There’s an old saying that goes something along the lines of: “You can’t control anyone but yourself.” This is true—meaning on the flip side that we can typically only control our responses to others’ behavior. Unfortunately, so often we exhaust ourselves trying to have others’ hear our point of view, or why they should take the stance we take. In trying to control our responses to others, there’s often a black and white view: reactivity or distance. What if there was an opportunity to sit in the grey?
In Harriet Goldhor Lerner’s book The Dance of Intimacy, she proposes that in order to truly manage our reactivity to someone (i.e. not continually becoming emotionally disregulated by them and not fully cutting off, both fueled by anxiety and reactivity) we must learn how to define our individual bottom line. When we are able to recognize what does not work with someone, such as ignoring a parent’s alcoholism or a spouse’s messy habits (both options that will likely leave the original party frustrated and fed-up), we must learn how to set solid boundaries with that person.
Drawing a bottom line is best done when regulated, and both parties can speak openly in a safe environment: “When you drink, I’m not going to engage with you,” or, “If you’re going to leave the apartment a mess I won’t feel comfortable spending time here anymore.” Meeting reactivity with reactivity only creates increased escalation. If there’s risk of reactivity or a conversation about setting a bottom line doesn’t feel safe, therapy is a great option for creating a space where a professional can guide clients through this process.
Boundaries don’t always feel good originally; clients may feel tempted to fall back into familiar patterns and may experience guilt, shame, or anger from the other members of a system, but remember that these boundaries are for a person’s individual health. Without boundaries, relationships aren’t safe. When we take a solid stance, our behavior may inspire others to look at their own or lack thereof. We can’t control anyone else but ourselves, and when we take the steps towards changing our behavior it creates a ripple effect that will likely encourage increased trust and stability within relationships.