boundaries | Steve's Quest: The Animated Musical Web Series

Creativity And Boundary-Setting

If someone told you that a piece you wrote is garbage and you’re a moron for writing it, could you object to their behavior?

When I work with people who are having trouble starting a project, this is often an area where they feel blocked.  They don’t trust their ability to protect themselves against mistreatment.  They feel reluctant to “put their work out there” because they don’t think they can handle the criticism that might come their way.

It’s also unsurprising that these people suffer greatly at the hands (or maybe “claws” is the better word) of their inner critic.  Because they don’t feel capable of standing up to the critic, and they know how viciously the critic will savage their work, they understandably find it easier not to start projects they’re interested in.

The Power of “No”

Why is it so hard for many people to stand up to abuse, whether from within or from others?  For one thing, I think many of us, growing up, were shamed or punished for saying “no,” or “talking back.”  Many of us came to believe we were not allowed to set boundaries with others, and perhaps that it was “spoiled” and “childish” to do so.

When I work with someone dealing with this issue, one thing we often explore is how it feels for them to say “no.”  I tend to find that, even if the person is alone with me, and there are no judgmental or critical people within earshot, they still feel some shame around doing this.  They don’t look me in the eye as they say it, and their “no” comes out soft and weak.

Often, if they can release their inhibition, and let out a loud, firm “no,” they not only feel empowered — the project they’ve been putting off starts to look less scary and more doable.  Because they know, from firsthand experience, that they can set clear boundaries with others, the prospect of criticism no longer frightens them so much.

I think another benefit of learning to say a powerful “no” — which may seem like a paradox — is that criticism doesn’t make us as angry when we develop this ability.  Work, and life in general, take on more ease when we know we can handle ourselves if we’re attacked — in a way that’s similar, I think, to the quiet self-assurance of a martial arts master.

Priorities Depend On Boundaries

Yet another reason the ability to say “no” is important is that it allows us to set, and enforce, our own priorities.  Often, I’ve noticed, people who are having trouble starting creative projects say they “just can’t find the time.”  However, the reason they “can’t find the time” is usually that they’re afraid to refuse others’ requests.

Whenever someone calls on the phone, for instance, they can’t bring themselves to let the call go to voicemail.  Nor can they be the one to end the conversation.  After all, the other person might feel neglected, and become angry and critical.

When they experiment with declining requests, and get comfortable with the feelings that come up when they do that, the book or business they’ve been “planning” for years ceases to look like such a daunting undertaking.

I’m not saying we should be critical toward others, or take revenge on those who put us down.  As I’ll discuss later, that’s just another way of giving in to the inner critic — by merging with or embodying it.  But I do think learning to say a forceful, unapologetic “no” can bring us a refreshing sense of creative freedom.

The Joy of Listening, Part 4: Setting Boundaries

My last post in this series was about staying receptive and curious when we’re listening, even in the face of a “difficult conversation” or a lot of emotional intensity.  On the same issue, a few commenters on Part One said they sometimes find themselves feeling exploited and resentful when they’re listening to someone.

I suspect you, like these commenters, have had the experience of someone “talking your ear off”—babbling on and on with seemingly no consideration for your time and energy.  When you’re experiencing a conversation this way, of course, it’s hard to find much joy in listening.

Recognize That You Have A Choice

One thing it’s hard to keep in mind when we’re feeling taken advantage of like this is that “it takes two to tango.”  To create a conversation where somebody is talking your ear off, the other person needs to talk a lot, but you must also choose to listen.  In fact, you have the freedom to stop listening and end the conversation at any time, and every second you keep listening you’re choosing not to exercise that freedom.

What often stops us from recognizing this is that we believe, on some level, that we have a moral obligation to keep listening to the other person.  After all, if we stopped listening—no matter how polite we were in ending the conversation—that might hurt the other person’s feelings.  And because it’s our job to make sure no one’s feelings ever get hurt, that option isn’t available.

Naturally, when we see ourselves as obligated to listen, rather than choosing to listen, we feel resentful and victimized.  Because we think it’s “wrong” to say what we want, we hold the other person responsible for predicting what we want.  We expect them to know, in other words, how long we’re willing to tolerate their chatter.  We start having angry thoughts like:  “Don’t they know I don’t have time for this?”  “Can’t they see I’m bored with what they’re saying?”

So, I think a simple shift in our perspective can help.  When you’re having a conversation and the other person is talking your ear off, see if you can keep in mind that, in every moment you listen to this person, you are choosing to do so.  Recognize also that making listening to people a “moral obligation” only brings anger and frustration into your relationships, and makes it impossible for listening to be fun—both for you and the person doing the talking.

Expressing Your Choice

It’s all very well to acknowledge that you’re choosing to keep listening to the other person from moment to moment, but what if you want to stop listening?  How do you let them know, in a respectful way, that you don’t want to listen to them anymore?

The best you can do, I think, is to simply tell the other person you have something else you want to do, in a way that doesn’t blame them for how you’re feeling.  By “blaming them,” I mean doing what I talked about earlier—making them responsible, in your mind, for predicting your wants and needs, and getting upset with them because they “should have known” you wanted them to stop talking (or at least to stop talking about the new blender they bought).

Some of us find it hard to imagine this is even possible.  We assume that, to tell someone we want to finish the conversation or move on to another topic, we have to say something like “you’re boring me” or “go yammer at someone else”—in other words, “I don’t want to listen anymore, and it’s your fault.”  Perhaps we’re accustomed to others talking to us this way, and we haven’t been exposed to other possibilities.

Let me give you an example of a “non-blaming” approach.  I’ve had a few moments recently where a client has wanted to keep our session going past the end of the hour, and I’ve simply told them “I hear what you’re saying, and I’m going to end the session now.”  I’ve straightforwardly told the client what I’m going to do, without suggesting they “should have known” we couldn’t go over time, or otherwise blaming them for wanting to extend our session.

And perhaps, if you’re concerned that they’re going to feel hurt, you can even let them know about that concern.  You might say, for example, “I’m worried that you’ll feel neglected when I finish this conversation, and I’m going to go do something else now.”  Many of us hold feelings like this back in the strange hope that, if the other person doesn’t know we’re worried about hurting them, they won’t feel hurt.  When you fully lay what you’re wanting and feeling on the table, this can bring a refreshing realness and vulnerability to the conversation.

Now, the reason I say this is “the best you can do” is that, as much as many of us would like to avoid having someone feel hurt, it’s simply impossible to do that 100% of the time.  We can’t hope to control all the factors that determine how someone else feels, which might include their childhood experiences, how their intimate relationships are going, their brain chemistry, and so on.  What we can do is take responsibility for our own feelings and choices, and when we do that we can actually make listening an enjoyable experience again.

If you enjoyed this post, check out the rest of the series:

The Joy of Listening, Part 1: Overcoming The Barriers
The Joy of Listening, Part 2: Empathic Reflection
The Joy of Listening, Part 3: Staying Empathic
The Joy of Listening, Part 5: There Are No Rules, Only Requests