ERP 424: How to Stand Firm in Your Boundaries — An Interview with Dr. Abby Medcalf

By Posted in - Podcast May 14th, 2024 0 Comments

The absence of clear personal boundaries can lead to numerous challenges in relationships. Without defined boundaries, individuals may find themselves constantly overwhelmed by the demands and expectations of others, leading to feelings of resentment, frustration, and even powerlessness. Moreover, conflicts can escalate, communication can break down, and genuine connection becomes increasingly elusive without firm boundaries in place. Essentially, the problem of not having boundaries manifests as a pervasive struggle to maintain authenticity, self-respect, and healthy interpersonal dynamics.

In this episode, the discussion centers on the transformative power of consistently upholding boundaries despite potential pushback. Through insightful anecdotes and practical advice, listeners will gain valuable insights into identifying their core needs, overcoming fear, and building trust within relationships. Whether grappling with familial, professional, or personal boundaries, this episode offers actionable strategies for asserting oneself and cultivating fulfilling connections.

Abby Medcalf is a Relationship Maven, psychologist, author, podcast host, and TEDx speaker who helps people think differently so they can create connection, ease, and joy in their relationships. She brings a fresh perspective to life’s struggles using humor, research, and her direct, no-nonsense style. She’s the author of “Boundaries Made Easy”, bestseller “Be Happily Married, Even If Your Partner Won’t Do a Thing”, and hosts the top-rated Relationships Made Easy Podcast, reaching 170+ countries.

In this episode

4:59 From addiction to authority: Abby Medcalf’s journey to boundary mastery.

9:43 Understanding boundaries as not just a component, but a fundamental structure in relationships and business dynamics.

12:23 The impact of congruence between conscious and subconscious signals on how others perceive and respond to us.

20:07 Understanding the spectrum of boundaries and the impact of disregarding them.

27:06 Establishing clear standards and responses for personal empowerment.

39:22 Defining personal standards and boundaries for empowered relationships.

47:49 Making your way from complaints to core needs.

Your Check List of Actions to Take

  • Identify your deal breakers by reflecting on past experiences that prompted you to consider leaving a situation or relationship.
  • Create a list of your top five non-negotiable qualities for your ideal partner, friend, or colleague to clarify your standards.
  • Recognize that anger often masks underlying fears, prompting you to explore what you’re truly afraid of when you feel resentful or frustrated.
  • Practice redirecting conversations away from uncomfortable topics by politely but firmly steering them toward more positive or neutral subjects.
  • Embrace the power of saying “no” without offering lengthy explanations or justifications, maintaining firm boundaries.
  • Understand that setting boundaries is a skill that requires practice and repetition to become more comfortable and effective over time.
  • Cultivate trust in yourself by consistently honoring your boundaries and observing the positive impact it has on your relationships and well-being.

Mentioned

Boundaries Made Easy: Your Roadmap to Connection, Ease and Joy (*Amazon Affiliate link) (book)

Be Happily Married: Even If Your Partner Won’t Do a Thing (*Amazon Affiliate link) (book)

Feelings Chart (*Hoffman Institute link) (pdf)

Relationship Map To Happy, Lasting Love

Shifting Criticism For Connected Communication

Connect with Dr. Abby Medcalf

Websites: abbymedcalf.com

Facebook: facebook.com/abbymedcalf

YouTube: youtube.com/user/AbbyMedcalfThriving

Instagram: instagram.com/abbymedcalfthriving

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/abby-medcalf-phd-718969b8

TikTok: tiktok.com/@abbymedcalfphd

Podcast: Relationships Made Easy

Connect with Dr. Jessica Higgins

Facebook: facebook.com/EmpoweredRelationship 

Instagram: instagram.com/drjessicahiggins 

Podcast: drjessicahiggins.com/podcasts/

Pinterest: pinterest.com/EmpowerRelation 

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/drjessicahiggins 

Twitter: @DrJessHiggins 

Website: drjessicahiggins.com  

Email: [email protected]

About Today’s Show

Abby, it’s a pleasure to have you with us.

Oh, thank you for having me. I’m so excited to be here.

Yes. I know this is a topic that’s gotten a lot of attention. Many people support people who are wanting to develop more boundaries, and I know that you offer a particular voice and recommendations. So I’m really interested in hearing your voice around this topic. 

For people who are just getting to know you, what would you like people to know about you? Then also, if you want to share a little bit about how you came to focus on this as a topic?

Well, I’m originally from New York, and I live here in the Bay Area, California now. I came into therapy because I was a heroin addict, which I think a lot of people come through their own tragedy. So in my recovery, I got into counseling; that was back in the day when you’d have five minutes to sobriety to be a counselor. Then, you know, I’m a Jew from New York. So I went to school, and I kept going to school. I eventually got into business, and was doing psychology and business and consulting and working with executives who had drug and alcohol problems for many years. I was kind of missing my kids growing up; I was traveling all the time, and I wanted to change my life around. 

And while I was working with these executives, they kept reporting to me, like: “Oh, my marriage is so much better, and I’m getting all my kids better.” These were people I had never met. So I thought, what’s going on here? So those of us who have PhDs, we’re researchers, so I started to really try to quantify what I was doing. That why is this happening? Part of it was because I didn’t know how to just coach. I was being a therapist too, which I didn’t know the difference at the time. So I was doing a lot of deeper work with them. But a lot of it, of course, was because as they were changing, of course they were acting differently at home and with the people around them. And guess what, people around you change, and people react to you differently when you start doing that. 

That led to my first book, which is Be Happily Married: Even If Your Partner Won’t Do a Thing, because that’s what I was noticing. Then, what I was really specializing in, I started my podcast, all the things, and I started realizing that really what things started to boil down to were boundaries. No matter what question people asked me, I kept saying boundaries is the answer. How do I be happier at work? Well, boundaries. How do I have more peace in my relationship? How do I communicate better? How do I stop feeling resentful? Boundaries, boundaries. It’s like the only thing I felt like I was saying. Of course, my clients and my listeners kept saying you should write a book on this, and that led to that. 

But it’s really been realizing that boundaries are misunderstood; people are focusing on the wrong things. We use the word so easily these days, like he’s a narcissist, or she’s codependent. So we throw around terms without really understanding what they mean, though they’re used in the wrong place. I’ve really been on a quest that people really understand boundaries, and how to make effective ones, what it really means, and how to troubleshoot. So I’m like the boundaries queen. And I’m a bossy Jewish mother, so it’s perfect too.

There’s a lot of clarity there.

Exactly. So that’s really the long or short story of how I got to where I am, what I’m doing now. 

Yeah. Well, thank you for just giving us some sense of your journey. I appreciate your transparency, and just also how this all weaves together. Sometimes when we really enter into the work and how we’re supporting people, and we recognize how interconnected it is, but also maybe access point. One of the things I’m wondering, if you can help me, as you’re describing this focus of boundaries. A lot of people would perceive boundaries as, not a sub thing, but something that’s a pillar or a part of relationship. But the way I’m hearing you talk about it in this moment, it’s almost as if this is the clarity in which you occupy your position that allows people to feel and understand the shape of you, the structure of what you’re offering as far as business, or relationship, and how to operate. That there’s a clarity and intimacy, if we’re talking about relationship, but also business. That we’re clear, and that there’s coherency of this. Help me if I’m understanding.

Oh God, you said it so beautifully. I’m going to steal that. It is exactly what it is. Because when we’re in alignment with that, when we’re congruent in how we present, that we start to, number one, attract different kinds of people into our world. We’re always teaching people how to treat us, so we start to teach them better how to treat us. 

Free Couple sitting near bed and carton boxes Stock Photo

“Boundaries are about trusting yourself. We tend to blame other people for our boundaries; they trampled my boundaries. Well, that’s on you, not them.”

So getting out of the victim mindset, that other people make me feel a certain way, this is what we do all day. It’s how do we move people, because there’s nowhere to go. If it’s everyone else’s fault how you feel, then you’re never responsible, and there’s nothing you can do; you’re left in this helpless situation. 

And what this does, when you really learn what boundaries are and how to effectively deploy them, you start to really connect with people differently, you start to live in integrity, you start to live in this way that feels really good. I always tell people, you can tell that you don’t have good boundaries if you ever feel resentful or disappointed. A lot of people are like: Oh, I feel that a lot. I’m like, well, guess what, that’s you and your boundaries, and not having them clear. More importantly, though, not holding them. People say all the time, they’ll tell someone: “I don’t like how you’re treating me, or I feel really upset when you talk to me that way.” Those are not boundaries; those are just you saying stuff. 

It’s a narrative. It’s a state of observation.

Exactly, that’s all that is. So then people say: “Oh, they trampled my boundaries. I told them I didn’t like that, and they kept doing it.” I was like, but you didn’t make a boundary, you just told them something. You just said something out loud.

Okay, so let’s orient a little bit, because you’re saying so many really good things. Just to the point of the bigger scope of this, I almost get a sense that it’s like Know Thyself, and being able to give some visibility and transparency to others. And when you say, you’re setting the tone and people are taking cues from all of us, can you say a little bit more about that? Because that is so important. I mean, I can say a lot, but I would love to hear from you. 

Oh, I love this topic. A lot of people think about the woo-woo of that; law of attraction, and we track the people and all that. That’s great. But I’m a cynical New Yorker, so that wasn’t ever enough for me. So the research I love to point to, my favorite is Timothy Wilson’s research, Strangers to Ourselves, about the adaptive or conscious. Not that other people are going to read that. But here’s this, this is the thing. His research, he found that our conscious brains process information at a rate of 40 bits per second, while our subconscious brains process information at a rate of 11 million bits per second. So people don’t hear what you say; they hear what you mean. Everyone has experienced this. You’ve been at work, and Bob is talking to you, and he’s saying all the right things. But inside, you’re like, he’s full of crap. Like, I don’t trust this guy, I don’t like this guy. It’s because of the 11 million bits. The 40 bits, the consciousness is there. Oh, he’s saying what I should hear. But you know it’s different. You know it’s different, so you don’t trust him. And when those things are out of alignment, that’s how we present all the time. 

So if you’re smiling at someone saying: Hi, it’s okay. But really, you’re seething inside, they’re picking up on your seething; they’re picking the 11 million bits. You don’t get a choice about that. So when you look at the research, at the science, then of course, we have things like confirmation bias, psychological terms we use, where we’re always proving ourselves correct. All men suck, and then I’m dating, and sure enough, I keep meeting sucky men. I’m saying, see? This is how they are. But really, we’re “attracting.” But again, it’s that 11 million. We’re pulling that in, and these men maybe are meeting us and picking up on I call it the wobble. That you’re saying one thing, but there’s this other energy coming at them that, again, their subconscious is picking it up. They’re like, what’s with this woman or this person? It feels like they’re lying to me. Because you are lying. When you’re smiling and saying: I’m giving men a chance. But really inside, you believe that there’s no good men left, and you’re saying things like that.

Yes. If I can add the understanding about the nervous system, and just even from the attachment research, that one of the primary ways, as social beings, that we get information is through the micro-facial expressions, through the tone of voice. They say 80% plus of communication is nonverbal. But also this attunement; we’re recognizing and picking up cues from other people’s nervous systems. So there’s this very sophisticated, very efficient way of gathering information that is not verbal. 

One of the things you’re talking about is, what we’re participating in, what we’re attracted to, what we engage in. I imagine that this gets complicated. Because if we’re not used to trusting our gut, trusting that felt sense, then we might get very confused. Well, you’re talking about incongruence. So like, if I’m getting mixed signals, which signal am I listening to? Then that’s further complicated when we haven’t had relational dynamics that are more healthy, and so that we can feel that that’s familiar. Conversely, having dysfunctional relationship and that being familiar. Now, does this all interconnect?

They’re all the same thing, I agree, absolutely. I think that that disconnect is where we then disconnect from ourselves and trusting ourselves, and knowing that it’s okay that I tell my mom: “I can’t come over on Sunday, because I have the kids. I don’t want to do Sunday dinners anymore at your house. Because the kids have to nap, we have to get ready for school the next day or whatever, and I don’t want to be running around on Sundays anymore.” But is that okay? Oh, but my mom, and she loves having us, and it’s so great. There’s a whole thing that happens when we’re not really trusting that we’re allowed to ask for things, and create an environment where those things show up. 

Initially, when you were talking about when we’re observing another and we’re feeling like: Oh, this doesn’t seem to add up, that that is something to pay attention to. But also, what you’re describing is, when we’re relating to others, if we’re noticing frustration or irritation or annoyance, that’s a good indicator signposts that perhaps there’s something I’m not okay with. 

Really, it’s so interesting if you think about it. A lot of times, we’ll collapse a boundary. We’ll say: Oh, I told my mother I’m not coming on Sundays anymore. But then I do, and then I feel resentful and angry at my mom; I’m mad at her. We’re talking about creating these healthy, connected, truly intimate, emotionally close relationships, and you’re talking crap about your mom. That’s not loving and close. But you think it’s loving to go. You’re like: Oh, I should go because, you know, my mother. But you’re not being loving to your mother. You’re angry the whole time. You’re impatient. Maybe you’re resentful. What’s loving about this? What’s building? It’s alignment. Nothing. Then you’re probably talking to your partner about how much you’re pissed at your mother. You’re really doing more of that. There’s nothing loving about it, that’s the thing. I always say boundaries are love, they are. They’re from compassion and kindness to ourselves and to others. So sometimes when I’m drawing a boundary like that, I’ll say: “I love you so much, and I want to have a close relationship with you, which means that I don’t want to feel resentful or angry or put out in our relationship. So I’m going to say no to that.” It’s a very different way to present it.

Yes, so it’s not operating in obligation. Because a lot of people might confuse, and I’m curious what you would say about this, that showing up is, to your point, loving. But if it’s asking to abandon oneself, or what one’s needing, or to sacrifice, or take a hit as far as the stressor, not being able to advocate for oneself. Then that’s not a win. So typically, we want to look at win-wins. If it is true that I love you and I really want to find a way that we can really connect and be in service of something that feels really good.

Imagine saying that next. Imagine saying: “So Sundays really don’t work. But I love you, and I want us to have other connections. What else could we do? Could we quick text every day? Would that feel good? Do you want to have lunch, just the two of us, on Wednesdays?” There’s so many things you could then offer as a means to still get to the goal.

Right. Do you want to come over so that the children can see you on Sunday? 

Yeah, there are 100 options that aren’t “I go over there on Sunday because that’s what my mother wants.”

Now I’m wondering, as we’re discussing this, there’s a congruence of value, of noticing. Because sometimes, living into something is a good feedback mechanism. Sometimes we don’t know; we’re in new territory, we don’t know what we want or don’t want. But when we’re noticing the frustration, the annoyance or resentment, those are good indicators to be like, something’s not working here. Now, there are times where it’s not convenient, it doesn’t feel good. But it is in alignment of this is a relationship. How does that fit with boundaries? Because I think some people confuse boundaries are like: “Oh, I’m doing me you do you, and it’s not so much that we’re doing the hard thing or having the hard conversation.” Help us here, if you will. Because you’re saying there’s things that aren’t really boundaries, and there are things that are. I’m wondering if this is.

Yeah, boundaries are really always for you. So let me step back before answering. The whole thing is that boundaries are for ourselves, and here’s what happens that I find. I put boundaries on a continuum of thin to thick. So we have thin boundaries; codependency lives there, people-pleasing, enmeshment. I don’t even know who I am without you. Everything you say, yes, yes, yes. I don’t even know what I want, you tell me what I want. Fawning. All that is on that side of the spectrum, and that’s too thin. There’s too much there. There’s too much closeness, so to speak. On the very far end are thick boundaries. If you’ve ever called your dad Sir, that’s a thick boundary. This is where we have disconnection, we’re able to walk away from relationships very easily, we really never are vulnerable or showing our real true selves. 

Here’s what generally happens. You should never ever change your boundary depending on how you feel, or depending on how other people feel about the boundary. But what we do is, let’s say my mom has said: Okay, you don’t have to come over on Sundays anymore. But then my brother’s birthday is the following Wednesday, and she’s like: “Well, let’s just all get together on Sunday for his birthday. Come on, just one time.” So your boundary is somewhere in the middle, and you go: “Oh, it’s just she’s been so nice, everyone’s been so nice. I should just go to get along. Come on, it’s just one time.” So I collapsed my boundary, that’s on me. They didn’t do anything. They asked, and they are allowed to ask all they want. I’m the one who said never mind. So now my boundary gets too thin, I allow this to happen. Then I go, and what always happens, it seems, is that people aren’t appreciative enough. I’m dragging my kids. I had to do 50 things to get here, I’ve been out there. And I’m getting resentful and angry that no one knows. If anything, my brother goes: “Oh, about time you showed up again on Sundays.” Not even like: “Oh my God, thank you.”

So now I get pissed, and my boundaries go too thick, and I slam the door. I’m like, that’s it. We block people. We unfollow them on social media, where I’m never talking to my brother again. These sort of crazy pronouncements. I’m never going to my mom’s again! I’m sure people listening right now are like: “Oh, I do that. Oh, that’s me.” Because that’s what people do. Because they’re making it on feelings, on their own or someone else’s in a moment. Instead, when you have your boundary, that’s your boundary. This is my thing. Maybe to always be treated with respect, or whatever that is. Boundaries should be on a bigger level, and we can talk about that. But regardless, when you get out of alignment with that is when you’re not being true to yourself anymore. That is when you feel like: “Well, I’m just being nice to get along, or I’m supposed to do this thing, or everything’s a sacrifice.” Again, you’ve got to keep noticing how you feel. Feeling a little uncomfortable, with me, is fine. Discomfort is cool. In fact, discomfort often means I’m stretching my boundaries. So I’m like: “Okay, what is this, what have I got going on here?” 

But resentment, rage, helplessness, or hopelessness, those are always bad. That’s always about a boundary. I think we don’t always distinguish between feelings anymore. I love using the Hoffman Institute’s list. They have this beautiful list of feelings, it’s the best. It’s like a thousand on there, and people forget. They think: Oh, I’m mad or I’m glad or I’m happy or I’m sad. There’s like 200 feelings you can have with all these nuances. So to start to really know yourself and notice. It’s like: “Oh, I’m resentful. Oh, I’m feeling very impatient here, what is the impatience?” You start to really get better at noticing what’s just some discomfort, which maybe is a good thing. Okay, I’m going to go on Sunday, because there’s some other reason, because maybe you’re too rigid or something else. Maybe your boundaries did get too thick. That’s different than this feeling of despair, feeling like a victim, feeling overwhelmed, or the resentment, the rest I just said. Those feelings, those are all in the box of: I need a boundary here. So that’s how I tell people to tell. 

That’s so helpful. Because even as you’re describing this, it could be in the more amplified version, where it’s actually taking action and pushing people away or making them bad or wrong, explicitly, outwardly. It can also happen internally. Like, I’m annoyed, I don’t like you, I’m kind of saying things about you in my mind. Yet, what you’re saying, this is a direct correlation. That I’ve compromised something that is important to me, that I didn’t hold for myself.

Yeah, so how you feel is everything.

Yes. This helps with the question that I had, which was, it’s not so much about: “Oh, this is hard. Or this means a lot to me, I understand the purpose of doing this. It’s a lot of effort, but I know it feels good and it’s right.” That’s different than what you’re describing, okay.

That why I was like, let me back up, because you asked me that question. It’s when you see it in the big picture. Really, I think people laugh at therapy sessions or psychologists because they’re like, how does that make you feel? It’s one of our kind of standard things. But it’s so interesting how much people don’t know how they feel; they have no idea how they feel. 

The body, the sensations, we’re getting cues in our physical state and emotionally. Like, emotions are the sensation of the feeling that we might describe. So as we’re discussing, there’s also something I really appreciated about how you were describing that we will be the ones to not honor our boundaries, and that that can happen very quickly. There’s a slippery slope there, especially if the relationships have history, or there’s a little bit of complications, or there isn’t necessarily. I can even imagine there’s relationships or family dynamics, where this is not the norm, setting boundaries or giving permission. Can you say a little bit about that?

I mean, I come from a family with no boundaries, or very thick boundaries actually. Again, both sides are very unhealthy. So we all do, as we know, what we’re raised with, what looks correct, what looks right. So I can go from that too thick to way too thin, being a Jewish mom, stereotypical. Control, everything. I’m the control queen. I’m the queen of control. So that’s where we end up going. Again, that’s how you sort of notice. Because if you look at your parents or anybody else, you can kind of see where your boundaries are. It’s usually how theirs are. But it’s hard. Because the reason people get upset with our boundaries when we draw them is because they miss us. They had a relationship with us in a certain way, and they were happy with it. We were the ones that were unhappy; they were fine. And when we start drawing boundaries, we’re creating some different dynamics in the relationship. And really, the person is mourning us. That’s why they get mad. “What are you doing? You’re so selfish.” We get called selfish. We get called things. You’re so rigid now. You’re so anal. I remember I used to get called anal all the time, having boundaries. It was this upset. 

I can even remember my mom, I would draw boundaries sometimes, and she’d say: “Stop yelling, you’re always yelling at me.” I wasn’t even yelling. Like, I haven’t yelled. Of all the things I am, I’m not a yeller. But that’s how it was perceived. Like, there’s so much anger, and there’s so much upset, and so they lash back. Really, it’s like being disloyal to our families, to them. It is. We all have this deal.

Right. These implied agreements, covert agreements.

Yes, and now I’m changing the rules. I used to always to hear that: “Oh, you’re so hoity-toity since school, or you think you’re better than us now.”

Because they’ve been sacrificing, they’ve been compromising their boundaries.

Right. I’m sure a lot of people listening are like: “Oh my God, I’ve had that. Yeah, I’ve been called selfish. I’ve been called rude or mean.” And you’re nothing of the sort.

Or somebody takes it as a rejection. You don’t love me, yes.

Yes, and this is the thing to always remember. People’s reactions are 100% on them. Because we all know we’ve been there, where we’ve said the thing perfectly. Like, people are listening right now taking notes: “I’m going to say it just like Abby said.” Then they go do it just like Abby said, and they’re at a good place, and they’re feeling loving and compassionate, and they say it perfectly. And the person freaks out. That’s what you have to remember. You cannot control what they do. I get asked, a lot of people say, well, how do I say this? So how do I draw my boundary? How do I say it nicely? How do I say it?

AKA, how do I say it where they don’t have a reaction? 

Thank you! That’s what they’re asking. How do I say it so that they agree and don’t get upset, so that they’re not mad at me? That’s what you’re asking, and that I don’t have an answer for, because there is none.

That’s it. Probably, if I’m hearing you, if I might interject, that is not the indicator for success of setting a boundary. People think that it didn’t work or it didn’t go well, because the person was upset with them. But that’s not what you’re going for.

That’s got nothing about it. How do you feel walking away? Again, you might be uncomfortable, that’s okay. Because it’s a little scary when you do this stuff. It’s generally initially, and I get this from clients all the time, they’ll say: I actually felt kind of good. Until they got away enough that they started overthinking. “Oh my God, now my mother’s going to like kill herself, or my mother is going to tell my other friend. Or my husband is going to say this.” They start doing that, the overthinking. That’s where it gets into trouble. But if you look at your original sort of where your heart was, it feels very empowering. It’s scary, but empowering. 

It reminds me, Terry Real does a great job of describing going beyond this terror barrier. Like, doing the scary thing, doing the terrifying thing, because it’s unfamiliar, and it’s new ground. So just let the bad thing happen, I think is what he says.

Yeah, it’s okay, and that’s the part of a boundary too. A boundary is really that you’ve identified what your standards are. So you’ve identified that, you’ve got your standards, and then you’ve created some sort of response. I don’t say consequence, because that makes people think like you’re punishing them. But you have a response when people don’t meet your standard. That’s what it is, you having a response when they don’t meet it. So there’s a boundary in my house about how my children talk to me, to either of us. Always has been, it’s never changed. There’s never, ever, ever even a little acceptance that my children have attitude with us, ever, ever. And guess what, my children never. People will think, oh my God, your kids! They’re not perfect, by the way; my teenagers are anything but perfect. But I will tell you, it’s because we don’t tolerate it and there’s a very clear response that we have, whenever that has eked out. Of course it’s eked out over the years, they’re teenagers. Of course, over the years. But we didn’t go through any terrible twos or horribles. My teenage daughter and I go hang out. I mean, she’s got her own life, we’re not so close like sisters would. That’d be weird, you know. But we are very comfortable with each other. My son too, we are very comfortable with each other. There’s a mutual respect. They have not liked lots of things I’ve said, because I have a lot of boundaries. There’s been lots of times they don’t like it, but they’re not disrespectful.

It’s sounding as though that they’re not using the sass or the attitude as a protest, that they get a lot of maybe reaction out of either one of the parents. But you’re asking them to use their more genuine language, or when they’re able to, obviously age-appropriate. But you’re saying we’re not going to do that. So there’s a response that you have, and there’s action that you can take, either verbally or physically or however, that it’s something you can be responsible and accountable for.

Yeah, that’s exactly it. So a boundary is only a boundary when you have your standard and you have some sort of response, I call it the teeth, that you have, that go together every single time. And what happens is, and I’ll just do a quick example. I have a client who had lost a lot of weight; weight had been an issue her whole life. She was going to a family events, and she sent an email. We did it together. She sent a beautiful email to the family. “I know I’ve lost a lot of weight. I know people were excited to talk to me about that.” She still had more weight to go. She said: “But I don’t want to talk. I don’t want objectify myself. I don’t talk about my weight or food.”

My body is not up for evaluation. 

Exactly, she’s very clear. She said, “I understand this is probably going to be hard for everybody. But I am going to leave, with love, if someone can’t handle that. So I’m giving you lots of notice. I’m telling you what I need.” She even knew this one brother was going to be a problem. So she texted him also. “I’m sure you got the email, but just in case.” I mean, she did it perfectly. She couldn’t have done it better. She gets there, it’s all happening. And of course, this brother that she knew, came up and was like: “Oh my God, you’ve lost so much way, you look great. You still got a few to go.” He’s doing his thing, and she just stopped him. She said: “I said it in the email, and I texted you about not talking about my weight.” Of course, what do people do? They go: “Oh, I’m so sorry. Yeah, you said that.” Then you usually go: Okay, just don’t do it again. 

But no, my client did exactly what she was supposed to do. She left. She left lovely. She didn’t leave in a huff. She was like, we’ll have to try this again another time. That’s what she said, and she left. She’s been to two events since, and no one has brought up her weight or her food. Do you see the difference? But usually, then people say they’re sorry, and we go okay, and we collapse the boundary, because we don’t have the teeth. 

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“We think that saying something about the boundary is enough. No, you have to follow through. That’s not a boundary. That’s just saying stuff, that’s giving feedback. The boundary is, I’m going to leave if that continues.”

If I might add, this is where you’re teaching people, and you’re setting the tone, to your point earlier, about having the standard and holding the standard. That it’s not really up for negotiation, and that if the teeth are there, then we’re going to take action, and that’s the lesson. That’s the teaching around what you’re going to participate in, and people will learn.

Yeah, and her family gave her crap. They were like: Oh, you left in a huff. She’s like, really, I didn’t. Then when the next thing came, they were like: “I don’t know if you want to come, I know you got upset last time.” She was upset with me, of course, but not with them. She said: “Well, of course I want to come. I’m hoping everyone can respect this time, my request about my weight my food. Hopefully we can have a better try.” She did such a great job. But this is that piece that we don’t hold it, and then we blame other people. So she wasn’t mad at her brother. She was annoyed, of course, for a moment. But she didn’t build resentment and sit there the rest of the party seething, because she empowered herself and left. That’s really when you know you have a boundary.

She showed up for herself. She really had a way in which she could feel the integrity of what she was holding. Abby, one of the things I’m feeling as you’re describing this, that this doesn’t get talked about enough. That you’re talking about, if I’m understanding, a little bit of a learning curve here. That when we’re learning to either, A: set a new boundary, it’s new territory, which we haven’t done before. Or we’re learning to set boundaries for the first time, really explicitly. That we’re not always sure how it’s going to go. People maybe aren’t going to react. I mean, really, let’s be honest, let’s predict, in the likelihood that people aren’t going to respond, any rate is probably higher than not. That that’s actually the training ground, that’s the learning. So once we can really have something that’s actionable, that we can have teeth and be firm about, then that’s where we get to live into the boundary and get to experience. Is that right?

Because it’s a skill. Knowing boundaries is a skill. No one expects to play like Serena Williams the first time out on the court. For some reason, we get it with other things. But with things like communication, or listening, self-confidence, they are all skills. So the more you practice it, the better you’re going to get. That’s all. So keep practicing, keep doing it. I’m sort of amazed sometimes in my own life now that I’m really pretty good at them. It’s not so hard anymore. I don’t feel any guilt anymore, or shame, or all the things that used to come up when I draw a boundary. It really does get better. The more you do it, the more people respond, the better you feel, and you start feeling really empowered and confident. Then, guess what happens? You really start to be different in your world. I’m telling you, boundaries, getting good at this and repeating them, it’s a game-changer. 

It is. I can see how many domains this helps, whether or not it’s business, or intimate relationship, family, parenting. Do you have ways in which you help people get clear on their standards? Because I can imagine this would take some developing options. Because in your example, she could have had something that she said; there could have been different things that she could have done. But that was something she felt really good about was leaving. But there could have been other options that she could have taken action, whether or not she’s like: I’m going to remove myself and not respond. Or however she responds and cuts it off, there could be different things. So do you have a way in which you help people devise this? Do you want to say anything?

It is in my book. But it’s also for free. I’ve done multiple podcast episodes on boundaries, so I do have it in there. 

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“I have people identify what I call their deal-breakers. I say the way you know your deal-breaker is it’s the thing, when it’s not there, that has had you leave a relationship or a job.”

Maybe you didn’t leave yet, maybe you just sent out your resume; you started sending your resume though for real, you started looking for real, you started looking for another place to live for real. You know what I mean? You went to therapy, knowing you had to leave, something. So you have to get clear on those. For some people, it’s things like respect or appreciation or love. It could be anything, we’re all a little different. But for me, there’s a thing about fairness. I really do fairness, there’s something I have to have there. Then you do your standards from that, how will that show up?

Okay, here’s something really important. There are rules we have, like in a house. Like, my husband puts away the dishes at night, so that when I wake up in the morning, it’s a clear landing zone. That’s not a boundary. That’s just a social norm you have within your household. It’s linked maybe, you think, to, well this shows appreciation for me. That I’m not the maid around here, that he has things he does too. But it’s not. Because I hear people: “He didn’t put away the dishes last night, I told him it’s important. He doesn’t think what I think is important is important. He doesn’t respect me.” I hear these and I’m like, whoa! He just didn’t put away the dishes, what are you talking about? We label things. We define them. We decide what they mean. I can tell you because I have probably more men in my practice than women, maybe it’s like 60-40. I’ve never met a man who’s trying to piss off his wife. I mean, other than someone who maybe is a narcissist, a true one, or something else. People are passive-aggressive, I get it. But in general, no one wants to piss off their partner. Oh my God, it’s the last thing they want! So he was overwhelmed at night, he forgot, I don’t know. But it didn’t mean all the things you thought. 

But what I find is that people focus on what they want, when they’re not getting what they need. And what you need is the boundary, not what you want. Not the toilet seat a certain way, not the counters wiped thoroughly, not all the whiskers out of the sink. Those are just things you like; those are preferences. Your boundary, what I tell people over and over is, let’s say in this example, if your husband, if you felt like he always had your back no matter what. Like, any situation, that man has your back right away, that he’s always looking out for your best interest, and he left a sock on the floor. Do you think you’d even notice it? Of course not, you’d pick it up. If anything, you’d be like: “Oh, he’s so cute, he left a sock on the floor. Oh look, his little whiskers on the sink. Let me help. You know what I mean? You get my mug in all the time.” But that’s the problem. Then you go to your partner, let’s say in this example. and you’re like: “You didn’t do this, and you didn’t do that, and you didn’t do this, and you don’t love me.” You write all the stuff. And the men I know, because I talk to them all the time, are left going like, oh my God!

Well, and to the point, there’s so much charge. It’s quite confusing because they’re picking up on all the keys. But also the content is like, are you really upset about that? Is it that big? But to your point, there’s an underlying need. 

Yeah, that they’re not getting. So then the men are confused, because that’s so weird. Like, really, you’re ready to talk about divorce because there’s peanut butter in the jelly jar? Like, really, we’re going to get divorced now? 

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“I talk to so many couples who blow up over the smallest of things. It’s because you’re not getting what you need, and you’re focusing on what you want. Just stop and really talk about it.”

Then the conversation gets diluted, because now we’re spending all this time on rules around the house.

Right, and it’s still not addressing the bottom of the thing.

Like, when you were out to dinner the other night, and my girlfriend was teasing me a little, you jumped on the bandwagon and you were teasing me too. That was really hard, because I need to know we’re a team and you always have my back, no matter what. This is actually a conversation I had with my man, my husband, very early on. I don’t like being teased. I’m not okay with it. We’re a team. Nope, I don’t want to be teased at all. Like, nope! We have a loving. I don’t find that sweet or cute or anything, for me. I find it troublesome. So guess what? In the beginning, he couldn’t quite get it. Because it seemed like, what are you talking about? Of course I love you. I’m like, I don’t feel like you love me when you do that. I have a lot of older brothers, maybe that was it, they were always teasing me. I don’t know. But for me, you’re having the opposite response. I don’t want to be near you when you do this. And he finally got it, and it clicked over into the other things. It’s like, this is always the filter I need you to use. I have Abby’s back 100% of time. I might disagree, and I might say something to her privately. But I’m never going to say something in front of other people. I’m always going to have her back 1,000%, in front of the kids or other people or whatever. Do you see the difference?

Well, and one of the things that I love about what you’re describing is, you didn’t make him bad or criticized or really, take him down. You were helping him understand how meaningful, what happens to your nervous system, where you go. It’s kind of like I have a client and we tease a little bit, because he’s been growing and helping people know what’s important to him. I was like, it’s kind of like the manual for you. Like, here’s my manual. You’re helping him know early on, this is a no-go zone for me. 

Yeah, so let’s have this boundary together. Together. It’s not a Me problem. Again, if we’re really a team, it’s a We thing. It’s not something that’s my issue that you have to go around. It’s: “I love this woman, and this is all parts of who she is.” 

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“I talk a lot about unconditional love is fine, but that’s not really the key. The key is unconditional acceptance. Because we don’t feel loved if we don’t feel accepted.”

I hear people say all the time, well, I really love you. But if I don’t feel accepted by you, that’s like having a kid maybe who says they’re gay, and you’re like: Well, I love you, but that’s not okay. That kid is not going to feel loved, not really. Because you want to accept them for who they are. So how could you really love me if you’re discounting parts of me? 

So this idea that I’m a little controlling and I have stuff, sometimes that’s wonderful, isn’t it? I’ve got planes scheduled. I’ve got life scheduled beautifully. Yes, sometimes you like it, but sometimes you don’t. You don’t get to cherry-pick it. You can lovingly give me feedback when you’re leaving the house as a grown man, and I’m like, do you have an umbrella? Like, I don’t need to say that. You can kind of lovingly go: I might not, Melf, I’ll be okay. Then I don’t mind a little like, hello!

But he can have a response that is really like, I got this. 

Yeah, I’m going to be okay out there. I was in the Navy. I’m going to be able to handle the outside. It’s just a few raindrops. That’s okay, but to not embrace all of me. Like, this is all of me, so I need you to embrace it everywhere, not just the parts you like.

Yes. In relationship, likely your husband has some areas that are very meaningful to him, that are non-negotiables or boundaries or needs. Hopefully, that’s visible, and the two of you have really been able to show up for those. So for people who maybe don’t know, and I know they could probably find a lot in your book and other materials and podcasts. Is there anything you want to say about getting in touch and making greater contact with a need? Because in my experience, it takes a little unpacking. But we start with the all the light complaints, like we have all the laundry list. Like, well, if they were to do that, what would that allow me to feel? Sometimes you have to route around and really get at the deeper layers. Is there anything you want to say?

It is really just thinking about the things that annoy you. Here’s my favorite thing to do. Think about, like in a partnership or something, or even with a mom or whoever. Think about what are my top five things I want in my dream partner, or my dream mom, or my dream boss. What are those top five things? Pros and cons lists are crap, because you can have 100 pros and the one con, it doesn’t matter because it’s the con. So don’t do that. It’s weighted differently, so it doesn’t matter. It cancels out. Think of the top five things. So for me, it would be like: Gary always says my back, he treats us as a team, he respects me. I probably just have those three. 

Then think about whatever is happening that your complaints are, and sort of compare it to the list. If you’re still complaining that he doesn’t wipe the counter well. I get this one a lot, I don’t know why it is. With women, I get this one all the time. Like, he wiped all the kitchen. He said he’d clean the kitchen and he wiped it, but then there was jam on the counter in the morning, or the inside of the pot wasn’t all the way clean. It’s like, was that on your list? Was that on your list: cleans the pots well? Was it on your list: mows the lawn great? I doubt it. So if you’re complaining about that, that’s what lets you know, and you compare it to your list and you’re like: Oh, this is something else, this is something deeper. That can be that first sort of blush of: Okay, let me think for a moment, let me try to sit with this. 

Celeste Ng, the author, has this great line that I wish I had said, that anger is the bodyguard of fear. It’s the best line ever as far as I’m concerned. So I think of that when I’m angry, resentful, frustrated, impatient, I would put all those together in the angry. When I’m feeling any of those, what am I afraid of? What’s really going on? How do I stop and reflect for a moment?

Yeah, thank you. That’s super helpful. Well, this gets a little bit at one of the questions I’ve been holding, and I can appreciate many people have fear around setting limits and boundaries, and the impact that will have. I know we’ve talked about the reaction. But can you say a little bit more about people who fear that they’ll be changing the relationship fundamentally, that they won’t maybe be loved, or the people will go away, or something to that effect?

Or even worse, that you’ll decide to go away.

Maybe. But for people who really do love the person, and they want to set limits or boundaries. Maybe the relationship, to your point, needs to evolve, needs to change, and likely does. I guess that’s what you’re saying. If they can’t meet you in a space of real connection of what’s true for you, then likely they can’t engage in a level that’s really the healthy version. So this is a process. Essentially, it’s not going to be, again, a one and done, like I set a boundary and then now it works. 

Oh yeah, no. In my book, and on the podcast, I literally have a whole section for troubleshooting; when they won’t take no for an answer, when they get passive-aggressive, all the things, when I feel guilty, when I still can’t get rid of my resentment, whatever, all that. It’s funny, I added a last section to the book. Because if you truly change your boundaries, saying what you said, you start to change yourself. So the last section I added to the book is about building a healthier you. Because I realized it’s like, if they get here, then what? Now you’re really a different person in how you’re relating. 

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“I will say that the I think the biggest reason people don’t set boundaries, one is because it’s easier to be a victim. It’s very comfortable, we all know it; we can blame other people for how we feel. God forbid, I don’t want to do it, it’s all their fault.”

But also because we’re so afraid of abandonment and rejection, DNA plays, and we’re so afraid of what it’ll mean. What, I’m never going to talk to my mother again? This is what I hear, stuff like this. I’m like, who said that? I never said don’t ever talk to your mother again. I’ll tell you, my mom truly had narcissism, narcissistic personality disorder. And I created such great boundaries with her that we actually had a deeper relationship. But I had such strict boundaries. Like, I never answered the phone when she called, ever. I never responded, because I knew it was always. I had topics I did not discuss with this woman. I used to keep little notes in my phone of funny things the kids did that I could share. But I never talked about my relationship. She would try. How are you and Gary doing? You can’t always be great. I was like, no, it’s good. Then I would move the conversation. 

By the way, one of my favorite tips for this is, I have a brother who talks politics that I don’t agree with. Every time we’re talking, I’ll say his name and I’ll say: “You know, there’s so many things I want to talk to you about that I’m excited about, and this isn’t one of them.” Then I jump into it, and I just change the topic. I’m like, I want to hear all about my nephew’s baseball game. And you know what, people go right along. They go right along; you just lead them where you want them to go. So you don’t have to make a big pronouncement, like: “I’m sick, I have told you 60 times I hate this.” Again, that’s making the boundary so thick again. You’re getting too thick because you’re scared of holding boundary. This brother does it every time we talk, even though I have said to him many times. But I don’t want to cut off this brother, I love him. So I just direct the conversation. I can trust myself to do that. I’m great at that. I’m good. And I do it with love, because I love him and I have compassion for him, so he feels it that way, and he keeps calling. I did it with my mom. We would have these conversations about just what the dogs did, my kids, baseball, McCartney got picked for softball team. Just kind of nothing. But you know what, we would have our version, because I wasn’t so pissed all the time. I wasn’t resentful. I didn’t have my armor up, because I used to go up to the phone armored.

Yes, and that’s beautiful. Because when you have the boundary, you don’t need to. Well, I’m not going to put this on me, I’ll say for me. When I have my boundary, I can feel really open. Because I’m being held by the boundary, so I can be really open. I’m not feeling this guarded protection, like I don’t know what you’re going to say or do, and I don’t know how to respond to that. I’ve already established my standards, to your point, and what I’m going to do to take action. So it allows me to be more mobile and free in how I’m relating, and have spaces that feel open that we can go towards, because I feel that clarity. You said something really important, you used the word trust. I feel like when one is in a place of having the clarity of standards, having the clarity of being in the practice of taking action around setting limits and boundaries, in a way that they develop the skill, that there’s a trust that other people can feel. I guess if I’m using myself, me, and I also can trust myself that I feel more confident going into scenarios.

Yes. Because it’s a skill, you start to build the skill. People ask me, that’s one of the other answers. How do I get more self-confidence? I say boundaries. I’m telling you, every question you ask about how to be happier or whatever it is, I’m telling you, the answer is boundaries. I only know because for the last 40 years, I’ve been doing this, and I’m telling you, it’s what I end up telling. It’s like, every time there’s a boundary missing. And when you start doing it, again, practice, practice, practice makes it better. It starts to come easier. You feel kind of like a badass. You’re like, I got this. 

Then you know, when the mother at my kids’ school asks me to volunteer for the auction, and I’m like, I can’t. I can say, I can’t do that right now. But let me know later this year when you’re planning for next year, and I could probably put the time in. I can give a response in the moment and not be mad at her for asking. She might come back and be like: “Well, are you sure you can’t do anything? You can’t do one?” That’s why No is a complete sentence. That’s why you don’t want to say: “Well, no, I can’t do it. I’m really busy at work, and the kids are this, and we’re moving soon, and this is happening.” Because then people come and they go at those things. Well, we’re all busy at work.

Then they work through your objection.

Yeah, that’s what they do, and then you’re like, ah! So just say: No, I really can’t, I don’t have time right now. Well, what do you mean you don’t have time? I don’t have time right now. Well, if we all thought that, nothing would ever happen at the school. And my favorite answer to that is, yeah. Like, I just agree. I’m like, yeah. There’s nothing to fight, it’s true. That’s it.

No kidding! One of the things, I know we’re winding down, I just want to comment, that when I think about the people in my life that I’m closest to, I want to know their boundaries. Like, if they’re not in the practice of setting them with me or telling me, I actually would love to know. So when we think about a climate where this is a little bit more welcomed or encouraged, that we can be working together, collaborating, and generating ways in which we can show up for each other that are real win-wins. 

Yeah, that’s great. 

Okay. So, Abby, tell us how can people get your books, and where would you like to direct people?

I think the website is just the best place. It’s AbbyMedcalf.com, it’s easy. I’m sure you’ll link to it. I do want to say my podcast six years ago as a give; for evidence-based, research-based information. Everything that’s in my books is for free, the episodes. There’s almost 300 of them, they’re all on the website. Even better, I do a corresponding blog for every episode. I do this on purpose, so that people who don’t always like to listen, or maybe you have a partner who you feel like should listen to this, and they will read though, a 10-minute thing or a five-minute thing. So you can just put boundaries in my website as the keyword search, and you can find everything I’m talking about. 

So I always want to be really clear, accessibility of great information is really important to me. Everyone should have it, it’s my bid at world peace. If we’re all happier in our relationships, then we’ll have world peace. And if you want it all in one place, if you don’t want to do the work of going to find all the pieces, you can buy the book. It’s that easy. So there’s never anything weird or underhanded with my stuff. It’s always right there. It’s meant to be given. It is a give, and you can have this other way to access it if you choose.

Nice, I love that, so many different avenues and however people want to engage. So I’ll put the link to your website. What’s the name of your podcast?

Relationships Made Easy, and we’re in our sixth season, and we’re in 180 countries. It’s really just this you huge thing. I didn’t start it that way with any intention. And we’re on YouTube also if people want to watch. But it’s meant, like anywhere you go, that you could really get it. Everything is research-based, and everything I give tips. Like, you don’t have to buy tips, I have nothing like that for sale. So if I say here’s the five ways to do something, I give you the five ways, all right there.

Yeah, and it’s also available in article form and video form. Then, say the name of your book again.

The last book is Boundaries Made Easy: Your Roadmap to Connection, Joy, and Ease.

Awesome! I’ll put the link to that in our show notes as well. Thank you so much for being with us, it was a pleasure to have you.

Thank you for having me. It was wonderful.

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Dr. Jessica Higgins ~ Relationship and Transformational Coaching