I hear this question often and it reveals a conundrum that many people of faith face when it comes to setting boundaries.
Many of you feel that you have only two options when a boundary line has been crossed:
a. Lash out and be perceived as cruel or selfish.
b. Ignore the boundary foul and avoid any potential conflict in the name of “kindness.”
Fortunately, it’s possible to stand up for yourself with strength and integrity when you use the following three steps to set boundaries. You’ll know you’re not being cruel and that’s what matters most.
3 Steps to Set Boundaries Without Being Cruel
1. Pay attention to anger.
First, it’s okay to feel angry. That emotion is a signal that usually highlights you’ve been hurt. Pay attention to that important signal, but don’t let it take you over. In the moment, you might feel the urge to respond with a snarky, sarcastic reply. You might wish to punish or spite the person who has hurt you.
This type of response isn’t good for anyone, including you. In fact, engaging in angry vitriol keeps you ensnared with the person who has hurt you. You can take a much healthier approach, stand up for yourself, and communicate far more effectively if you exercise some self-restraint in the moment.
When you feel insulted or hurt, stop and pay attention to the anger that you feel inside. It’s understandable to get upset. But, don’t immediately lash out. Instead, give yourself a safe space and time to process the situation. When you express compassion toward your own anger, the rage will tend to soften.
2. Notice guilt.
Once your anger subsides, you might feel guilt about the anger you felt. Often, this guilt keeps you from saying anything at all. But, avoiding the conflict won’t help. You don’t want to act out of anger, but you still need to show up for yourself.
The problem is that many people get stuck between these two emotions. They feel angry. Then, they feel guilty for feeling angry. This dilemma can cause you to vent out of anger or avoid responding at all.
Neither approach works. This is why a third step is so critical.
3. Negotiate the middle ground.
When you feel angry inside, it’s often a signal that a boundary was crossed. The guilt that you feel is a warning to proceed with caution. Both are helpful, but neither emotion tells the full story. Dishing out hurtful comments or letting someone run over you won’t lead to a healthy resolution. Instead, you must find some middle ground. Here’s how you get to it:
a. Ask yourself: What are the facts?
Set aside your emotions for a moment and identify what happened as if you were a reporter who arrived on the scene. If you need help, consider writing things down or asking a neutral friend to review the situation. For example, you might identify the facts as:
- She gives me unwanted advice.
- He continually insults me.
- She asks me questions that make me feel uncomfortable.
- He says things that are mean or untrue.
- Her responses are self-centered and all about her.
Once you recognize the facts, then you should assess how the situation affected you.
b. Ask yourself: What was the impact?
This question requires you to pay attention to what happened inside of YOU. What was the impact of the boundary foul on you mentally, emotionally, or physically? For instance, did you feel uncomfortable, criticized, misunderstood, judged, or betrayed? Did you lose sleep due to stress or anxiety? Or, was someone else whom you love hurt or put in harm’s way?
Narrow down the impact to a short statement that describes the impact on you, such as:
- I feel belittled.
- I become anxious.
- I get angry or upset and can’t sleep.
The goal of this step is to shift your focus away from changing or blaming them and on to the impact on you. You don’t have control over them. However, you do have control over you. You have been entrusted care for your emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being. When you focus on the work of doing what is right by yourself, you are more likely to act out of health.
Instead of trying to get even with them, your primary concern is to honor and care for yourself.
c. Ask yourself: What action would you like to take as a result?
Now that you know the facts and the impact it had upon you, it’s time to decide on an action as an appropriate response. For example, you might choose to limit your exposure to this person. Or, maybe you’d like to tell the other person that their comments have made certain topics off-limits in the future. In some circumstances, it may be best to tell the other person that you’re ending the relationship altogether.
If someone gets angry with you when you identify what you need to take care of yourself, take stock of the situation, and act in a manner that protects your dignity and value—that’s on them! You can’t control what other people think or say. But, you can control how you handle the situation with maturity. There is nothing selfish or mean about saying to someone else:
- “I am not asking for your opinion. If I want your input, I’ll let you know in the future.”
- “This conversation feels inappropriate. I think it’s best if we hang up the phone now.”
- “It’s hurtful when you ask me to do XYZ. Please don’t do it again.”
- “I’m not comfortable talking with you right now. I’m going to excuse myself.”
Is there anything that sounds mean about these statements? Are you being cruel? Of course not. You’ve taken the emotion out of it. Stating the facts as you see them does not make you cruel.
Last of all, if you’re still unsure about how to set boundaries in a difficult situation, ask yourself…
How would I want my own child to stand up for herself in this situation?
Setting healthy boundaries is wise. You are actively engaged in the divine work of becoming a whole person. You honor God when you counter toxic behavior from other people with dignity and purpose.
Escape quickly from the company of fools; they’re a waste of your time, a waste of your words. —Proverbs 14:7
Join the conversation. Leave a comment below:
How do you feel when faced with setting a new boundary? Do you ever worry that you’ll be viewed as cruel or selfish? Have you learned to overcome that concern?