Many of the people I work with are not highly equipped to set and defend boundaries—to stand their ground. This can happen for many reasons, usually starting in childhood. Do any of these fit for you?
- You learned to overlook your needs and boundaries, as they were overlooked. Boundaries? What boundaries?
- You felt you’d be clobbered if you didn’t accommodate an unstable caretaker. You learned instead to stay out of sight, or when cornered to show your underbelly, in effect saying, “I’m not a danger. Don’t hurt me!”
- You modeled yourself after an adult who was disempowered and accommodating.
- Your only memory of someone seeming powerful was red-in-the-face angry, yelling and threatening (or worse). That was terrifying. You don’t want to be that way and don’t understand that you don’t have to in order to have personal power. There are more respectful possibilities.
We don’t need to get “big” in our energy to stand our ground; we need to get firm. We can be soft-spoken and communicate that we are not about to cede ground, unless we choose to.
Although conceding may occasionally be wise, too often it is our default. It is supported by thoughts like:
- They won’t like it.
- They won’t like me.
- They (for some mysterious reason) have more right to what they want.
Learning to be Assertive
One term for standing your ground is being assertive. Assertiveness is much more than saying No, but saying No is part of it.
There are two parts to being assertive: One is believing that it is healthy and appropriate to be assertive (having an assertive philosophy) and that you are deserving. The other is having the skill. Assertive behaviors tend to be:
- Matched to the need (Just the right amount of force rather than overshooting it)
- Brief (Being long-winded often comes across as either insecure or manipulative.)
- Respectful (of all parties)
You can learn guidelines and view demonstrations of assertiveness, yet a less visible aspect is the “inner game.”
The Inner Game
The inner game is how you are holding the situation, including how you are stationed in yourself. Are you “on your back foot” (defensive, desperate, unsteady) or out of balance by being on offense?
It is the stance you take inside that speaks loudest, especially when pressured to do something you don’t want to do. Let me describe what I see as an ideal stance.
This stance is firm but neutral. It is without antagonism and hostility. Hostility and aggression are actually signs of insecurity rather than signs of power. (So much for bullies, including presidential contenders.) Many do not realize that you can be firm and gentle at the same time.
You are not “on the run”, meaning you aren’t already feeling one-down because of their first move(s) and not in a hurry to quickly resolve this. In common interpersonal conflicts, go for a leisurely, nonattached attitude that conveys, “not sure how we’ll work this out. I’m sure we’ll find something.” You are not desperately trying to smooth things over. You’re not busy pleasing. You are definitely not looking like you’re ready to fold.
This doesn’t mean you may not show emotion at some point, but you can report your feelings rather than act them out. “I notice I’m feeling pushed and I’m getting my back up,” rather than sparring in a competitive way or being passive-aggressive.
The inner game is staying more on the cool side than the hot side. I don’t mean that you are disengaged or hiding behind a mask, but you are centered enough inside, confident enough, that you know you’re not going to be mowed over and don’t need to get all worked up.
When you’ve got a good inner game, you can be more natural and relaxed. From this place you might even bring in humor or other likable aspects of your personality.
People can sense your inner firmness around a boundary (and they also sense when it’s not there). If they feel your firmness early on (without undue threat to themselves), you might shorten or avoid a contest of wills. That settled, you might then go on to dance.
P.S. Thank you for reading. Please sign up for my blog list if you’d like to receive more. If this piece sparks something in you, you can share your thoughts below. I am going to simplify my life and say thanks in advance for your comments and limit my replies.