“You don’t have to be angry to set a boundary,” I said.
“Wait, what?” my client replied. She and her husband were having a disagreement over something that seemed trivial: he wanted to watch the evening news during dinner; she wanted to eat without it.
“I just don’t want to be confrontational about something so minor,” she said. “But it’s eating me up inside.”
This client happens to be a capital-G giver. She cooks and bakes for others; buys, wraps, and mails seasonal gifts; remembers your dog’s birthday, etc. Givers tend to put the needs of others ahead of their own. So, it was no wonder that she discounted her – let’s face it, strong – feeling of being “eaten up inside.”
She also is a woman. Culturally, females are (generally) discouraged from expressing anger or confronting. So, her avoidance of these also tracks.
Mix temperament and socialization with the conventional wisdom that you must be angry to set a boundary, and it’s no wonder she’s confused and suffering.
She’s not the only one.
Even I find boundaries easier to feel than to define. When I said to her, “You don’t have to be angry to set a boundary,” it was a reflex: honest but unconsidered. She asked me to say more. I came up blank and replied, “Let me give it some thought, and I’ll write about it.”
Though my client has, by now, achieved a compromise with her husband about the TV, these reflections are inspired by our conversation. This is for her – and for anyone out there who struggles with boundaries.
Boundaries can be big or small, positive (yes to this) or negative (no to that), but they all feel like self-care.
I have loads of little boundaries, like when I turn off the light to sleep and when I rise; flossing; how much chocolate I can eat; when I leave for the gym. I have bigger boundaries, too, like “just say no” to social engagements that I feel ambivalent about, as well as “say yes” to visiting far away friends and family.
The salient feature of all these boundaries is that they feel like I’m taking good care of myself.
Lower the feeling bar and investigate.
If you, due to temperament or socialization, are slow to anger, learn to notice and count subtler feelings of discomfort.
For example, when I get tense, stop breathing, and make a face, I take note. Then I ask myself, “What’s going on?” “What are you afraid of?” or “What are you thinking and believing right now?” Those questions help me determine if a boundary is needed.
Anger is powerful but expensive.
It’s a shot of directional energy but a costly one: hard on your body and your spirit and often more damaging than intended. When it rises up, allow yourself to feel it, but act on it thoughtfully.
I personally do a Judge Your Neighbor Worksheet on any person or situation that angers me. That may sound like a lot, but it is an investment that always returns. It helps me to take responsibility for myself, avoid harming others, and find clarity.
Clarity is more powerful than anger.
At The School for The Work, Byron Katie got my attention when she said that she preferred clarity to boundaries. She was referring, I think, to the power of the affirmative: of what you want, of desire for what you’re saying “yes” to when you say “no” to something else.
“Every complaint hides a desire,” says Kasia Urbaniak in Unbound. We could rephrase that to, “Every boundary hides a yes.” What is the desire on the other side of your anger or tension? What are you saying yes to when you set your boundary?
Love is more powerful – and more generative – than anger.
Think of the things you do for love: how you dig deep to repair after an argument with your beloved; the tender way you care for your sick children; the compassion you feel for your elderly parents; the lengths you go to for your community.
Anger may give you a shot of directional energy, but love gives you lift, and lift gives you endurance. Change is often sparked with protest. But the love inside – the desire for a better future, the bonds and friendship formed by shared endeavor – is what inspires and motivates the persistence that creates lasting change.