You hear a lot about “boundaries” these days. So, what are they exactly? Boundaries are limits or borders that people establish in accordance with their needs and values. Basically, people set these personal boundaries as a way to define what is okay with them and what isn’t, especially as it pertains to their relationships with others.
We’ve all heard people say something like: “That’s outside my boundary” or “I really need to set some boundaries”. Using the language of having boundaries conjures up the idea of setting limits on others’ words and behaviors with the implication that there will be consequences if the boundary is crossed. Very often, personal boundaries are unstated so when someone says: “That crossed my boundary”, the other person isn’t aware of what they said or did to violate the boundary.
It’s also the case that someone might not have any clear boundaries or limits which means they tolerate behavior that they really don’t like.
An Alternative Way of Dealing with Personal Needs and Values
The Gordon Model offers a way of taking responsibility for your needs and wants and letting others know what they are.
The first step is to be aware of what your needs, feeling and goals are. When we aren’t aware of them, we float through life or period of it without direction.
The next step is taking action to get them met. This means being an active agent and taking initiative to meet your needs.
An essential part of taking responsibility for getting your needs met is being willing and able to talk and behave in alignment with them. It means communicating with others in a clear and non-blameful way instead of being non-assertive or aggressive.
Non-assertive behavior would be failing to express your feelings, needs, wants and opinions to others. It can be a way of avoiding conflict for fear that the other person will disapprove of or dislike you. What is your best clue that you’re behaving in a non-assertive way? Your feelings of continuing dissatisfaction, discomfort, anxiety or anger after an interaction with someone or after you has disregarded or squelched an inner feeling or need. In the context of setting boundaries, the non-assertive person would have few, if any boundaries.
Aggressive behavior means getting your needs met but doing so at the expense of others. Aggressive people openly express their feelings, opinions and needs, but they do so in ways that disregard, ignore or trample on the needs of others. How do you know when you’re behaving in an aggressive way? The best indicators are the reactions you get from other people—they may avoid you, act resentful or angry toward you, isolate you or retaliate. Boundaries or limits are aggressive when they disregard, ignore or trample on the needs of others and when they imply that there will be a consequence if the boundary is crossed.
Assertive behavior means knowing what you need and want and working in a self-directed way to get your needs met while showing consideration and respect for others. When you are assertive, you communicate honestly and directly; you express your needs, ideas and values and stand up for yourself in a way that doesn’t violate the rights and needs of others.
People who behave in assertive ways believe that they have the right to get their needs met—when they don’t interfere with those of others. When they do have conflicts with others, they are willing to solve those conflicts so that both are satisfied with the solution. How do you know when you’re being assertive? You experience feelings of satisfaction, self-confidence and reduced anxiety. Others generally respond positively to you.
The Gordon Model offers four self-disclosing I-Messages, each having a different purpose. Disclosing I-Messages let you and others your needs, opinions and values—“I like talking about politics” or “I really don’t like Zoom meetings.” Responsive I-Messages give you a way to say “no” to unacceptable requests: “No, I don’t want to have people over for dinner because I am too tired and would like to just relax.”
Preventive I-Messages let others know your need ahead of time which can prevent a conflict: “I’ll need to have dinner early tonight because I have work to do for a meeting tomorrow”. Confrontive I-Messages let others know when their behavior has interfered with your meeting your needs: “I’m getting frustrated because you’re watching videos on your phone when you agreed to help me with laundry now and it’s piling up.”
Because others sometimes react to I-Messages with defensiveness, the Gordon Model offers a way of listening with empathy when that happens. This means that the other person’s needs and feelings are recognized, heard and understood.
Having these skills helps you relate effectively with other people and makes it unnecessary to set boundaries and impose consequences when problems or conflicts arise.