My client, Kay, was facing bullying at work. One colleague in particular was taking advantage of her. She didn’t like the way he treated her, but she didn’t know how to get it to stop.
Each week, she would come into my office filled with anger, guilt, and shame. She’d fume about her colleague, and then feel guilty about talking about him in that way. Finally, shame would settled in as she blamed herself for what felt like a never-ending cycle.
I recognized a pattern in Kay that I have seen in many women, including myself. Everyone told Kay she needed better boundaries. But, that just made Kay feel even more shame inside. She blamed herself for not being able to stand up to him.
Setting boundaries is not that simple.
Setting boundaries with other people requires the ability tap into courage and creativity deep inside. And this is a skill most people are not taught. Instead, most people focus on saying “No” to other people or getting them to stop. The problem is that it’s rarely that simple. And, when people try to make it that simple, it can wind up feeling even more shaming to you.
For example, do you ever go around in circles like this:
- You’re exhausted, worn out, feeling like a doormat.
- The thought of speaking up for what you need leaves you feeling anxious.
- You can’t do it, so you put your head down and take it instead.
- You blame yourself.
You end up stuck in this internal torment each time somebody does something that hurts you or asks more of you than you have to give.
Your voice is in there somewhere, but you don’t know how to find it, let alone speak up for yourself with the people around you. In fact, the mere thought of speaking up for yourself fills you with turmoil. It may be that it’s not actually safe to speak up in that way. Or, it may be that you were conditioned to stay silent. Either way, the anxiety you feel is real.
When you focus on the boundary line, you focus on the problem, creating even more stress inside. But, when you focus on developing your own voice, you start to focus on creating solutions.
The way forward isn’t to beat yourself up about setting boundaries. The way forward is to strengthen the voice of courage and creativity you have deep inside.
Strengthening your voice is the secret to setting boundaries.
It may be that no one taught you how to develop your own voice deep inside—to pay attention to the fears or the longings, or even the anger of your own life. It may be that you were taught to shove those feelings aside.
If no one taught you how to strengthen your own voice, the only options are to stay stuck where you are or look outside of yourself for rescue. Your best strategy is to hope that you’ll get lucky and someone else will come along and tell you what you need.
There is another way. It starts with getting honest with yourself and honest with God. You can break the vicious anger-guilt-shame cycle within and replace it with the voice of courage that is inside of you. Here’s how to get started.
Step One: Listen for the voice of your conditioning.
Your conditioning is the way you have learned to survive. This is the voice that tries to tell you everything is fine when, in reality, it’s not fine. This voice sounds like any of the following:
- You’re fine. Stop being a baby.
- They don’t really mean to treat you that way.
- It’s easier just to take it.
- Try harder and maybe they’ll stop.
Step Two: Listen for the voice of shame.
Shame is ever-present, especially when you take steps toward change. It wants to keep you stuck in old ways. It may show up as any of the following:
- You deserve to be treated this way.
- You’re not worth more.
- Who do you think you are?
- You’ll only make a fool of yourself.
As you learn to listen for the voice of your conditioning and the voice of shame, you break free from them, or differentiate from them, as psychologists like to say. Instead of letting those voices lead you, you create space for a truer voice to emerge, a voice that comes from the best of you deep inside.
Step Three: Listen for the voice of courage.
This is a voice you may not recognize. It’s a voice that may initially feel like a whisper from far away. You can learn to amplify it by practicing asking yourself “what if” questions:
- What if I don’t deserve this treatment?
- What if I am worth more?
- What if who I am is a beloved child of God?
- What if I could be brave?
As you differentiate from the voices of your conditioning and of shame, you will discover a new voice of courage deep within. You are starting to tap into the best of you, the place inside where the Holy Spirit leads.
You start to confront challenging situations one courageous step at a time. This is exactly what Kay had to do.
Instead of focusing on the problems in her life, she began to give consistent, gentle attention to her own inner life. She started to become more aware of the way she had been trying to protecting herself by staying small. She confronted the voice of shame. She also started to notice the pain buried underneath her anger. It was hard to face the tenderness inside of her, but it also became a key motivator. She didn’t want to expose this tender part of her to more toxicity.
You start waking up to the reality that you are someone worth protecting.
And, she found her voice.
At work, one day, she found out that a project she had led was going to be presented to the leadership of her company. She had done most of the work on the project. Yet, her colleague assumed he would present it.
Kay had enough. The next time they met, she tapped into the voice of courage deep inside and said, “I know you’d like to present the project. But that won’t work for me. I’ll be presenting it. You can help with your portion of it.”
Sure enough, the blows started to come. She told me that his face turned red as they stood facing each other. He accused her of being foolish and said that she couldn’t handle it. He mocked her. Each time he levied an accusation, Kay calmly stood her ground, not dignifying him with a response.
Finally, he exhausted himself as he spewed out all of his best efforts to get her to fold. When she could tell he was finished, she paused, lifted her chin and—completely ignoring the tantrum she’d just witnessed—simply repeated her boundary. “So, it’s all set, then,” she said. “I’ll lead the presentation.” Then, she turned on her heel and left.
He didn’t apologize, but he never hassled Kay again. And, she went on the lead that presentation boldly, with confidence.
She had found her voice, and by using it to create one key boundary, she was paving the way into a brave new life. Strengthening her voice was the secret to a whole new world of setting healthy boundaries.