Effective phrasing for boundary-setting?
February 16, 2018 3:21 PM   Subscribe

I am working on setting up boundaries more effectively in therapy, as I am a child sexual abuse/emotional/physical/addict abuse survivor. I have trouble setting up boundaries effectively and am looking for some go-to scripting. Snowflakes within!

I have been working in therapy on articulating the edges of my desires and discomforts, and find that I often overlook my own intuition and needs when it comes to setting up boundaries. While I have gotten much better over the past decade, this still needs work. Example: Had an intense and emotionally draining conversation with romantic interest guy, said I was going to head off and meet someone else, he offers to walk me to destination in spite of the fact that I simply want the interaction to end because I am drained etc. Instead of saying, "I'd prefer to walk alone" I let him walk with me. Or he asks me what time I need to meet other person and instead of saying, "It's not your business really" I give him specific information which he can then use to control the interaction more.

Other recent example: Hanging out with friends whose kids I nannied in years prior. They are rich established doctors and I am a poor restaurant worker. 50-year old, very tall and self-confident father grabs the nape of my neck and says that I am like a daughter to the family. This makes me feel uncomfortable but instead of saying, "would you mind not touching me?" I stay silent.

These are just a few minor, recent examples! What are some some scripting examples I can use to escape these dynamics and maintain the most control over the dialogue while not putting these relationships (and others) at risk?
I am hoping to write some examples down and stick them in my wallet.

All of this will come more naturally with time and practice, hopefully!
posted by erattacorrige to Human Relations (19 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
"No, thank you."
"No need."
"Do you mind?"
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 3:55 PM on February 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

“That’s personal”
“That’s my business”
“Don’t worry about it”
“That’s not relevant”
“Need to know basis”
“Lay off”
“Fuck off”
Escalate as necessary.
posted by SaltySalticid at 3:59 PM on February 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

"Thank you but I've made my decision and the subject is closed."
"I need you to respect my wishes/decision on this matter for us to continue this relationship/working together/whatever."
"This is my choice to make and I've done so."
"That's all very [$whatever], but I am the best and final arbitrator of my needs."
posted by carmicha at 4:05 PM on February 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I totally hear you because I also am a survivor of abuse who wasn't taught or even really allowed to set healthy boundaries growing up. The cool thing is that it's something you totally can work and get good at! It takes time as well as trial and error but every step gets you closer, even if it doesn't feel like it, i.e. you don't speak up for the next three times but eventually find the courage to do so the fourth time. Please be gentle and generous with yourself! For now, would it feel more comfortable to start with a compliment and then state your boundary? For example, on the date "Thank you for the kind offer but I'm set from here. Have a good night!" and with the father "You and your family mean a lot to me, too. I'm not much a a toucher/hugger/etc. though [so how about a high five?]" Yes, of course you don't need to do anything of that but, if you're like me, it helps to work your way up slowly but surely.

I have read many books and worked a great deal in therapy. I recommend Where to Draw the Line: How to Set Healthy Boundaries Every Day for a quick read with many good scripts. You are surely doing it already but I'd also really focus on self-esteem and self-image. The fact that they are "rich established doctors" whereas you are a "poor restaurant worker" doesn't mean anything in terms of your value as an individual or member of this relationship. It's understandable to feel a bit different because of the former employer-employee relationship but now you are more of equals. Chances are, if this guy really does see you as like a family member, he'd hate to make you uncomfortable. If he's a good person, he'll respect that boundary and your request for it; if he's a jerk about, then you can just let the friendship die, deliberately and directly or through a slow fade.
posted by smorgasbord at 4:06 PM on February 16, 2018 [13 favorites]

You can set a boundary and still stay in your own conversational tone. It might help if feel more natural and less awkward. For example, in the first instance, because I’m assuming the person was just being polite, I would keep it friendly and say, “oh, no thanks, I’m good, but thank you,” instead of “I’d prefer to walk alone,” because that would be in line with my previous casualness, but still stating that I don’t want that to happen. I always find it challenging when I’m trying to go against my own voice.

(It’s a bit different when someone doesn’t respect a boundary already set, of course.)
posted by Vaike at 4:13 PM on February 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

"I appreciate your input/ideas/feedback/concern and have taken it into account. My decision is final."
"I don't [$whatever] and will thank you to remember that going forward."
"That touch/comment/innuendo makes me uncomfortable. Please don't do that again."
"I asked you not to [x] and yet you are doing [x] again. So that I am perfectly clear, do not do [x] again. Do you understand? Good. I would be disappointed if our [$relationship] ended over this matter."
posted by carmicha at 4:14 PM on February 16, 2018

You: I need to go meet Friend now.
Him: Well, what time, exactly, are you meeting Friend?
You: Actually pretty soon! Nice to see you. Talk to you later.
Him: Wait, I'll walk with you.
You: No thanks, I need some alone time between meet-ups.

I think that you could focus on saying that you need time alone, time to process, time to think, time to decompress, time to mull things over, time to prepare for your next meeting - all ways of saying "leave me alone" but sound nicer. In the vein of "it's not you, it's me." So many people think that when you are alone, even for 10 minutes, you are not busy. In fact you are busy! It's ok to be upfront about the fact that you are protecting that time. If someone pushes you on this, they've essentially told you they're going to trample your boundaries.
posted by Knowyournuts at 4:45 PM on February 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

I think you are doing great with the first step: recognizing when you feel uncomfortable. That's so important.
The second step is saying to yourself " ok next time I will say x". Rehearse in your head a couple of times. Then next time you are ready.
Focus on using a formula for your responses like one of the above examples.
Try practicing with telling your therapist things they do or say that you don't like.
Be kind to yourself, it's been years and years of having to be quiet to survive. It takes time but you are great!
posted by SyraCarol at 4:48 PM on February 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

I find demurrals work really well when you're intimidated and just want to not invite negotiations and walk away. "Oh, that's okay!" or "Not today, thanks!" or "I have to go/gotta run/need to take off now." or "No thank you." It's basically Miss Manners's "That won't be possible" answer. And then go. Don't wait to be given permission.

When people touch me when they shouldn't, I cry out in pain and gasp, "Please be careful!" I don't feel comfortable telling men, in particular, that I don't want to be touched, since the likelihood of retaliation is high.

Don't worry about offering adequate well-rounded explanations. You don't need to give that dude a five minute presentation on why you don't want or need him to walk you to your destination, you just need to get the no out there and unless he has an important counter-bid ("I'm worried about this guy who keeps watching us" or "I'm afraid to walk alone" or "My car is parked over there and now this is weird") that should be enough.
posted by Lyn Never at 5:12 PM on February 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I think setting really crisply-phrased boundaries (like "please don't touch me" or "your questions are nosey" or "that's none of your business") can come off kind of rude and can cause conflict, which makes them not very effective because the key to a good boundary is that it should HELP the relationship, not fracture it.

Boundaries can be softly stated, and in casual relationships, or relationships in which you're subordinate (like with a boss), this may in fact work better. Boundaries can be more explicit the more intertwined your life is with the other person's- so blunt boundaries can work with very close friends, roommates, serious dating partners, and family, while boundaries with work colleagues or occasional friends perhaps should be more tactfully approached.

I do think boundaries around sexual consent or potentially abusive behaviour can/should be pretty explicit- but in most other cases if things are annoying rather than abusive, softer boundaries can be just as effective and will often generate less friction.

So in most social settings, I personally would tend to tell white lies or make jokes to deflect and redirect a behaviour I don't like, rather than sternly state a boundary.

The trick is to deflect in a friendly or jokey way, then always follow up a deflection by asking THEM something- that changes the flow of the convo so they have to answer to you, and then as soon as they do, you can exit.

Guy wants to walk with you:
1. DEFLECT - Oh thanks but actually I have a phonecall I need to make while I walk.
2. CHANGE SUBJECT BY ASKING ABOUT THEM - Hey are you going to that event next week?
3. SAY SOMETHING FRIENDLY AND EXIT - Ok maybe I'll see you there! Byee!"

Guy asking about the other person you're meeting:
1. DEFLECT - (vague, breezy reply) Oh I'm meeting her later.
2. CHANGE SUBJECT BY ASKING ABOUT THEM - Where are you off to now?
3. SAY SOMETHING FRIENDLY AND EXIT - Sounds great, have fun, byeee!"

If guy persists in nosing about your plans, make a joke:
1. JOKE - "What are you, the FBI? Am I under investigation, officer?"
2. CHANGE SUBJECT - "Hey did you ever decide what to do about that thing from last week?"
3. SAY SOMETHING FRIENDLY AND EXIT - "Oh cool. Ok I gotta run, see you soon, byeee!"

(By the way, this guy sounds kind of controlling and not very nice to you?)

Doctor grabs neck:
1. JOKE WHILE SQUIRMING AWAY - Haha yeah a family of wrestlers and you're Uncle Headlock?
2. SAY SOMETHING FRIENDLY AND MOVE AWAY - Haha, thanks! Jeez, is there an Auntie Chiropractor?

Other good deflections:

Notice something in the environment - "Whoa that car was loud!"
Notice something physical - "Ow, something pricked my arm!"
Ask about the location - "Do you know where the restroom is?"
Talk about the food - "What is this thing? ... is this arugula?"
Put the onus on them - "Where are you headed next.... Hey I never asked you how that thing turned out.... Are you going to [event].... Hey I just remembered I wanted I ask your opinion about [completely banal topic like a movie].... Is that a new jacket? It's nice!"
Draw focus to your phone, and leave - pretend it just buzzed in your pocket, hit the button so it lights up, then pull it out... "Oh crap, didn't realize it was so late, I gotta run! So nice seeing you, byeee!"
posted by pseudostrabismus at 5:23 PM on February 16, 2018 [13 favorites]

Best answer: the key to a good boundary is that it should HELP the relationship, not fracture it.

This is so helpful. What also helped me was reading a ton of etiquette books from non-jerks (I like Miss Manners because she has a sense of humor) which helped me get the point that part of etiquette and manners isn't just a bunch of rules you can lord over people, it's more about setting expectations so that people can all have decent interactions (note: sometimes decent may not be optimal for everyone, but it also shouldn't suck for ANYone, including you).

My parents were self-involved and didn't really let me have boundaries. I can be a little rigid with mine as an adult (like Lyn I tend to really jump when someone touches me when I'm not expecting it, this is bad for everyone's morale) and so as I've gotten more comfortable with the wide range of other people's reactions and expectations, I've gotten more comfortable trying to look at these sorts of things as an opportunity to practice since most people aren't weird "No one cares what you think" ogres like my folks were.

Most people actually care about your feelings. Sometimes, of course, people can still cross lines, and it's good to be on the lookout but try to not treat everyone like someone who is trying to make you uncomfortable. That's why the deflection-then-more-rigidity is good. Most people pick up on deflection. Out of the ones that are left, some will be clueless and some will be controlling/aggressive/whatever. It's not your job to be polite to the clueless, it's okay to be firm with them because if they are acting like an aggressive person that's actually sort of on them. So my scripts, probably similar to others' but with my own style

You: I need to go meet Friend now.
Him: What time are you meeting Friend?
You: In a little bit, I'm going to go do another thing first. This has been great I'll see you next time.
Him: Wait, I'll walk with you.
You: Nope, got to hit the bathroom and check my email while I walk. Next time!
Him: * literally anything other than goodbye *
You: Don't make it weird, man, gotta go.

*father grabs you *
You: EEEEEEE. Hey please don't startle me like that!
* some bullshit *
You: No seriously, you scared me. Please don't do that again.
* any other bullshit besides "Sorry" *
You: Not cool man, I have to go.

It's hard because I think boundary pushers actually sort of know that some people are bad with boundaries and can use this. But it's usually a good idea not to show up with guns blazing and DON'T FUCKING TOUCH ME although really that should be in the toolkit too. Give people a chance to do the right thing. When they don't remember that they can't make you do anything 9for the most part) and you can just boundary your way right out of their company.
posted by jessamyn at 6:14 PM on February 16, 2018 [11 favorites]

To me boundary setting follows a recipe of (stating my need) + (stating what I'm going to do about it). That should make it clear to most normal humans that it's a boundary of yours, not just a random circumstance, and you will take care of your need yourself. Most people will get that. A very few won't, and then you know who doesn't really care what you need ....

For date guy, that would translate to 'I'm meeting S at six, but I need some alone time first, so I'm going to head out now. See you soon!' (Also note 'shit sandwich' technique of packaging the harder news in between two normal nice responses)

For nanny dad, 'I'm so glad to see you. I'm not into hugging, so (extend hand for shake). What's on the menu today?'

There are people in the world who will push those boundaries, yes. But just stating them as fact is enough for most people, and I think it's worth giving most people a chance to respect the boundaries stated. I'm sorry you've had bad experiences, though.
posted by Dashy at 7:13 PM on February 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

Check out Captain Awkward - she is so good at scripts for all kinds of situations.
posted by metahawk at 10:51 PM on February 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

I've successfully gotten an man whose touchiness made me uncomfortable to back off by saying "I'm not really much of a hugger," "I'm just not a touchy person, thanks." He did it often and I had to kind of prepare something to say to him the next time he did it. (I do love hugs and touching but not with him - he doesn't need to know that).

A couple of times I had a friend role play with me so I could practice assertiveness - I need to pick that back up.

If you find yourself needing to put a lot of work into defining boundaries with someone either because they "don't get it" the first/second/third time, or because they repeatedly stop one boundary-infringing activity only to move on to another, reconsider spending time with them. Think about all of your relationships. Do you have people in your life you like and who don't require a lot of boundary-work on your end? Spend more time with those people.
posted by bunderful at 6:22 AM on February 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

"Why do you ask?" can be very effective and helpful in revealing someone's intentions.
posted by belau at 12:56 PM on February 17, 2018 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: These are great responses, all. I appreciate the thoughtfulness. It's really frustrating, honestly, to feel like I have to develop these skills at this point in my life (age 28) but I am so down to work on it and develop it. The keys of setting a playful / not brusque / vague / etc boundaries make a lot of sense to me, and is basically what I was seeking. I am not too bad at telling people in no uncertain terms not to touch me, but that's usually reserved for "fuck this person at all costs" situations which is not the majority of them. It is also good to be reminded that most people indeed do care how I feel, and simultaneously are not aware that I am a victim of severe / ongoing childhood abuse. But I do feel pretty proud of my progress and these suggestions are very handy. Thanks!
posted by erattacorrige at 2:45 PM on February 17, 2018 [3 favorites]

A bit late to this. I know setting hard boundaries seems to be the way to go lately-- telling someone in no uncertain terms to back the eff off-- telling people like it is, "I'm not interested," or "No," escalating as needed. And I get it. Especially as a woman, I've been taught to put others feelings above my own a lot, and I feel like a backlash to often demurring is this push to be more direct and spare other's feelings less. And I'm not saying that's not valid: Someone touching you against your will is creepy. And someone who is pressuring you to hang out with them more is absolutely skeevy and possibly manipulative, and should be shut down, and responding abruptly will (usually) stop them and get them to back off.

But consider the outcome you want. While it may help you in the moment, it probably will fracture the relationship, and this person won't really 'learn' from their mistakes necessarily from it either. People justify bad behavior all the time.

Also confronting someone? In my twenties, I was that person. I've never had a problem with boundaries. And I know people think righteous anger is awesome, and it can be, but it actually feels fucking awful to go through. It's stress inducing, it often triggers defensiveness in the person, often triggers a flight-or-fight response in one or both of you, absolutely fractures relationships, and most importantly, doesn't really improve anything. If anything, all it did was make me stressed. Even if the person deserved it. I've never really felt that much better when pushing hard on a boundary, with obvious exceptions, like when people are being rude or terrible or something.

But that situation is actually really rare. That's why, I no longer break this out unless I need to and though I've softened up considerably, I can still hold firm if I need to. And because you have problems boundary setting, I feel like handing you a script of hard boundaries, like the above, is a bit like handing someone who just started addition, mathematical formulas. You're not quite there yet. In the interim, while you work on your assertiveness, baby steps are ok. And there's nothing wrong with what I call 'soft boundaries.'

Soft boundaries are kind of like the examples pseudostrabismus used. Their examples are great, by the way. In my case, I basically use a soft opening to give a hard no. I like to do it jokingly, by using stuff like "Yeaaaaaaah, Nah." when someone asks to walk home with me or such. Or, "I'm so tired, I won't be much company," deflection helps too, and being vague. Again the examples you've marked as best are absolutely perfect.

Also, consider that you have another tool in your arsenal: the ability to walk away. I don't mean literally, although that too. I mean, if a new relationship is making you uncomfortable, and a person is often pushing at your boundaries, then a way of establishing a boundary is actually to stop seeing them. You don't need to put yourself in the situation where you need to rebuff them in person or hold fast against them trying to control you-- you can just not hang around someone that tries to walk all over you. That's part of being assertive for yourself.

Because some boundary pushers? They are very good at it-- hence why hard salespeople exist, people who push pyramid schemes etc, and 'chuggers' -- charity muggers. People are actually trained and use manipulative techniques to literally try and push past your boundaries. They have scripts for how to react when you are faced with someone assertive. Against these people, you have no chance, so part of protecting yourself is allowing yourself to not engage in the first place.

There's a fine line between being kind and a push-over, though, and I advise you to always listen to your gut instinct. In fact, if you haven't already, read The Gift of Fear. I feel like anyone that often has their boundaries violated should absolutely read this, because it's really helpful.

You can do it!
posted by Dimes at 1:34 AM on February 18, 2018

Response by poster: @Dimes- yes, I understand what you're saying about the counterproductiveness of being too assertive, in inappropriate situations. Actually, I think being like that means that the person is actually less skilled at setting boundaries, because this particular style seems to me to be brittle. Also, from what I know, people who tend to be super extremely assertive when setting boundaries (especially overdramatically, overblown) are doing so because they are truly vulnerable and don't want their core vulnerability to be touched/poked/etc. I don't need to work on the "hard no"- I'm alright at that after all these years. And yes to the "just walk way" technique; it's one I have gotten lots of practice deploying around my triggering parents and friendships that have gotten toxic or violent. I found the scripting for the 'soft boundary setting' to be quite handy. Also, as an aside, in terms of feeling worse after setting a hard boundary, I think that's what's referred to as "guilt /anger splits."
posted by erattacorrige at 2:34 PM on February 18, 2018

t's really frustrating, honestly, to feel like I have to develop these skills at this point in my life (age 28)

I want to validate your frustration - I wish that learning to say no in a number of ways was something our culture encouraged teaching everyone no later than high school - but I also want to tell you that lots of women your age and older are working on the same skills. You're not running behind or anything.
posted by bunderful at 4:38 PM on February 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

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