Sometimes the kindest thing you can do is set a clear personal boundary. Self-kindness requires courage, trust, and faith.

This episode is on boundaries, and it caps off our exploration on emotion regulation, one of the six ingredients I consider essential for cultivating more ease and joy in your life.  If you are listening for the first time, PEPPIE is my acronym for a set of inner strengths that can offset stress and overwhelm. These include cultivating:  Presence,  Emotion Regulation, Perspective Taking, Purpose, Integration, and Effort.

So what is a boundary anyway?  

According to the Cambridge online dictionary, a boundary is a real or imagined line that marks the edge or limit of something.

It can also mean where one thing ends and another begins.  When it comes to relationships, personal boundaries are described as healthy or unhealthy, and are important for mental health and relational well being.  

The American poet Robert Frost is known for a line in his famous poem, Mending Walls:

Good fences make good neighbors.

Frost also speaks of the inevitable gaps and repairs of the walls we build,  season after season, wondering what it is that we are walling in and walling out. 

Boundaries are permeable, aren’t they? 

And so our personal boundaries require tending, too. After all, we are changing and responding to our inner and outer worlds, every moment of the day as we rub up against life.  Being too rigid isn’t helpful and being too porous isn’t either. Finding some flexibility — or elasticity — might be a better way to imagine a healthy boundary. Like knowing what to let in and what to let out.

I like to think of a personal boundary as wearing a spiritual spacesuit, one that allows the good nourishing energy to stay in, and repelling the negative or toxic energy that is best left out.

In this episode I describe the story of Benita and how compassionate communication helped her have a long awaited and difficult conversation with her parents.

Today’s Skill

It’s called Compassionate Communication or Nonviolent Communication, sometimes referred to as  NVC, based on the work of the late Marshall Rosenberg. It’s used in conflict resolution and also helps when you need to set a clear personal boundary.  

I like NVC because it is simple and effective for almost any kind of interpersonal challenge, like expressing a boundary, making a request, or stating your point of view.  It’s a recipe for being clear and owning your position, and for listening and being receptive to what another person is saying without shaming or blaming. The objective is not to change someone’s mind, but rather to cultivate a relationship based on honesty and empathy.

Think of a situation where you might need to set a personal boundary or make a request that is in the service of your own wellbeing.  It might be it is a hard conversation with a family member or a friend, or maybe with someone at work. Write it out first so you can get very clear. We will go through each step. 

Step 1.  Observations  

What do you notice about the situation, and can you state it in neutral terms, without criticizing or blaming.

An observation is a clear description of the event. The challenge is to notice the situation without judging it, because if we mix evaluation with observation, it can result in criticism. When we simply observe what happened, the situation remains open.

For example an Evaluation or Judgment might be:

Why did you yell at the kids like that?

Whereas an Observation is: 

You got upset when the kids came home late.

Step 2. Feelings

Name your emotion or sensations that arise in the situation.  Try avoiding stating your thoughts or opinions.  Write: I feel… [and then name your emotions and be specific.]

This means having a diverse vocabulary of feelings, and understanding the difference between feeling and thinking. 

Here’s a Blaming expression:

I feel totally horrified that you are just like your father.  Don’t  you see that you are repeating a cycle?  

Here’s a Feeling expression:

I feel scared when I hear your harsh tone because I know you want to do right by the kids.

By taking responsibility for our own feelings we avoid dropping into the blame game—either of ourselves or the other person.

Step 3:  Acknowledging the needs at the root of feelings

These are common human needs shared by everyone to some degree. We need to take responsibility for our own needs.

We can use jargon or magical thinking to convey our needs, making it hard for other people to get what we really need; instead, they hear a criticism or how they may be failing us. For example,

Not taking responsibility sounds like:

Honey, what you said to the kids really bothered me. I need you to work on your anger issues and you’re not even trying.

Taking responsibility sounds like:

What I need now is for you to recognize how frightened I was. We don’t feel safe when you get angry like that.

Do you hear the difference?  You are owning your own stuff even if you are upset or irritated at the other person.

Step 4: Making requests 

What concrete action would you like the person to take that would enrich your life and contribute to your wellbeing?

NVC encourages answers to two questions: 

  1. What contributes to your well-being? 
  2. What would make life more wonderful? 

Not bad questions!

Once we can attend to what we observe, feel, and need, we become clear about what specific requests we can make so that others can respond with more openness and empathy

That means clearly asking for what we do want rather than what we don’t want—using positive rather than negative phrasing.

An unclear request sounds like:

I don’t want you to get angry over small problems.

A clear request sounds like:

I want you to tell me that you value our family life even if the kids can be forgetful at times. Parenting is hard. There will be challenges. We need to be on the same page.  Maybe you would be willing to get support about your past, or go to a parenting talk with me?

Because people can already be on the defensive, you might need to restate or check in.

Was that clear? … Am I making sense to you? … How did you understand what I said? (A simple reflection question framed positively can help everyone reach understanding.)

Remember, people are doing the best that they can with the skills that they have. Being mindful of how we communicate is an important first step.

As with most things we want to evolve, using compassionate communication is practice and it requires flexibility.  Authentic kindness is standing in one’s integrity, honoring core values, and protecting personal space. It’s putting on that spiritual space suit.


Nonviolent Communication