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Excerpt from "Boundaries in an Overconnected World"

Introduction: Connected, But Not Protected

by Anne Katherine

Twenty-five years ago, when I wrote Boundaries: Where You End and I Begin, my computer displayed green type and no pictures, and it responded to commands that were like a secret code. It was an island separate from all other computers. It couldn’t talk to any other computer in the world, nor could it listen, existing prior to publicly available digital streams or networks.

The day I planned to send the manuscript to the publisher — by printing it on real paper and putting it into a mailbox — I did a spell check that, capriciously, removed the formatting from the whole manuscript. I had to go through the entire thing, page by page, and restore it manually. (Praise be for today’s Undo button.)

It didn’t help that I was also getting married that day, and that my “make her beautiful” appointments were threatened by this time-eating glitch. Somehow, I got it all done — including the wedding — but how different the computer world is today.

Today, total strangers can enter your home electronically, depositing repulsive ads and ridiculous offers. Friends can interrupt your focus every two minutes with texts, tweets, or adorable pictures of animals. Your personal information can land in the hands of someone you’d inch away from on a subway.

Boundaries in an Overconnected World will help you regain authority over your time, your focus, and your energy. It shows how to set limits on intrusions and exposure in cyberspace, with every communication device you own, and with everyone who wants to reach you through them.

This book doesn’t replace my first book on the subject, Boundaries, which provides the basics of gaining autonomy in live person-to-person interactions. Nor does it replace my book Where to Draw the Line, which describes how to handle all sorts of situations — an indirectly hostile mother-in-law, a holiday spoiler, food pushers, sisters who take without asking, etc. — by setting specific boundaries.

Together, these three books offer a trilogy of guidance about how to set appropriate limits on earth and in space, from friends and family to strangers, and from face-to-face interactions to smartphones and laptops, so that your life is truly your own.

Chapter 3: Building Boundaries

Boundary building can work from outside in or inside out. You can build boundaries with conscious effort and this will change you on the inside — or you can change your insides, and boundaries will automatically form. You can set deliberate limits to protect what you care about — or they will spring up by themselves when you focus your whole self on what matters to you most.

We’ll work on this from both ends. You’ll practice setting deliberate boundaries, and you’ll also practice managing your focus so that you automatically improve your boundaries.

Boundaries are influential. As you become more appropriately boundaried, people will automatically treat you differently. The more effective you become, the more effective people in your sphere will become in relation to you.

Boundaries are isomorphic. When you hold a boundary in relation to your family, your family as a whole will come to hold a similar boundary in relation to you.

(The term isomorphy, as used here, comes from the cutting edge of psychological theory. In a hierarchical system, there are similarities in how the boundaries function. A family is a hierarchy. A child — an individual — is a member of the sibling subgroup, which is contained in the nuclear family, which is contained in the extended family. In an undemonstrative family, there may be an unstated, but understood, boundary against hugging. The sibling subgroup, exposed to a school culture in which hugging is commonplace, will bring the more permeable boundary back to the family. As they begin hugging parents and grandparents, the altered boundary will enter the family’s culture, and the family boundary will shift.)

Boundaries can be visible, like a fence. They can be verbal, as with a very firm “no.” They can be demonstrated by what you do or don’t do. They can be created by focusing energy. And they can be communicated by what you stop another person from doing.

Hester stands next to me at a community chorus rehearsal. From my first moments of being in the chorus, Hester has treated me as if I were new to music, leaning over to inform me that the pound sign indicates a sharp or that piano means soft. I play three instruments and have studied music since I was a tyke, but she assumes that I need basic instruction.

This is typical of countless small interactions that occur daily with people on our periphery who, like all of us, wear their self-image on their sleeve. Without knowing it, we communicate how we want others to view us. Meanwhile, we might be trampling on how the other person wants to be viewed.

In many of her interactions, Hester broadcasts her belief that she knows better. At first, I tolerated her interruptions, but soon I noticed that her behavior was starting to influence me. Her interruptions
were distracting me and arousing my competitive nature, so I focused less on the music and made some mistakes. I wonder if others start to slip in their own performance around her.

Since I only saw Hester once a week for a couple of hours, it was tempting to let the whole thing go. But I decided to act before I got irritated — a likely eventuality that could give me more to deal with and even taint chorus for me.

I realized that I’d have to set a boundary. This would protect a pleasurable pastime and give me more energy (and less distraction) for singing.

I had some choices:

• I could mirror Hester and feed her behavior back to her, explaining to her that the dot with the eyebrow is a fermata.

• I could compete with her by being more alert, more accurate, and more responsive to the director. This choice had the potential of escalating the situation, of putting pressure on both of us that could cause mistakes.

• I could reveal more of myself, letting Hester know I’m a musician, which might indirectly set a boundary by correcting her misconception about me.

• I could seat myself very firmly in my own energy so that she’d be diverted to some other poor soul in the choir.

• I could say something to her directly.

I decided to try a three-tiered approach. I’d start with a droplet of information about my musical experience and then be very solid in my own energy. If these didn’t work, I’d say something.

The first two didn’t work, so I said softly that I appreciated her experience, but that I found myself being distracted by her comments. If I wasn’t sure of something, I’d ask her, but otherwise I’d rather stay focused on the music and the director.

She drew back. She looked startled.

Fear of such a reaction is one of the reasons many nice people hesitate to set boundaries. They don’t want to hurt the other person, so they endure being hurt themselves or they let something precious to them be tarnished.

I sensed that Hester was offended. Many of us would be, but she had an opportunity here, too — to learn something about the effect she has on others, to see herself more clearly and think about the needs that prompt her behavior. This is the opportunity afforded by any appropriately drawn boundary: It gives important feedback that can spur the other person’s growth.

Regardless of what Hester did next, my challenge then was to stay comfortable within my new boundary, to not weaken it to make her feel better. When I saw her shocked reaction, I might have been tempted to soften it or say, “Oh forget it. It’s not that bad.” I could have rushed in with a lot of words to build her up or put me down or throw fog into the communication. And I would have undone my positive effort.

So I did none of these. I simply stood quietly, letting my words sink in.

When you build a boundary, don’t tear it back down because of a person’s reaction — or your fear of how she might react. Let the boundary stand. Let the other person be responsible for her own reaction.

That’s what I did with Hester.

My responsibility was to set the boundary clearly and thoughtfully. What she did with it was her responsibility. She’d learn or not learn, change or not change, be victimized or angered or surprised or grateful. That’s her own work.

I’d have created more accountability for myself if I’d let the problem go on too long and then set the boundary angrily. If I’d said, “Hester, damn it, stop correcting me” — especially if I’d spoken in an angry voice that others could hear — then I’d have to take care of the consequences of venting instead of communicating.

It’s also my job to maintain my boundary in the future. If Hester respects my boundary for a time and then forgets or slips up, it will be my responsibility to say, “Hester, please don’t. Please remember what I asked.”

If she then continues to push it, regardless of my mild comments, I’ll have to set a stronger one. I’ll have to say firmly but discreetly, “Hester, stop correcting me.”

It’s my job to continue to protect my pleasure and my energy. If my comment is clear and honest, and not emotionally loaded, I’ll be participating in creating a clean relationship, regardless of what Hester does with it.

The steps I used are these:

1. I noticed a boundary was needed. (Hester’s comments were intrusive.)

2. I decided what I wanted. (For her to stop correcting me.)

3. I scanned my options for communicating what I wanted.

4. I set my first boundary thoughtfully, clearly, and respectfully.

5. I let her reaction be her business.

6. I supported my boundary. I didn’t weaken it to try to fix her reaction.

7. When she continued with the same behavior, I reaffirmed and strengthened my boundary by being clearer and more direct.

8. I brought my attention back to myself and noticed how it felt to protect myself.

Exercise: Setting a Verbal Boundary

Now it’s your turn.

Let’s start with a single project. Think of a situation in which you need to set a boundary. It could be with a person to whom you always say yes when you want to say no. It could be with someone who peppers you with questions that you don’t want to answer. Perhaps someone takes things from your office without asking.

Now answer the following questions:

1. What is the situation?

2. Until now, have you:

• Endured it?

• Lashed out?

• Retaliated?

• Felt helpless?

3. How has that worked for you?

• Has anything changed for the better?

• What has it cost you to put up with it?

• The last time it happened, how did you feel afterward?

• Do you agree that a boundary is needed? If so, continue.

4. What do you want? Either write it below or say it clearly to yourself.

I want __________________________________________________________.

5. What are some statements you could make to the person that would set a boundary?

(Examples: “I’m going to say no to that, Ellen. I’m not going to do that.” “Evia, please stop asking me questions. Tell me something about you.” “Max, stop taking things from my office. Email me if you want something, and please wait for my reply.”)

Write some of your own possible statements below:

6. Which of your statements is clearest, most straightforward, and most direct? You can start with that one — or, if that seems too harsh, pick a milder one that still states specifically what you want.

When you’re clear about what you want to do, follow these steps:

a. At the first opportunity, make your statement to the person involved.

b. Don’t let the other person’s reaction be your business. Notice how it feels to leave it with that person.

c. Notice your impulses. Are you tempted to take back or weaken your boundary? Are you tempted to explain it three different ways?

d. If you do weaken it or take it back, notice how that feels. If you hold the line, notice how that feels.

e. Notice whether the other person’s response triggered a reaction in you. If so, what was your reaction? Did you act on it in any way?

f. Notice how it feels to protect yourself, to safeguard your energy or something else important to you.

g. Once you’ve set a boundary, monitor it. If the other person starts slipping and reverting to old behavior, set the boundary again. Use a stronger statement.


For more basic information about boundaries, read my book Boundaries: Where You End and I Begin. For lots of examples about how to set boundaries in specific situations with specific people, read my book Where to Draw the Line.

From the book Boundaries in an Overconnected World © Copyright 2013 by Anne Katherine. Reprinted with permission from New World Library. www.NewWorldLibrary.com.

Therapist Anne Katherine specializes in helping people with boundaries, eating disorders, and food addiction. She wrote the first simple book on boundaries, Boundaries: Where You End and I Begin (over 250,000 copies sold), and was talking about food addiction twenty years before most people had even heard of it. She holds an MA in psychology from Vanderbilt University and has over forty years experience as a therapist in agencies, hospitals, and private practice. Anne has been interviewed by many radio and television outlets, including CNN Headline News, National Public Radio, and Lifetime. Her website is www.1annekatherine.com/

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