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I attempted to set healthy boundaries and the shit hit the fan. Now what??

What’s Missing From The Boundary Repertoire

You’ve taken all of the advice from thought leaders, therapists and experts, attended 12-step meetings, read numerous books, listened to podcasts and watched YouTube videos about SETTING BOUNDARIES. There is no shortage of incredibly good content out there about the importance of boundaries and how to set them…and still, we struggle with it…because, similar to learning a new language as an adult, it’s hard and takes training. But, there’s also a lot at stake, and our nervous system knows this. So we keep going back to the guides and we keep practicing when the opportunity presents itself; sometimes bowling a strike (yes!) and other times striking out (damn!). 

So now that we have accumulated this stellar library and have been enrolled in the life course of practicing and improving our boundaries, we need to address a particular aspect of boundaries – the kicker, the possible and dreaded rub: After you’ve applied your boundary setting skills (sharp or blunt as they may be), there’s a backlash. Synonyms of the word backlash from the website dictionary.com are: reaction, resistance, retaliation, repercussion, resentment, response, kickback, counteraction, recoil, backfire, boomerang, and tangle (my body is tensing up just writing these words). So, what does that look like in real life? Angry outbursts, defensiveness, abuse, stonewalling, emotional cut-off, contempt, retaliation, gaslighting, criticism…you name it. Yikes! It’s one of the rare times Gottman’s four horsemen of the (relationship) apocalypse show up all at once! Hmm, I’m pretty sure this is why so many of us are not good at setting boundaries to begin with (that, and we’ve had no good role modeling). We either have some implicit or explicit memory of this cause and effect from our history, and/or we intuit its consequence, consciously or unconsciously. And so, we don’t want to take the risk…because it can be costly. 

There’s even the theory that our fear of the possible backlash (as much as we think we have the fear under control) can botch up the delivery of our boundary setting and is a contributing factor to the disruption (or explosion) that follows. When we are in fear, our sympathetic nervous system is engaged. It’s responsible for the fight or flight response (among other things), which means it’s on high alert and that we are not sourced in our parasympathetic nervous system, which allows our prefrontal cortex (front part of the brain) to be online – making for better judgements, decisions and communication. Ideally, we want to be setting boundaries from the parasympathetic nervous system – from a state of calm and composure. But note, even then…things can go south! 

The Aftermath

So let’s talk about the aftermath and what to do to address that part of the “boundaries 101 class” that let out early for recess. Because this is where the rubber meets the road, or rather where the blown-out tire from the semi-truck on the freeway in front of you flew up and hit your windshield. Now what? More boundaries? In some cases, yes. If a landmine was inadvertently stepped on and some big emotional explosions are reigning down on you as a result, you may need to take cover. If abuse, contempt and retaliation are a part of the disaster, then firm boundaries may need to be exercised as part of your disaster relief plan. This could mean not answering the barrage of angry and abusive text messages, blocking or unfriending someone on social media who is throwing virtual daggers, walking away, taking space, whatever it takes to protect yourself and well-being, until the behavior stops and if/when they return to their parasympathetic state, allowing for respectful repair to happen.

For less extreme reactions, it might be appropriate to try damage control; reassuring the “injured” party after they have a less-than-desirable reaction to your boundary. This can come in the form of rephrasing or reframing the boundary using different language, even apologizing for the delivery – if you give credence to the delivery evoking their reactions. Sometimes damage control works and the implosion/catastrophe gets downgraded to a conflict or disruption that can be remedied relatively quickly. Yes, this is the messy dance of relationships and the grist for the mill of refinement, but consider yourself grateful if you’re in this camp because you get another shot. A word of caution here though, for some of us, even the mere threat of someone being angry at us or a relationship fallout/break up can cause us to do some fancy footwork and backpedaling to the point where we undermine our original intention towards having our needs met or respected. It’s good to be able to notice if you’re trying to protect someone else’s feelings at the expense of your own, so that you can change course and hold both in regard. People pleasing or “fawning” is really just another way we protect ourselves from rejection and it usually requires us turning our backs on ourselves.

The Big One

The extreme and a worst case scenario for most of us is that the boundary setting endeavors lead to the loss of the relationship, and the aftershock that ensues. It could be in the form of a break up with a lover, a firing from a job, or emotional cut-off from a family member; this is particularly painful because in a cut-off from another person, we are cut-off from a do-over, from correcting course if we misstepped or a proper repair between both parties. This loss is the dreaded fallout, and what we’re all really afraid will happen (especially if we don’t trust ourselves or the other person), but one we must learn to manage and deal with if we’re going to continue in our lives setting boundaries – which in plain terms is taking care of ourselves and our needs (and in some cases has the added benefit of helping others grow and evolve). 

One of my favorite thought leaders in the field of mental health, Gabor Mate, speaks beautifully about the conflicting human needs we have to be both authentic and attached to others. We all have the innate drive to be connected to others, but also be in touch with and able to express ourselves. This is something most of us are continually struggling with and negotiating in our interpersonal relationships on a daily basis. Sometimes you can’t have both and the costs need to be weighed. Like most, I’ve experienced both kinds of losses – the one where I reject a part of myself to not be rejected by another, and the one where I am rejected by another after being authentic and truthful. Both are painful, but I think the former is more likely to be maladaptive and can ultimately set us up for more dysfunctional ways of relating. 

What Do I Do Now?

For myself and many people I know, the risk/reward calculus changes at different times and for different reasons, particularly as we age and mature. I still weigh out my costs around setting boundaries, but my authenticity carries more weight now, and this tips the scales – not just because of more life experience and the kinds of psycho-emotional work I’ve done on myself, but because I am of the age where I am not as dependent on placating others for security (real or imagined) and I am of the privilege where I have more freedom and wiggle room around affording these kinds of losses. But it doesn’t make it easy or any less painful, and the grieving could go on for many weeks, many months or even years, depending on the type of loss and how it’s being dealt with. Like with any loss, it must be grieved. There are so many great resources on grief and loss so I won’t go too much into those interventions here. But here are the important steps you can take after this kind of fallout: 

  1. Acknowledge it for what it is – a loss. Many times losses can cause trauma, with symptoms ranging from intrusive and obsessive thoughts to dissociation and avoidance, changes in mood and even physical reactions.
  2. Notice and name the feelings that are coming up in your grief, as grief is often accompanied with a spectrum of other uncomfortable emotions that come with it, like:
    Anger (I can’t believe someone ended the relationship because I set a boundary, the punishment doesn’t fit the crime!)
    Shame (I shouldn’t have needs. Who am I to ask for those things? Maybe I deserve this consequence. I always screw things up. What was I thinking?!)
    Disillusionment (I thought we were stronger than that, this is not the person I thought s/he was, I thought we’d always be there for each other, I thought the relationships could withstand my boundary)
    Betrayal (I was punished and/or left by this person for attempting to stand up for myself, I can’t trust them, they are not safe)
    Guilt (I shouldn’t have said x, y or z and I didn’t mean to hurt them, I need to make it better)
    Abandonment (when I try to take care of myself and/or upset someone, I get left)
    Helplessness (there’s nothing I can do to control or fix this), etc.

3. Allow for those feelings, without judgement. Compassion for yourself and your emotions helps you normalize how you feel after the loss of a relationship. Honor and express your feelings in therapeutic ways (talk to a close and trustworthy friend, journal, write a letter to the person and send or don’t send, work with a skilled coach/therapist/counselor to help you process, and do things that feel nourishing to you (yoga, meditation, walking, lifting weights, art, cooking, read books on codependency, etc.), as now is the time to be there for yourself the way you would be for someone else you really care about.

4. Remember you can feel all of these feelings while simultaneously being sorry it happened and reaching out to make amends if that’s a possibility. Accept and allow the paradox of feelings, and avoid trying to “make sense” of them cognitively until you’ve done some emotional processing.

5. Reframe the situation. For example: “These are not the kinds of relationships I want in my life and I’m making room for the ones I do want,” “I need to feel safe to set boundaries,” “Maybe we will both grow and learn from this and eventually repair the relationship.” How we respond to and choose to look at our loss can be the difference between acute trauma and long-term post traumatic stress; the difference between opening up or shutting down going forward. Find the support for this if you need it.

6. The futility of the fallout can be an invitation to facing a lot of demons and doing a lot of inner work and exploration, when you feel ready. A trauma or loss is often a catalyst for waking up to different, healthier ways of doing things in your life and can help shift lifelong negative patterns to healthier ones.

7. Consider the source. Who is the backlash coming from? Are they going through a hard time and under a lot of stress? Do they have an unmanaged mental illness? Are they on the narcissism spectrum? What is their history of relationships with others? How do they usually handle conflict, confrontation and criticism, what is their track record, etc?

Moving Forward

If you find yourself in any of the “boundary-setting aftermath” scenarios presented here, I think ultimately, it’s important to know these things: you’re not alone, you’re not a bad person for setting boundaries, you didn’t ask for or create this, it wasn’t for naught (there are valuable lessons and growth opportunities here), there is help for working through and healing from the loss, and that grieving in all its many shades is a natural and normal part of loss. And another maybe less obvious one (at least at the onset) is that it could be a blessing in disguise. I’ve had some extremely painful losses of relationships that I later realized were not good for me and needed to end, I just felt powerless in how they ended and had to come to an acceptance around that. So if someone walks away or pushes you away (without repairing), ask yourself, “Are these the kinds of relationships I want?” That question can be a game changer in how you process your loss.

Setting boundaries with people is one of the most vulnerable things we will ever do as a human being – so much is at stake and we instinctively know it. Upsetting people we love or losing people we love is the chance we take and so we try to get it right or sometimes avoid it altogether. At a certain stage in our development, we have a better understanding of what is on the line if we don’t set those boundaries, including our self worth, integrity and authenticity. So at the end of the day, if abandonment and rejection is going to happen, you might want to ask yourself would you rather abandon yourself or be left by someone else? 

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