Just as we have a responsibility to ourselves to set, enforce, and reinforce our own boundaries, we have a responsibility to respect the boundaries set by others.
It doesn’t matter if we think those boundaries are too rigid or too lax; it doesn’t matter if we think those boundaries are arbitrary; it doesn’t matter if someone else’s boundaries align with our priorities or not. When someone says “no” to us in a domain in which they’re entitled to set a boundary, we owe it to them to respect that “no.”
This is sometimes easier said than done. Because we, just like everybody else, don’t like to hear “no.” Especially not in our close relationships.
Hearing “no” from people we care about, and from whom we crave connection and closeness, can be upsetting.
It can make us feel alienated.
It can make us feel lonely.
It can make us feel unloved.
There’s a particular cognitive distortion called “mind reading” that is responsible for most of the negative feelings we associate with being told “no” in our close relationships. Therapists who practice the form of psychotherapy called cognitive therapy, or cognitive-behavioral therapy, believe that our emotions are created by our habitual patterns of thinking; and that disproportionately negative emotions are created by distorted patterns of thinking. A “mind reading” distortion happens when we assume we know what another person is thinking— when in reality we don’t actually know that. We only have their behavior to go on.
When that behavior is the other person telling us “no”— setting a boundary— we often plunge headfirst into “mind-reading.” We often go down a pretty dark path with it, pretty quickly. Why would this person want to set a boundary with us? Don’t they like us? Do they hate us? ALL I WANT IS TO BE CLOSER TO THIS PERSON, WHY ON EARTH WOULD THEY SET A BOUNDARY?
For many people, it turns into a spiral of negative assumptions and beliefs about ourselves, our relationships, and our basic loveability.
The fact of the matter, however, is that where other people draw boundaries often has little or nothing to do with us specifically. They’ve chosen to set their boundaries according to their priorities and comfort zone; usually this overwhelmingly has to do with them and their past experiences, not with us.
But even beyond that: it doesn’t really matter why the person has chosen to set a boundary where they’ve set it.
It’s not even any of our business, beyond our desire to understand the needs and priorities of the people close to us.
If we truly expect our boundaries to be respected, if we truly believe that everyone has the right to set reasonable boundaries wherever they need to set them, if we truly believe that nobody owes anybody an explanation or justification of why they want or need to say “no” when they do…we have to respect that.
So how do we cope with it when we’re told “no” in our close relationships? How do we keep from plunging headfirst down a “mind reading” wormhole of self-blame and self-doubt, and keep our wits about us so we can truly respect the boundaries of others?
First, we need to recognize when that wormhole is opening up beneath us. We need to pay enough attention to our emotions and reactions to know that we’re heading down that path.
Second, we need to avoid panicking. Hearing “no” from people we care about often awakens a very primitive fear of abandonment in us, and the instinct is to run, flee from those uncomfortable feelings, or otherwise dig, dig, dig until we find the “true” reason we were told “no.”
Third, we need to be on top of our self-talk. We’re talking to ourselves, all day, every day— we usually just aren’t aware of this constant internal monologue. We only become aware of it when it becomes particularly maladaptive— and this is one of those times when we want to take a few steps back, push the pause button, and really critically evaluate what we’re saying to ourselves.
Are we telling ourselves we’re to blame for the other person setting a boundary?
Are we telling ourselves it has something to with our basic loveability, or our basic competence?
Are we telling ourselves things that will only result in feelings of defensiveness and rejection?
No one else can monitor and alter our self-talk for us— that responsibility’s on us.
The good news is, over time, if we really pay attention to how we react when others set boundaries, if we really avoid panicking, if we really stay on top of our self-talk, we can get better at handling it when other people set boundaries with us. It won’t feel personal every time. It won’t feel like a rejection or abandonment.
In time, with practice, we’ll discover that respecting other peoples’ boundaries is an essential part of not only nurturing our relationships— but also building our own self-respect and self-reliance.
It’s not easy. But it’s worth it.
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