15 February 2009

The Myth of Verbal Boundaries

The previous post on this blog, in my honest estimation, is of very limited usefulness. I posted it because I felt an obligation to explain, verbally, the 'hard' - serious, unilateral, non-negotiable - boundaries that I had long ago established, and had been applying, nonverbally, for well over a year.

In other words, I posted this information to be courteous, strange as that may seem. I don't regret the courtesy; but I don't expect that explaining the boundaries in words will either strengthen them or make them more palatable to anyone who might be affected by them.

There is good reason for this. My experience with setting and enforcing boundaries through purely verbal means has been uniformly discouraging.

I've thought back over as many times as I can remember, when I've tried to get through to someone with words, about something really important to me - involving something that they 'did and should not have done, or left undone and should have done.'

As I recall, the usual response was:
-laughter, derision, putdowns
-hostility, indifference ['uh-huh, yeah, sure, whatever' or 'who cares what YOU think (want) (need)']
-diverting, distracting ['I did NOT take your red blouse without asking, I took your BLUE blouse' 'well, that's interesting, but what I want to know is how does it feel when you cut your toenails?']
-immediate and savage counterattack ['yeah but what about ME huh what about what you did to ME yesterday when you were BREATHING in the same ROOM...']
i.e., defense mechanisms;

but what I cannot recall experiencing is:
-being listened to
-having any interest shown in what I was saying
-having intelligent and responsive questions asked to build understanding on the information I have just provided
-hearing anything remotely approaching an apology or admission of responsibility or expression of regret
-having anything change
i.e., nondefensive responses.

And I do know how to use I-messages and neutral speech. They simply do not work in these situations.

One explanation for this is that many [not all] boundary violations that are important enough to do something about - are intentional. And those that are intentional are often abusive. And there is no point in attempting to reason someone out of abusive behavior; abusiveness is a deficiency in values, not in cognitive ability.

Another explanation is that boundary violations cause people to feel embarrassed, uncomfortable, ashamed. Both those whose boundaries are violated, and, at times, those who violate the boundaries. Bringing the episode out further into the light is not going to make the discomfort, embarrassment, or feeling of being ashamed disappear; on the contrary, it will usually intensify them. The feelings must be faced, understood, and worked through, in order to resolve them. It's simpler, easier, and quicker to react defensively - which means that even reasonably well-meaning people are unlikely to respond constructively in these situations, unless they can force themselves to stop and think before reacting. Which is not easy.

The whole situation is very, very difficult. To do nothing means that nothing changes, and eventually someone loses their temper; to confront, verbally, usually means someone else loses their temper immediately. Which looks an awful lot like a zero-sum game, to me.

Therefore, I usually find myself setting 'hard' boundaries nonverbally. I explain, if warranted, afterwards. I don't announce that I'm setting them and explain why; I just set them.

The 'hard' boundary being set can be a small, quiet thing, such as always using email to correspond with people at work who are verbally abusive over the phone [even replying to their phone messages via email].

Or it can be larger, like always requesting separate checks when lunching with any party that includes a chiseler [someone who always 'forgets' his wallet, for instance, or never includes his share of the tip when chipping in on the bill].

Or larger still, like never being available to join any lunch party that includes the chiseler - without, of course, ever specifying this as the reason for your unavailability.

The only way I have ever been able to bring about genuine, positive, lasting change in situations like these is by enacting the necessary 'hard' boundary myself. With the emphasis on acting.


As opposed to words.

And usually without ever making any subsequent attempt to explain or describe my actions in words.

Now, I do believe that there are people on the planet who, when they hurt or injure someone and are confronted about it, can hear this without becoming defensive, and will care, and actually do something about it;

but I also believe that such people, because they care, are already paying fairly close attention to how they treat others. From the outset. And as a result, they will rarely hurt or injure people to the extent that others need to confront them about it.

The bottom line?

Verbal boundaries generally aren't worth the paper they're written on ;-)

Setting a hard nonverbal boundary = setting a limit on the potential for being abused, whether deliberately or otherwise.

This is not the same thing as trying to control other people. I'll talk more about that in my next post.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you're right about this. I have not found confronting people about a boundary violation to work either. But the kind of nonverbal boundaries you are describing are easier with people who aren't relatives. With relatives, it's just tricky all around. We ended up going No Contact for this reason.

15 February, 2009 18:38  
Blogger Stormchild said...

Thank you for your comment, Anonymous. I'm sorry that things got to that point, with your family situation.

It is very frustrating. Words simply do not work, which means that all you have available are actions that cannot ever really be explained -

- because if you could explain them and be truly understood, then words would be working and the actions wouldn't be necessary.

Very very frustrating. You can tie yourself in knots over it, and I have, many times.

But you are right; nonverbal boundary setting works best with nonfamily. It always increases emotional distance; that's its basic purpose. And with family, increasing emotional distance unilaterally can get you into tricky territory PDQ.

15 February, 2009 22:15  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"And with family, increasing emotional distance unilaterally can get you into tricky territory PDQ."

Boy, ain't THAT the truth! Ay yi yi!

The Same Anonymous

16 February, 2009 12:06  

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