The Strange Man in my Kitchen, Not all Boundary Invasions are obvious
I love warm spring days. They are the start of a thing, the beginning of a ‘new’, and are full of possibilities.
It was on one of these warm spring days that I walked into my kitchen and a strange man was there, unannounced and uninvited. Standing right by my stove between me and the back door. I was expecting a potential renter bet the strange man walked in, and…there was something off; he was disheveled, dirty, and his eyes told me that he was not who I had been expecting.
“Hi,” I said, ‘are you”
“I’m not sure,” he said, taking a step closer.
“Are you David?” I asked
“I can’t find it”
“Find what?” I asked,
“Yakima, I am trying to get to Yakima.”
This was my way out, “Sure,” I told him, “this way.” I swiftly walked past him with my heart racing, out the back door onto the street, pointed East to ‘not David’ and told him “It’s that way.” I continued walking as quickly as I could into the neighbor’s garage and to his back door. I was safe and the police were able to catch up to the stranger a few blocks away. I like to think that he got the mental health help that he so clearly needed, or at least found the place that “Yakima” represented.
This was a clear boundary invasion. Other boundaries are not so obvious, those involving personal space, encroachments on our time, energy, or jabs to our self-worth. Recognizing these offenses and maintaining strong clear boundaries is critical to our safety, and integrity.
Because they are so common, and sometimes disguised as “humor’ or in some way ‘doing us a favor’ we can be fooled into accepting these boundary breaches and oblivious to how truly destructive these minor breaches can be. For just this reason such breaches can be a bigger danger to us than the more obvious physical attack. Unless we become aware and hold our ground, we lose self-esteem and eventually control over our lives.
On an individual level, micro-breaches begin in careful, strategic ways, possibly beginning with insincere flattery, standing a little too close, or making jokes that are subtly insulting but difficult to discern. These are the tests, the micro-breaches to see how you react. Silently (although not happily) accepting these subtle breaches gives implicit permission to continue. Each instance will be affected by your relationship with the ‘breacher’ who is testing you. A boss who is a bully may threaten your career, overtly or covertly. A colleague may maneuver to have you removed from an important committee. A peer may offer their opinion on how you ‘should’ have done something.
There are thousands of ways to cross boundaries: consuming your time and attention: demeaning your work or refusing to pay a fair wage. Each of these destructive behaviors fall along a continuum from occasional and/or minor to chronic and extreme abuse from an individual bully’s slights to socially reinforced racism and sexism. Examples of such hard to challenge micro-breaches include:
- habitually interrupting
- assuming you are available at all times to work late, or “pick up the slack”
- ignoring, dismissing or ‘correcting’ your comments/opinions,
- “humorously” commenting on your mistakes, oversights, or foibles,
- taking credit for your ideas or your work as their own,
- patronizing comments such as “No, trust me it’s better if we do it this way”
There are good reasons we may ignore these insults. They have become so common that we are desensitized, the person may have more power or status than we do and to say something feels like an overreaction. Bit by bit and breach by breach it diminishes our self-esteem. So what do you do about these seemingly minor acts?
Confronting the Behavior
First, recognize them for what they are: acts of disrespect, and a breach of your boundaries.
Second, consider your options. Will this endanger your position?
Third, determine when and how to begin the confrontation. For some people, a quiet one-on-one confrontation will be enough.
Fourth, anticipate resistance when you call out the behavior, making you doubt yourself and your perceptions, feel uncomfortable and discourage you from saying anything more in the future. Such ‘push-back’ might be:
- Minimizing or dismissing the act: “Really… I meant nothing by it..” “We all have to laugh at ourselves
- Name-calling or insulting: “Well if you’re going to be rude about it,” “I didn’t know you were so sensitive.”
- Indirect attack: gossiping about you “She’s a control freak,” “She complains about everything.”
Finally, if you decide on a direct confrontation, prepare what you will say. The goal is to be clear, calm and self-assured. If this is new, it’s good to have a dry run: write out what you want to say, or practice with a relative, friend or colleague and get their feedback. Little by little, gaining internal confidence, recruiting resources, and practicing phrases will allow you to hold firm and address the micro-breaches as they come up: “I wasn’t quite finished,” “I am not able to do that,” “I want to circle back to my point.” You will become more aware of such micro-boundary-breaches, more practiced at countering them and develop stronger self-esteem and self-respect. By the way, you will gain the respect of your co-workers in the process.
Conflict is inevitable and does not need to be negative, it can be used to clarify where you sand.
Use the Difficult Interaction Preparation Sheet before you confront the ‘Opposer.’
Learn more about Boundaries, Triggers, and emotions at LaraCurrie.com
 Including gender, age, race, education, family relations and so on.
 Outside of attacks by strangers, sexual harassment or even assault begin with verbal ‘put-downs’ and minor infractions of one’s space and time.
Get my 10 best tips on how to deal with people & sticky situations!
Get tons of tips on dealing with difficult people, having tough conversations, and navigating conflict.
Take the guesswork out of how to respond to rude, manipulative or just plain dysfunctional people
Take control of the situation so that you don’t get caught up reacting instead of responding
Know what to say - when you don’t know what to say