Setting Limits

You can find out a lot about a person by how they respect your comfort zone.

Nice people can find it hard to set boundaries. People who care about other people’s feelings can feel guilty for having limits. They worry that saying no makes them appear unkind, rejecting, or selfish. They don’t want anyone to feel bad.

Maybe part of the problem is that we use phrases like establishing boundaries and setting limits, which sound like we are stiff-arming other people away. But limit-setting doesn’t have to be mean or controlling; it can just be a positive way of creating space for yourself. Think of it as making room for you, not aggressing against others. Voicing boundaries is just one way of saying who you are and what you prefer. It’s nothing more than telling the truth about what makes you feel comfortable and safe with someone.

Unfortunately, domineering people often become resentful and aggressive when you don’t do what they want. They may see your boundary as a challenge to their right to control you and then accuse you of being unfair for having your preferences. They act as if preserving your comfort level is somehow robbing them of theirs.

While this coercive behavior is easy to see in hindsight, in the moment it often catches nice people off guard because they hate to give offense or make others upset with them. That’s why it’s so important to define boundaries as simply affirming your right to personal space and freedom of choice. You’re not being mean for having your own preferences.

In the early days of assertiveness training, popular techniques emphasized standing up to others in a way that was tough, stubborn, insistent, and on the defense. But this actually wasn’t necessary because when other people push too hard, all you have to do is stay true to yourself and keep restating your preferences. Bullying people don’t have the right to tell you what you should be comfortable with.

Communicating your limits is especially important in the early phases of getting to know someone, especially in anything that could lead to a closer relationship. As early as possible, you want to see what happens when you prefer something different from the other person’s desires.

In her One Broken Mom podcast, host Ameé Quiriconi explains that introducing small boundaries early in a relationship is the best way of discerning if this new person can respect your individuality or is only interested in controlling you. A good relationship candidate will be pleasantly curious about your limits as a way of getting to know you better. He or she will appreciate your honesty.

Expressing our preferences and requesting space are emotionally intimate first steps in any good relationship. Boundaries express your unique individuality to the other person as you reveal your true feelings. As you share a deeper dimension of yourself—what you can tolerate and what you can’t—the proper response from another person is to feel grateful for getting to know more about you.

When you tell a caring person how you prefer to be treated, that person will welcome learning about your comfort levels. Such people have no desire to overstep your bounds; they want to know your preferences. When you ask for space, a considerate person will show curiosity and compassion instead of reacting with pressure, arguments, or counter-offers. To someone with compassion, everyone has the right to say no. To egocentric people, no one has the right to displease them.

Asking for space or refusing an offer is not aggression. It is merely communicating what makes you feel comfortable, accepted, and safe. No decent person will make you feel bad for needing to feel good.

Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist and author of Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents and Who You Were Meant To Be. Visit www.drlindsaygibson.com.

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