SALT LAKE CITY — In this edition of LIFEadvice, Coach Kim answers questions about having boundaries and forgiving others while also taking care of yourself.
In your article on forgiveness, you mentioned that there are some situations in which we should forgive but definitely not let the person back into our lives. What does that look like to have boundaries? How do you handle that if the difficult person is a family member or a person you are forced to see regularly, like an ex-spouse or co-worker? Why do I have to forgive if they aren’t sorry and aren’t going to change?
You asked a few different questions, so let me answer them one at a time.
Why do I have to forgive even when the person isn’t sorry and won’t change?
I could give you the usual answer — that you forgive so you feel better — but the truth is that your ego feels pretty good about staying mad. Instead, I encourage you to change what forgiveness is for you. Forgiving in the traditional sense meant you had to pardon someone for their mistake, because staying angry or hurt causes you more stress and unhappiness than it does the other person. So, you tried to do this for yourself, even though the person didn’t deserve it. This kind of forgiveness is hard and it’s the reason most of us struggle.
However, if you completely change your idea of what forgiveness means and, instead of pardoning people, make it all about changing your perspective about the incident and life in general, you can totally change how you feel about the situation. This can be done easily, even when someone doesn’t deserve it or isn’t sorry.
The most interesting perspective shift to try is to decide to see life as a classroom and this person and their mistake as being something that will ultimately serve you and make you stronger, wiser or more loving. This means that the hurt they caused can be used to bless and serve you in the long term. If you see the difficult person as a teacher in your classroom and their behavior as something that is serving your growth in some way, you might find you don’t even need to forgive. You can just let it go.
How do you handle forgiving if the difficult person is a family member or a person you are forced to see regularly, like an ex-spouse or co-worker?
Forgiving and changing your perspective does not mean you have to associate with or have that person in your life. You can and should limit contact with people who are a negative influence, a drain on your energy, or makes your life harder or more miserable. But you can still have forgiveness and even compassion for them and how miserable it must be to live that way.
You can love them from afar. This means you don’t harbor hate that would keep you in a miserable state. You can release all that negativity and choose to trust God and the universe that you are OK and let this person go in peace, while also choosing to stay away from them.
You must give yourself permission to make your needs important. Taking care of yourself and making sure you are balanced and happy is actually your No. 1 job, and that isn’t selfish. Your job is to make sure your needs are met and your bucket is full so that you have something to even give other people. This will often mean limiting the contact you have with people who make you miserable and drain your bucket.
Ultimately, it would be great if you could get to a place where you could be around this person (when necessary) and not be negatively affected by them, but that doesn’t come easy. In the meantime, you should stay away from them and protect yourself from further abuse or mistreatment.
What does that look like to have boundaries?
If you cannot limit contact and are forced to associate with the difficult person, then you need to define and enforce some boundaries. Here are some questions to ask yourself that might help you figure out what boundaries are needed to make this relationship work:
- What are some things I have allowed this person to do or say that upset me in the past?
- What do I wish I didn’t have to do, but I haven’t felt comfortable saying “no” to?
- What do I need to give myself permission to do in order to protect myself?
Maybe you have allowed a co-worker to waste your time or interrupt your work. Maybe you have allowed an ex-spouse to yell at you by phone or send nasty messages. Maybe you allow your mother-in-law to make you feel guilty for missing family gatherings. Make a long list of behaviors you have allowed in the past that are not working for you.
It is important to make some new rules and write them down. Just deciding in your mind is not nearly as powerful as putting them on paper is. When you write the new rules on paper, there is a different commitment level that happens in following them. Remember though, boundaries are rules you enforce on yourself to save yourself from your own weakness. Write down which behaviors you are no longer going to allow and how you will enforce it.
- You might write that co-workers are no longer allowed to distract or bother you while working, and you will make a sign for your cubicle that says: “I am focusing on work right now and cannot visit until later.” If they try to interrupt, kindly tell them you would be happy to chat later but have to focus right now.
- You might write that your ex-spouse is not allowed to yell at you by phone and you will simply hang up and/or not answer until they can be respectful. Hateful messages will be deleted without being read or listened to.
- You could write that you will no longer feel guilty for missing family gatherings that didn’t work with your schedule or life. Your mother-in-law can say whatever she wants, but you will no longer allow it to affect you.
That last one is a good example of a boundary you enforce with yourself. You cannot make your mother-in-law stop saying things or acting rudely, but you have complete control over how you react and feel about it.
The most important part of having boundaries and enforcing them is not letting other people’s reactions to your boundaries bother you. Chances are, they won’t like your new rules and they will make you feel guilty for having them. That is not your problem and, on some level, it isn’t even your business. You are in charge of your own behavior, thoughts and feelings; you are in charge of being the best, strongest, most loving version of yourself you can be. Focus all your energy on that and let other people deal with their own feelings or issues themselves.
Giving yourself permission to have boundaries is the hardest part, especially if you have been a lifelong people pleaser. This may take some time to give yourself permission to make your needs important without feeling selfish.
If you are dealing with a really toxic, difficult person, you might want a coach or counselor to help you process the emotions and learn to be easier on yourself. Be patient with yourself and just keep working on it.
You can do this.
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