Let’s imagine a situation we are all familiar with…
You’ve made plans to meet a friend for lunch and you’re sitting at the table waiting. Your stomach starts to grumble. He was supposed to be here ten minutes ago! “That’s okay,” you think to yourself, “he probably hit traffic or got tied up at work.”
Another ten minutes go by. You start to get worried so you send a quick text, “Here! I’m at a table towards the back.”
Another five minutes go by and you get a text: “Almost there!”
This is when you suddenly start to see flames behind your eyes!
You’ve been sitting there waiting (and starving, for that matter), for almost a half-hour! But that’s not what makes you furious – what makes you want to get up and leave is the fact that this friend is always late.
Just then, your friend walks up and apologizes. “No big deal”, you say, even though it IS a big deal. Now you have to rush through lunch to get back to work on time, and you’re secretly fuming inside, “Why is he ALWAYS late when we make plans? And why is it like pulling teeth to make the plans in the first place?!” By now you’re not really listening anymore – and you’re certainly not having a great time.
Meanwhile, what you don’t know is that your friend is having a very hard time at work. His department is being scaled down, and he’s terrified of losing his job. Whenever his boss asks for anything, your friend gets stressed out and doesn’t leave his desk until it’s done. And because your friend has always been very proud of being good at his job, he doesn’t want to admit to his fear of getting fired.
When we feel disconnected to someone we are close with, it’s usually because there’s a lot left unsaid between us. We’re frustrated with how our friend’s behavior is making us feel. At the same time, everyone involved in that mess is pretending that everything is okay – when clearly, it’s not.
Boundaries aren’t a wall we put up to shut someone out. Instead, they allow us to open the lines of communication.
Boundaries get two people on the same page and give you both the opportunity to do better next time. If they never knew this was bothering you, chances are, it will happen again. And then you’ll get angry again, furiously eat your lunch, and disconnect from your friend just a little bit more yet again.
“But it’s uncomfortable to talk about my feelings! I’d rather just bottle them up or push the feelings away! Why confront them?!” Well, you want to have deeper, more meaningful friendships and relationships, right? You have to put in the effort, feel a little uncomfortable sometimes, and be vulnerable.
But what’s the big deal? What happens if you DON’T set boundaries in your relationships?
You make the other person out to be the villain in a story they don’t know is happening
You feel taken advantage of
You maintain surface-level relationships
You prove to yourself that your own needs are not important enough to get mentioned
But when we do set boundaries, what do we really get out of it?
The people in your life know exactly what makes you feel valued and respected
Others feel comfortable communicating their own boundaries
People who don’t respect your boundaries will start to disappear from your life
You show yourself and the world that what you want, need and feel is important
AoC’s Boundary-Setting Formula
Let’s jump back to that fury-filled lunch with the friend who’s always late, and use the AoC quick boundary-setting formula.
You’re sitting there across from each other, making small talk and you are fuming inside. But this time you decide that this relationship is too important for you to let it fizzle out. And you know that what needs to happen to save it is that you’re going to have to get a bit uncomfortable, probably even a little bit vulnerable.
And then, you look up from your lunch and you say: “I know I said I didn’t mind that you were late but, when you’re late and I don’t hear anything, then I just sit here waiting. That makes me feel as if I’m not that important to you and I get frustrated. In the future, please let me know if you’ll be late instead. That would make me feel like you value my time.”
Your friend: I had no idea that you felt this way. I definitely value your time and friendship and I’ll do better. To be honest, I’m having a tough time right now and I’d like to talk about it…
And just like that, you’ve set your boundary and allowed your friend to respect it and open up.
Now let’s break this down – here’s the formula:
“When you do [this], then [that] happens. That makes me [feel this way]. In the future, please do [this] instead”
Why this formula is so powerful
When you set up your boundary like this, you are creating a logical statement that is honest and hard to argue with. There’s no guesswork here. If I tell my friend at lunch that his behavior makes me feel as if I’m not that important, it’s not like he can reply: “No that’s not how you feel” right?
You’re the one who brings vulnerability to the conversation very early on, and that will invite your friend to become vulnerable as well. For many of us, it’s not easy to talk about feelings. And your friend will appreciate you for taking that first step.
There is no blame, and I’m not questioning my friend’s intentions either. There is a subtle, but very important difference between the following two statements. See if you can spot it:
“When you are late I have to wait, and that makes me feel unimportant.”
“You are always late because you don’t care at all about me just sitting there all by myself.”
There you go.
Now that you know the formula, I hope that setting boundaries will be much easier for you.
And yes, I’m not going to lie: you’ll still feel a bit uncomfortable saying those words. I know I still do!
But once you see how these simple lines can save a friendship, that little bit of discomfort is going to be well worth the price.
By the way, there’s a lot more to be said about boundaries – which is why we did an entire podcast episode on just that topic. So check it out!
And now I’d like to hear from you – let me know how setting boundaries has gone for you in the comments below!
AJ Harbinger - author of 1157 posts on The Art of Charm
AJ Harbinger is one of the world’s top relationship development experts. His company, The Art of Charm, is a leading training facility for top performers that want to overcome social anxiety, develop social capital and build relationships of the highest quality.
Raised by a single father, AJ felt a strong desire to learn about relationships and the elements that make them successful. However, this interest went largely untapped for many years. Following the path set out for him by his family, AJ studied biology in college and went on to pursue a Ph.D. in Cancer Biology at the University of Michigan. It was at this time that he began to feel immense pressure from the cancer lab he worked in and began to explore other outlets for expression. It was at this point that The Art of Charm Podcast was born.
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