I found myself in a bit of a conundrum recently. I was fully committed to leaning into my courage and being honest about how some things were landing on me. This meant that I also had to state my boundaries (again). This has always been something that I’ve struggled with – it feels so darned uncomfortable not to mention extremely vulnerable. It can be especially hard for me to share my hurt feelings with those I love. Yet I have made a commitment to myself to do hard things and to develop better navigational skills for just these sorts of relationship conversations. The problem? I entered familiar territory with a new strategy, but the receiver of my message of how I was feeling went into defense mode. Almost instantaneously I could feel that old familiar paradigm washing over both of us. It would have been so easy to fall into our old patterns and roles. But this time, I declined to play my old role and I stay grounded and calm.
I’d love to tell you that there was a quick, happy ending – with hugs and humor. That was not the case.
While the scenario played out much like it always has in the past, it was me who brought a new conviction to the situation. I knew I could not control how my conversation would be received. The only thing I could control was how I chose to respond in return. This is where real change takes place for me — when I make a conscious decision to choose a new path. I will only ever get a different result in the way I am treated if I stay committed to my self-worth and the boundaries that support my values. As a life-long people pleaser and conflict avoider, this will probably always be a work in progress for me.
I learned a lot from being both an observer and a participant in this interaction. Mindfulness and meditation practice have been instrumental in helping me to straddle these two perspectives. I made a lot of mental notes and later poured them out into my journal. Journaling helps me to sort through my emotions, another’s emotions and reactions, and differing points of view. It is often through journaling that I gain a deeper understanding of myself and why certain situations matter so much to me. In this case, it was not all surprising to recognize myself on both sides of the fence.
You see, I was on the receiving end of someone trying to insist that their idea was best for me but I had stated clearly that I did not want that. I used to be that person – the helper — who would jump in and “fix things” even when my help was not wanted or needed. Ugh….so that is what it feels like to be steamrollered by good intentions and poor “listening to understand” skills. Naturally, the person trying to help me solve a problem (and not even the right problem), was hurt that I would not be appreciative of their efforts and their thoughtfulness. (Oh my, I have been that wounded helper so many times in the past.)
On the other side of the fence, is the new me, trying my best to set and hold boundaries, to honor myself by stating clearly what I want or need. It was important to me that my wishes would be respected. The reason this is such a tender and vulnerable issue for me is that for many years, I would acquiesce to keep the peace, I would sacrifice my own needs and desires to placate others, and I was often afraid that I would lose treasured relationships if I held my ground. The tap root for all this people pleasing and timid behavior was embedded in my childhood experiences.
Since boundaries are something that I am striving to develop with confidence and conviction, I am trying to practice new skills with what seem like relatively small matters. What I discovered was that even a small situation can be fueled with a lot of emotions, defensiveness, misunderstanding and poor listening.
Ironic isn’t it — that I could see myself as both the over-zealous helper and the evolving person striving to set clear boundaries. What a rich lesson for me to absorb. It is a reminder that when we get to know ourselves better, we also gain a greater awareness and empathy for others.
It just so happened that I came across some invaluable insight from Dr. Rick Hanson just as I was processing all of this:
It was those words — “the restraint of reactive patterns in order to stay present with another person” that stopped me in my tracks. What I had wanted most during that hard, heated conversation was to be heard — and what I was learning from my own part in that same conversation was the value of genuine listening. Listening to understand. Genuine listening that moves us to truly hear what another person wants us to know about their most vulnerable places.
Too often, we find ourselves unconsciously falling into the same old conversations and familiar but ineffective patterns. Judgements and defensiveness are roadblocks that lead to dead ends. Dr. Hanson offers a better way for us to enter these challenging conversations — by being open to hearing how someone really feels.
This does require that we tap into our empathy and that we pay attention to old reactive patterns (our own and another person’s). So many times, our actions are well-intended, but we miss the opportunity to respect how it might land on someone.
Making a genuine effort to change how we “show up” for each other in these hard conversations can have a transformational impact in our relationships.
Listening to understand creates a bridge for a better conversation — and a deeper connection. And did you know that repairing a misunderstanding or a wrongdoing can actually strengthen a relationship?
Relationships also grow stronger and flow more easily the better we know each other. Just as we are careful with the sensitivities of young children, we can work to be more cognizant of these tender places with our friends and family. Some of those tender places are the wellspring of the best attributes of people we love.
There is a happy ending to my story. It took a few days and several more conversations — and yes, there were a few good laughs to boot. (Did you know that laugher completes a stress cycle?).
Perhaps the best take-away from this whole experience is that I earned a merit badge in the personal growth department. I am finding solid footing for expressing my boundaries and I am able to refrain from getting caught in old, unhealthy emotional swirls. It really feels good to use my tools and get a favorable result in the end, even if I still need a lot more practice.
Dr. Rick Hanson – Check out Dr. Hanson’s many resources including his books, podcasts, newsletters, and courses. Follow him on Instagram and Facebook for daily doses of practical wisdom and insight.
Nedra Tawwab – Therapist, NY Times Bestselling Author and Relationship Expert – Nedra is best known for her work on boundaries! Follow her on Instagram “NedrasNuggets” for daily doses of inspiration for setting, holding and honoring boundaries.
Elizabeth Earnshaw, Clinical Psychologist, Author, Gottman Institute Trained Counselor — Elizabeth is one of my favorite young resources for sound relationship advice and experienced guide for invaluable tools to navigate all of our most important relationships. Follow her on Instagram — LizListens