How to Set Effective Boundaries

When someone does or says something that hurts my feelings, I may initially notice a little anger stirring in my body. My conditioned tendency is to stew about how they wronged me. Unfortunately for me, it’s a habit I grew up with; almost a family tradition.

While growing up, I noticed that family members seemed to enjoy having someone to be angry at. That way, there was always an abundant supply of things (people) to talk about. When the discussions steered toward how bad or wrong someone else was, there was a subtle feeling of delicious righteousness. Egos love this.

Somewhere along the line, I decided to kick the habit. I learned that I was deceiving myself. Both in terms of my assessment of others and of the impact it was having on me. Any feeling of superiority I realized, was temporary. On the other hand, when I practice that kind of judgement about others, I can not but help judging myself in the same way.

After realizing what I was doing, I worked on it for quite a while and developed new habits that feel much better.

When that initial anger comes up and I hurt my feelings using something someone else says or does, I acknowledge my hurt feelings and then remind myself that nothing is ever personal – no matter how much it may feel like it is. It can take a few minutes (or more) to get control of those feelings. Sometimes it requires extended vigilance because my rascally ego can sneak up and trump my healthy habits if I let it. I’ve found some effective techniques that keep me from falling for its tricks.

First, I discovered that it’s always me who hurts me. I may use others to project the blame onto, but my reactions and responses are always a choice. Even those times when it doesn’t feel that way. Here’s how I know this: I can, at any point in time, stop what I’m thinking and ask myself if the thoughts are really true. The truth is that I can never know for sure what someone else meant to do. Since I can’t know, the next step is to ask myself whether my interpretation of their actions or motivations makes me feel good or not. If it doesn’t, why would I choose to interpret their behavior in this way, especially when I can’t know? I am totally free to start thinking other thoughts. And that is my choice.

It’s not that difficult to do, especially once it becomes a new habit. Even if someone intended to hurt me, I still get to choose whether or not I’ll take the bait. Anyone choosing to hurt anyone is misguided and needs compassion. I have the choice whether or not to spend time with misguided people, even if they are family. Who I spend time with and the conditions in which I do are determined by how I set boundaries. Creating appropriate boundaries is my responsibility.

So now, when I hurt myself because of something someone else says or does I ask myself why I would want to feel that way. I almost always realize that it’s mainly just an unconscious habit. And the bit of anger I feel is really directed at myself for not having set the right boundaries in the first place.

When I honor my feelings and have appropriate shields in place, the misguided behavior of others ricochets off me the way a reflection bounces off of a mirror. I mentally radiate white light onto the person I’ve used as my foil and forgive myself for using them to feel bad. I also forgive them for the part they’ve played. If they have stepped over a boundary of mine that wasn’t strong enough, I thank them (inside) for showing me where to improve it. It’s not always easy to set boundaries and they are usually met with resistance at first, but implementing them when necessary is the only path to peace.

Jarl Forsman

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