Crossing the line

We all have an invisible line of acceptance, in our minds, that separates acceptable behaviors of others above the line from unacceptable behaviors below the line. The common advice about setting boundaries is a solution for dealing with unacceptable behaviors that cross our invisible line. But setting unilateral boundaries runs the risk of ignoring people’s needs, even our own.

We can do better than that.

Shifting our focus away from setting boundaries doesn’t mean that parents must open themselves to being run over by their kids. Focusing on needs includes, of course, the parents’ needs.

So, what can we do instead?

Since our line of acceptance is invisible, the most important thing to do about an unacceptable behavior is to make the line it crossed visible by shining the light of an informative and non-judgmental expression, focused on the needs—what Thomas Gordon called an “I-message”.

A fully formed I-message expresses the behavior without blame or shame, the tangible problem I have with it, and my feelings about it. In this way I communicate that the other person’s behavior is interfering with my needs at the moment and express my desire for a different behavior to restore the balance of my needs.

Instead of focusing on setting a boundary, this allows the focus to rest on feelings and needs. It informs the other person of the line their behavior has crossed and encourages them without shame, blame, ordering, condescension, etc. to behave differently. Often times that’s all that’s needed, especially as effective communication becomes the norm and we build trust in taking care of each other’s needs.
We can also use I-messages to prevent problems from arising, by anticipating situations where there is a chance our line of acceptance may be crossed. In this case, we can also add an expectation, or something we’d want to happen, to the expression.

The focus on needs reflects the fact that the line of acceptance is a personal and variable line. It not only varies for different people, it can also vary even for the same person from day to day, or even hour to hour, depending on our mood, experiences, ideas and values, and more. Instead of setting that line in stone, we can illuminate it and open our creative highways to finding a better way together.

For example, I come home tired from a stressful day at work and realize I never started the slow cooker for the meal I had planned for dinner. Not only the food is spoiled, but we don’t have dinner and everyone’s hungry. I think, ok, no problem I’ll just get rotisserie chicken and make some pasta to go with it.

Except, we just had chicken last night and my teenage son says no, he’s adamant he’s tired of it. I’m exhausted and can’t even think of what else I might put together for dinner. Should I be setting the boundary here and say: “This is what we are having—deal with it!”? Of course I can, but that means I will shut down all other possibilities and not only ignore my son’s needs, but possibly even my own. After all, I’m so tired, the idea of going to the store is starting to make me hyperventilate.

How about instead I express myself with an I-message, say: Look, I have had a long day and am really tired so when you refuse the idea of having chicken again I feel stuck and can’t think of a better option. No blame, no shame, no setting a unilateral boundary, just a factual expression of behavior and my feelings and needs.

My son looks at me and says: “I see you are so tired; I actually took a nap after school and feel refreshed. How about you go sit down with a drink and let me prepare dinner tonight? I can make rice and beans and quesadillas. You can even add the leftover chicken from last night if you want.” Wow! Yes, please!
(Of course, with different kids, it might go differently: Be prepared to say yes cheerios for dinner instead!)

Too good to be true? Not really. When we communicate effectively about our feelings and needs and show in practice that we are serious about not overriding other people’s needs and instead take care of everyone’s needs, this becomes not the exceptional but the likely scenario.



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