To a large degree (although not across the board or in every circumstance), we have much greater power to control how people treat us than we are aware. Often from fear of appearing selfish, unkind, or losing connection, we allow ourselves to be disrespected, and in so doing, start to lose pieces of ourselves.
Reclaiming personal power is a slow and gradual process, like exercising a muscle that has rarely been used; it involves identifying what is acceptable and unacceptable to us, and then learning to communicate that effectively to others.
Note that the focus is not on trying to change the other person or his/her behavior; rather, the goal is to define and defend the personal boundaries you need to feel safe, to re-envision yourself as an empowered participator in your own life, rather than a victim to your circumstances or relationships.
Note, too, that the goal is not to be always right; there is still room for others to disagree with your stance or wishes — but that is a far cry from allowing them to demean, diminish or devalue us.
When we begin to make this shift, several things can happen:
- People who really don’t care about you, or whose rigid personalities paralyze their capacity for introspection, take off;
- People who love you slowly start to shift their behavior, although not overnight and not without bumps along the road, and come to respect you more;
- People in general begin to treat you differently than you are used to.
GUIDELINES FOR DRAWING BOUNDARIES:
Learn to say No — without explanation, defense, justification or apology
“No, I’m sorry I won’t be able to come over right now.” “I will not stay on the phone when you are shouting with me. Give me a call when you are feeling calmer.”
Contemplate and define your own “rules of engagement”
This might involve ruling out all name-calling or yelling during a conversation; silent treatments; walking out and slamming doors during a conflict without warning; use of statements that trigger you (like “leave me alone” or “you’re wrong”).
Communicate these rules clearly and compassionately
It is generally more effective to tell our partner or friend, “I want to have this conversation with you, and I can do that if you listen to me without raising your voice for the next five minutes,” than to scream desperately: “You NEVER listen to me!”
Model how you want to be treated
If you want to be listened to well, offer the same respect: Focus fully on your partner, maintain eye contact, be curious and empathetic. In the area of parenting as well, we teach children to be kind and respectful, by being kind and respectful to them.
Validate behaviors you like
By noticing and (frequently!) expressing appreciation for changed behaviors, rather than pouting or crying about those that hurt us, you are reinforcing the positive behaviors that make you feel loved and safe.
Have realistic expectations
Because people are, by nature, prone to defending their own (often distorted) experience or behavior, it is likely your partner or friend will withdraw, become angry or dismissive, when you apply new rules of engagement. In addition, you are disrupting a collusive system that has been familiar, even if unpleasant, to both parties for a very long time.
The process of changing how people treat us therefore requires discipline, patience and practice — and sometimes tolerating the discomfort of disconnection. If we communicate our rules clearly, compassionately and with consistency, we earn new respect, self-respect, and improved relationship.