Four Steps to Maintaining Your Boundaries: The Man in Plaid Pants
Learn four easy steps to better maintain your boundaries in the face of challenge.
A summer week in Savannah with my grandparents came with the heady juxtaposition of townhouse living with a parking lot to play in against farm living and running fields in rural georgia.
Staying with my grandparents also came with challenges. There was the series of clown portraits that lined the wall of the staircase leading to the room I slept in. There was the sweet odor of overripe melon that hung thick in their kitchen. And there was the man in plaid pants.
The summer I was four, during my week-long stay, my grandparents decided to take me to lunch and show me off to friends. This is where I met the man in plaid pants. My grandparents introduced me to him, and what happened next has been repeated in my family a thousand times in the years since.
I refused to speak to the man in plaid pants. I refused to look at the man in plaid pants. I refused to sit next to the man in plaid pants. I refused to give in to my grandparents’ acrobatics to get me to quit being rude and acknowledge the man in plaid pants. When sternly interrogated about my motivations, I defended my actions with the simple statement, “I don’t like his pants.” The adults laughed, covering my grandparents’ embarrassment and confusion.
I relate this brief memoir to illustrate that it is never enough to follow the oft offered advice, “Know your boundaries.” Evaluating your values and naming your boundaries is important and necessary work. Yet, what good is knowing your boundaries if you don’t maintain them in the face of challenge?
A note on vocabulary: I use the word “maintain” boundaries not “defend” boundaries. “Defend” implies aggression, battle, and potential weakness and defeat. Approaching the topic from that mindset indicates that we see the world as threatening and see our boundaries as permeable. When we “maintain” boundaries, we do it from a place of strength and self-confidence. We view the world as engaging in collaborative union with us to achieve our best outcomes and view our boundaries as those solid structures that bind us in that union.
Four Steps to Maintaining Your Boundaries
1. Articulate your boundaries clearly.
Knowing your boundaries and articulating your boundaries are two different actions. Knowing happens in our heads and is an intangible intermingling of thoughts, images, facts, and emotions. Articulating involves a clear, verbal explanation of what we will not tolerate or allow from another person. Being open and specific about parameters and defining our expectations honors the other person and what/he she needs to know to engage with us successfully.
2. Understand that power disparities do not negate your boundaries.
Your boundary is your boundary is your boundary. It exists in alignment with your values. Your core values do not change to fit a relationship or a situation; therefore, your boundaries do not change to fit a relationship or a situation.
3. Demonstrate compassion.
We are designed to be in relationship with other humans, yes. Paradoxically, we are also designed to serve our own self-interests. This can cause communication breakdown. Thus, not everyone we are in relationship with will understand our words or trust our motives. Acknowledge other people’s points of view while standing strong on your own.
4. Respond to “Why?” with “What?”
Frequently, when people take issue with a boundary we’ve set, they demand to know the “why” behind the boundary. When we respond to “why” questions, we come from a place of defensiveness, which opens the door for the other person to debate us on our particular decision. The best way to respond to a “why” question is to ask something like, “What are your concerns?” or “What information can I give you?” The other person feels heard, the challenge is diffused, and you receive valuable feedback about his/her perspective.