The above quote, from Boundariesby Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend, revolutionized how I think about difficult conversations and setting boundaries.

We’ve all experienced times when we need to protect ourselves from the consequences of another person’s behavior. We need to set a boundary. Too often, we simply endure relational disappointment until things get so painful that, out of an angry place, we “open up a can of boundaries” on the other person. The results are predictable. And destructive.

When angry, we’re tempted to use “setting a boundary” as a weapon or a means of punishing, getting back at, or controlling the other person. We give ourselves permission to react harshly. The problem with this approach is that it never helps heal the relationship—and it actually sabotages our attempts at setting a boundary.

A harsh reaction sabotages boundary setting

Here’s why: Lashing out in anger is a form of aggression, whereas boundaries, when executed well, are a purely defensive maneuver. Setting a boundary is a tool to be used as defense, not as offense.

As emotionally intelligent, relationally savvy people, we don’t set boundaries to lash out, punish, or control other people. Instead, we set boundaries to protect and defend ourselves against other people’s hurtful and/or unproductive choices. I wish I had realized this during some early relational conflicts in my medical practice or the early years of my marriage. In both, I would carry the consequences of other people’s choices until I would blow up in anger. My angry reaction felt empowering in the moment, but it was never worththerequired clean-up and apologies afterward. I hurt people unnecessarily. It was always a relational set-back.

Cloud & Townsend’s statement revolutionized my understanding and practice of setting boundaries, and profoundly influenced the content and trajectory of my book, Renovate Your Relationships.

In my new book, Renovate Your Relationships,I define boundary setting as” returning negative consequences to their rightful owner.” This book is about responding to relational disappointment with the right strategy in the right measure.

Managing our relational disappointment with kind, clear, and courageous boundaries won’t damage our relationships. In fact, setting boundaries is the most productive way to maintain a workable relationship with someone whose choices have left you carrying consequences aren’t yours to carry—behaviors that have a negative impact on you directly.

Notice the first two characteristics of productive boundary setting: kind and clear.

When we’re angered by someone else’s hurtful behavior, something fascinating happens to us physically: the part of our brain responsible for a kind, clear reaction (the neocortex) steps aside and lets our overly protective, more primitive brain (the amygdala) handle the situation. Because our primitive amygdala is in charge, we often resort to “fight, flight, or freeze” reactions. This survival strategy may help us feel safe in the short term, but it hurts our relationships, both at home and at work.

Therefore, before we enter into a boundary-setting conversation, we need to de-escalate. And one of the clearest signs that we’ve de-escalated is when our primary emotion shifts from anger to sadness.

De-escalation is just one step we must take beforewe set a boundary. There are several others—and they’re so important that I dedicate four chapters to this topic in Renovate Your Relationships.

Renovate Your Relationshipsreleases August 6, and it’s now available for pre-order, along with three free pre-order resources, ready to download and print.

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