Drawing Boundaries, Mindfully and With Love

September 3, 2016


Twice this week, friends of mine have raised the issue of how to draw boundaries -- to say "no" -- when someone asks you a question that you don't want to answer or makes a request that you don't want to fulfill.  In one scenario, the "intruding" person was a stranger, and in the other, the person was a friend or colleague.  For many of us, our desire to be kind makes it hard to respond.  We want to be nice and yet we feel put out by this demand.  So the question becomes, how do you respond to this person with lovingkindness and at the same time respect your need for boundaries? 


Often when the request or demand is made and we first feel the desire to draw boundaries, we don't draw those boundaries cleanly and deliberately.  That might be to say no to the request; it might take the form of saying that you are not interested in the conversation with the stranger who is trying to make conversation. We might hem or haw or respond sort of vaguely or indecisively.  Then we continue to feel pushed, we might draw our boundaries more forcefully than we might have otherwise.  As a result, we end up acting with more force or emotion than the situation originally called for, and then we feel bad about our behavior.  Instead of simply drawing a boundary, we end up feeling guilty about having hurt the other person's feelings.  


First, recognize that your need for boundaries is justified.  Perhaps a fully enlightened being wouldn't see any need to draw boundaries, but if that's not you, that's okay.  Much of the problem is that we don't believe our needs fully justified, so we don't respond by drawing a boundary clearly.  What this means is that ultimately, we think that our needs somehow need to be justified and we don't want to make those needs fully met. Instead, if we believe our needs matter, and we don't question them, we can gently yet clearly articulate them. 


At the same time, we are often attached to how we look to others.  Our desire to be kind is often tied, even unconsciously, to a desire to appear kind.  It's part of our identity, and we think that if we draw our boundaries and say "no," the other person will no longer think we're kind, or others watching our exchange will not think we're kind. We don't always like to admit this about ourselves, but it's very often the case. But it's not kind to ourselves to do ignore our own needs. In fact, we often come off as less kind because we did not draw the lines that we needed to clearly and calmly right from the beginning, and therefore feel a need to really assert them if the other person persists.


An example from my own past is helpful. I find that people often feel very comfortable sharing their inner world with me, and so they will often divulge very personal or intimate stories.  One time I was on retreat at Omega, and this woman began sharing this story with me about how someone had mistreated her.  She was going into excruciating detail about this mistreatment, and I could tell she was getting worked up, and that this was likely a pattern and thus not the first time she had vented this story to someone else.  I quickly interrupted her and said, "Thank you for sharing, but what are you asking of me?"  She paused, sort of perplexed. "What do you mean?"  I repeated, "I appreciate you sharing this with me, but I don't know what you're asking of me by telling me this?" She realized she did not know, that she did not want anything from me, but this was her way of trying to connect. She then realized she didn't need to do that to connect, and we had a truly lovely conversation thereafter.


Of course, I have not always responded so gracefully; I've had my own experiences of responding with anger or annoyance and then feeling bad afterwards. Based on those experiences, here are some points to keep in mind the next time you face this kind of situation: 


* Look at the language you use to frame the situation and drop anything that isn't absolutely necessary to describe factually what occurred. Are you describing this person in unflattering terms because you feel annoyed or bothered?  Drop that language and recognize that you're upset about your own needs and boundaries.


* Recognize that you do not fully know where this person is coming from.  Did you respond to this person alone or did you respond to the ghosts of your past and all the prior incidents that you might be equating with this person's actions?  Most of us are responding to the cumulative effect of numerous encounters.  Be present to this person and don't project the past onto their actions, however much it might seem to resemble a past episode.


* You are not responsible for this person's feelings. You do not need to ignore your own needs because you are worried about this person's feelings.  Again, this is because you're actually worried about not looking good or nice, and while you genuinely don't want to hurt their feelings, all you can do is assert your boundaries as firmly and gently as possible.  


* You are responsible for your feelings. Much of our anger comes from the fact that we feel that our boundaries we're crossed when this person interrupted us, asked us a question, or made a request. We might even think, why didn't this person realize I didn't want to be bothered? We're upset at even having to draw boundaries and assert our needs. The moment you feel guilty tells you that your desire for boundaries, for your own needs to be met, are somehow wrong. Why feel guilty about honoring your own needs, whatever those may be?  This does not mean you can't examine more fully why you needed to draw a boundary, but you don't need to layer guilt on top of your feelings.


* Don't have expectations. When you draw your boundaries, whether gently and kindly or angrily or dismissively, don't have expectations about how the other person will respond.  This is especially true if you respond nicely.  They may not return your kindness, and that's okay.  That's part of their responsibility for their emotions and speech. Just know that you did what you could to respect your needs and to be kind in asserting them.


Being mindful, kind and respectful is often an exercise in contradiction. All of these points require that you begin to work with -- and try to maintain -- mutually exclusive positions all at the same time.  


How do you hold mutually exclusive positions at the same time?  You watch yourself rotating from one position to the next and accept that there is no resolution. That's the mindfulness part--the ability to hold contradiction. You can hold your feelings of resentment at having to draw a boundary, you can watch this person and see how you judge and label them in ways that reflect all of your past encounters, you can see that you don't know all that this person is, you can honor your need for a boundary anyways and draw it as smoothly as you can, you recognize that you might have been a little gentler in your remarks, and then you can watch as feelings of guilt all come up. And you can watch all of this circulate through your mind and the emotions circulate through your body.  You can put yourself in this person's position and see how you would want to be treated if you were in that position.  


Do all of this, and then, most importantly, do not come to a conclusion that any of these feelings or positions is right or wrong.  Over time, you will learn to be more mindful of your own needs, to be more skillful in drawing your boundaries without worrying about looking good, and to watch and release feelings of resentment and guilt without belaboring them. 



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