is no more drawn to your suggestion than you are to their suggestion, they will get how much you value the relationship and that is likely to create good feelings between the two of you whether you can agree on a plan of action or not.
You can incorporate these three steps whenever you fear conflict in a relationship. Just remember:
Some of us assume that when someone says no to us or we say no to them, we are not just saying no to the outcome or opportunity but to the person. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, by saying no to things which do not work for us or call to us, we are able to more effectively say yes to the things we really want to share with the people in our lives. As counterintuitive as it may be, learning to assert healthy boundaries makes us more available for partnership, intimacy and love. So do yourself and those you care about a favor and say no when that is your truth.