• Your Instruction Manual OR Your Boundaries


    The problem with boundaries is that they are so multifaceted and knowing/setting boundaries is extremely vague. If you’re looking for a comprehensive book on boundaries, this will not be it. However, this blog is intended to help with a certain type of boundary which can allow our mind to wrap around setting boundaries. 

    Instruction Manuals

    As technology rolled out through the 80’s and 90’s there was a worldwide ignorance of what was “okay” and what was “not okay” to do with the new pieces of technology. Today, most of these instructions are so commonplace that they feel intuitive. We know not to put metal in the microwave. We know what technology can get wet (or at least how long my new iPhone can be submersed). We even know not to smack the side of our television when it’s not working (“just power cycle it!”). However, you may remember that back when these new pieces of tech were entering our homes for the first time, we just didn’t know how to handle things and we had to read through the instruction manual. By knowing our own instruction manual and listening for other’s instruction manuals, we can take a huge leap in understanding and setting boundaries.

    What’s My Instruction Manual

    Just like Gizmo from the movie Gremlins (1984), human beings have an instruction manual. Unlike the Gremlin instruction manual of no direct sunlight, no contact with water, and never feed it after midnight, our instruction manual is a little more complex and individualized. 

    If you were to set your rules for how to be “handled” or “cared for”, what might you include on that list? Maybe you’d say when out on a date you have to wear a button up dress shirt (which was my wife’s boundary and I picked out the correct shirt that day!). You might think that in polite conversation the other person should allow you 50% of the conversational space to speak in turn. A final example would be what it sounds like to speak to you in a way that you can hear and appreciate. 

    The simple explanation of this skill is to think of how you’d like to be “handled” or “cared for” and talk about it with whomever is attempting to interact with you. The complex part of this skill is not only understanding what boundaries you’d like to communicate, but how to communicate them. 

    Communicating My Instruction Manual

    The second step after determining what you’d like your instruction manual to say is how to think about saying it so that you’re actually able to let it out of your mouth.

    I’m going to ask you to think about how a suit manufacturer would speak about their cleaning instructions. Would they yell “DON’T WASH THIS IN HOT WATER”? Or would they calmly say “In order to get the best life out of this suit, we recommend dry cleaning”? I’m guessing they would have the calm discussion as they’re just thinking “I need to convey this information because it’s in everyone’s best interest”. It really is in everyone’s best interest for people to know the boundaries of others and to set the boundaries for themselves. When boundaries aren’t communicated, we may inadvertently create friction that can damage self, others, or relationships. 

    Imagine a scenario where an employee doesn’t function at their best until 30 minutes after arriving to work. The boss likes to schedule meetings first thing in the morning and becomes frustrated when the employee doesn’t respond as enthusiastically as they’d like. The employee feels the pressure, but cannot muster the energy to appease their boss. 

    Now, if the employee had communicated their instruction manual by saying:

     “Hey boss, I’m really not ‘up and running’ when we have our morning meetings. I’m still on ‘get through traffic mode’ and it takes me about a half hour to be really present and ready to work.”

    At this point, the boss is going to respond to the boundary. Problem solving could be in order or the boss could set their own boundaries (i.e., instructions for how to remain employed by the company). Either way, there is movement that will start the process from moving away from friction. 

    So, take the simple mindset with this and think, “Hey, I’m just telling them my instructions so that things can feel better”. The funny thing about this is that so many people build this up way beyond “instructions” and that’s when fear of rejection or retaliation start to spike, and the reality is that most people respond with “Dang, I wish you would have told me this sooner. I’d love to help.”

    How About Other’s Instruction Manuals?

    The final step is learning how to receive other’s instruction manuals in the same manner that you’re wanting them to hear yours. The trap in this is the blame that comes up for learning about instructions that either come into conflict with your instructions or they cause insecurity for either not already knowing or having acted in a way that caused the boundaries to be communicated. Just like an instruction manual straight out of the box, newly communicated boundaries can be responded in a “Oh, I’m glad I know that now” so that we are able to take in that information. This receptive response allows for us to take in the boundary without an emotional response to the new information. It’s that lack of an emotional response to someone else’s boundary that can open us up to respond in a way that decreases friction. 

    For instance, someone in line at Costco turns back to you and says “I’d like to have space to stand at my cart without your cart bumping into my ankles.” If you’ve been able to hear this as them communicating their instructions, you can respond with “I’ll give you more space”. Friction has been avoided and boundaries have been respected. 

    What Happens If Someone Doesn’t Respect My Boundaries?

    The hardest part of boundary setting, even while using the Boundaries as an Instruction Manual skillset, is what to do if you set a boundary and someone chooses to not respect it. If we think about a microwave being returned to the manufacturer for having destroyed it due to the customer trying to heat a dish covered in foil, the manufacturer may give a reminder of the boundary and replace the microwave. However, if the same customer comes back after their metal knife and fork destroyed their new microwave, the customer services representative might say “Our policy is to replace an item if the handling instructions were not followed, but after it has been replaced once and the customer was reminded how to care for the item, we will not replace the microwave again.” 

    So, what might that look like in a real-life situation?

    “We have been friends for a long time but your pattern of being mad at me for talking to you about my problems, when I regularly am open to talking to you about your problems, doesn’t work for me. I need my relationships with my friends to be give-and-take, and if you cannot do that, I am not willing to keep our relationship.” 

    Then a few months later the friend returns to being mad about you talking about your problems: “Remember when I had said that you getting mad at me for talking about my problems doesn’t work for me. I’m hearing that you are doing it again and unless I hear that something has changed on your end that would make this not happen again, I’m going to have to step back from our friendship.”

    Lastly, we have to follow through. Our instruction manual is only going to matter if we hold to what we are saying. 

    The Take Home Point

    We teach others how to treat us. We are an active participant in this process and are permitted to set boundaries (despite what childhood experiences or old patterns may have taught us). Whether it’s telling that boss that we need to move our morning meetings back by a half an hour so you’re better oriented to your day, or it’s telling that tailgating Costco shopper to stay back a few feet, we only are able to maintain boundaries that have repercussions that we are willing to follow. If we say that we are unable to perform our job if something doesn’t change, be prepared to quit and find something else that works with how you work. If we tell the tailgating Costco shopper we need space, we need to be prepared to get a manager’s attention to resolve the issue. 

    I welcome you to think about this Instruction Manual skillset and ask yourself who in your life do you need to orient to your Instruction Manual. If there is a lot of emotional responding going on even after applying this skill, I strongly encourage you to speak to a therapist to discuss how to overcome the issue. Remember, not setting boundaries is creating friction and know that no matter who you are, friction in your life is not a comfortable place to stay.