Your Mental and Emotional Warrant-of-Fitness #2 Boundary Building Strategies

(A Warrant-of-Fitness is New Zealand’s version of car roadworthy inspection like the M.O.T in UK)

Last week I talked about how boundaries are fundamental to mental and emotional health and wellbeing. Guilt and fear are two things that get in the way of us setting boundaries to protect ourselves, our time, resources and things that are important to us. They can stop us from saying, “no”, when we really want to. Lack of modelling in childhood, trauma and abuse are all legitimate reasons why boundary setting can be so challenging, scary and feel downright unsafe.

This week I want to introduce some tools that I’ve practiced myself and taught many clients and group participants. They DO work with practice. When learning any new behaviour, it helps to remember that it’s worth doing badly while you practice and get better at it. In the 12 steps programmes there’s a slogan that goes, “progress not perfection”. It pays to have these things in mind so as to not beat yourself up when your best laid plans don’t yield the results you’d like or you keel over and play dead when you really wanted to be assertive and not take any more crap!

We can often feel pressured to say “yes” to someone who’s requesting something from us when really we want to say, “no”. This is one example of people pleasing behaviour that, in the long run, creates more havoc than the uncomfortable feelings we are trying to avoid. When our insides don’t match our outsides, we’re in for trouble. Sometimes it’s a gut wrenching, “no way!”, other times only a sniff or an inkling that something is not right. If you are anything like me and have not grown up to honour and take notice of these inside clues, you may not trust this valuable information, will defer to your rational (or irrational) mind or the anxiety that arises when you contemplate saying what you want or need. It can feel overwhelming.

Technique no.1. The Stalling Technique

I wince at times when I remember some of my unskilled parenting. I can remember on more than one occasion when I was trying to raise several hormonal teenage girls at once being asked with much urgency if they could go to this party or do something and how they needed to know right this instant my answer while their friend waited on the other end of the phone. I’d feel a knot in my stomach but didn’t allow myself the time to listen to what my intuition or wiser self was trying to communicate with me because of the pressure to hurry up! I’m sure I said “OK” many times when I really wanted to say “no”, or would have said “no” had I used what I now call “The Stalling Technique”. DON’T make decisions under pressure unless of course it’s life threatening! Give yourself permission to respond with a gentle but firm “I’ll have to get back to you on that”, or similar. Really tune into what your body is telling you as well as your head and heart. Our bodies are a rich source of information if only we’ll listen!

Technique no.2 –The Sandwich Approach.

When contemplating behaviour change and the scary stuff of speaking up for yourself, it pays to have some ideas of how you might actually do that – what would it look like. The Sandwich Approach creates an easy visual reminder of how to approach an awkward conversation. And remember, we cannot make anyone change but we can request what we need or want. We can set and communicate clear boundaries to those in our lives and teach them how to treat us. WARNING: the closer the relationship the harder it is, so start with less ’important’ people in your life. We can learn to take responsibility for our feelings and needs and detach from trying to control others feelings. Not easy I know – but ask yourself, “What is the alternative?”

(Detachment is another related topic that I will expound on another time).

Lucy (not her real name) wanted to speak up to her son and follow through with consequences for his behaviour where she felt used and disrespected. He frequently used her car, returned it late with no fuel and didn’t clean up after himself at home. She was sick of it, and it was literally making her sick, she had irritable bowel syndrome, depression and very low energy. She had been living in fear of losing him and was trying to avoid his anger. Enough to shut anyone up! We practiced the Sandwich Approach, using two genuine soft and connecting statements with the hard stuff sandwiched in between. Below is an example:

Slice 1 of the sandwich: “Josh, I value our relationship and don’t mind lending you the car”

Meat in the middle: “but when you went out last night and returned the car with an empty tank it made me late for my appointment. Could you please replace the fuel you use or I won’t be able to lend you the car.”

Slice 2 of the sandwich: “I don’t mind lending it to you if you do this and I understand that you’ve been really busy since you met your new girlfriend.”

This example may not resonate with all of you but hopefully you get the flavour (pun intended) of this technique and can adapt it to your situation. Don’t forget to get support on your journey.

As always when communicating your needs use “I” statements, explaining in neutral language what you want to convey. Avoid using words that attribute blame and shame and resist name-calling or lashing out, even though it may feel justified. Another point to remember is to resist the temptation to say, “you always” or “you never”, as this just leads into an argument as to whether it is always or never. It’s a great way that the other person can derail you from your point.

When you start practicing boundary setting it’s often met with retaliation in the form of increased pressure for you to stay the same. Abuse is never OK. If you are experiencing violence in your relationships, whether it is verbal, physical, sexual or financial please get help. You are NOT to blame and it’s never OK.

I cannot take credit for creating these techniques or tools, nor are they rocket science, but it’s amazing how, when you have some structure and forethought about how and what you will do next time (and despite our hopes and denial, there will be a next time), it really does help to have rehearsed these tools with a friend or at the very least, in your own head. Don’t forget to be kind to yourself whilst learning new skills and not give yourself a hard time. Kind self-talk is soooo important on our journeys to better mental and emotional health.

Next week I’ll share more tools and insights and we’ll continue to work towards your Mental and Emotional Warrant-of-Fitness.

(c) Karen Lighthouse 2022

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Thanks for reading and take care until next time.


Words by Karen Lighthouse.

I also offer –

  • One-on-one counselling/coaching via Zoom
  • Group facilitation
  • Mental health education
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