What’s the difference between a boundary and an ultimatum? What happens when we use “boundaries” to control another person?
In today’s episode, design researcher and strategy consultant Alexa Anderson joins Joe Hudson for a discussion on boundaries. Tune in to learn how drawing better boundaries can deepen relationships in work and life by immediately increasing our capacity to love.
"It’s scary if your boundary is accepted and the person loves you in your boundary, because that means the way that you have modeled the world in the past has to now change. And that means you have to change."
What we discuss in Episode 47:
3:51 How optimal boundaries increase your capacity to love somebody.
8:25 Why walking on eggshells, caretaking and other people-pleasing behaviors are not the same thing as compassion.
9:35 The trap of trying to change the ones you love in hopes that it will make them happier.
13:46 How to hold boundaries in a work context.
20:33 The difference between a boundary and an ultimatum.
30:12 Resentment as an indicator that a boundary is not being drawn.
54:07 Why boundaries can be scary to set and difficult to hear.
**Full transcript coming soon! Check back HERE for the link.**
Follow us on Instagram at @artofaccomplishment to learn more about our guests and share your own experiences.
It’s scary if your boundary is sort of accepted and the person loves you and your boundary because then that means that the way that you have modeled the world in the past has to now change. That means you have to change.
Welcome to the Art of Accomplishment where we explore how deepening connection with ourselves, and others leads to creating the life we want with enjoyment and ease.
Brett: Welcome back to the show. Today we are going to try something a little bit different. We have been getting a lot of questions from the community on circle and direct messages about boundaries. Today my nesting partner, Alexa, is going to interview Joe with a number of questions that come up commonly around boundaries.
Alexa: Hi, Joe.
Joe: Hi, how are you, Alexa?
Alexa: I’m great.
Joe: Do we want to tell everybody who you are and what makes us have a podcast with you?
Joe: It would be good for me to know anyway.
Alexa: I’m Alexa Anderson. For about the last decade, I’ve been doing design research and strategy, helping my clients, mostly big corporate clients and teams of big corporations to ask better questions and make big decisions. Since the pandemic, I’ve been pivoting to doing coaching. Also, I’ve worked with you, Joe, and that’s been really amazing. I would consider myself to be part of a community of people who are doing this kind of work and trying to live into some of these ways of being a person in the world.
Joe: I’m glad you are here. I’m glad you will be asking questions. I understand that the questions are around boundaries today. What made you want to ask me questions around boundaries? What was the cause of it?
Alexa: I don’t feel like I chose this topic.
Joe: Let’s start there. Do you have a boundary around that? Did you want to talk about something else? What would your choice be?
Alexa: I do think this is an exciting topic. I do think the topic chose us or chose the podcast. I know that people from the last class really had some open questions about boundaries and had been hoping that you would do a podcast about boundaries.
Joe: Cool. We have done one, so this would be a follow up. That’s great. I think we have done one. Have we done one? Have you listened to one?
Alexa: I don’t remember there being one. I am pretty sure I have listened to all of them. I think boundaries come up sometimes in a lot of things you talk about, but I don’t think you have done a podcast all about boundaries before.
Joe: Fantastic. Let’s do it. I love it and I love the idea. It is something that has come out of a lot of you being a part of the group and you have seen the group wanting to do it and talk about it, and there being a lack of it in the work so far. I am really grateful that you are paying attention like that, and that you are letting it choose you and you are listening that way.
Alexa: Thanks, Joe.
Joe: Where do you want to start?
Alexa: I do think you have a really interesting definition of boundaries. I think it is a little bit different than how a lot of people think about it. Do you want to start by just telling us how you think about boundaries?
Joe: Boundaries that are super effective both for you and for the people you are with are effective because they are not part of the power dynamic. They are not part of a fear dynamic where somebody is trying to get control over another person. A boundary when used optimally increases your capacity to love somebody, the person who you are drawing the boundary with, and it empowers you so that you see that it is your own choice, and you get to make that choice.
The way I do that is if you think about a boundary that you want to draw with somebody, which does two things. One, when you think about saying it to them, it immediately allows you to love them more deeply.
Alexa: Just saying it.
Joe: Just saying it, no matter what their reaction is. Maybe their reaction is fuck you, and maybe their reaction is thank God you said that. It doesn’t matter. Whatever it is, when you say it, your capacity to love them has increased. Then the second thing a good boundary is it doesn’t tell them what to do, it tells them what you are going to do. It is never about controlling the other person.
This is one that comes up a lot for people who are dealing with any kind of abuse in their life. Often a really great boundary there is if you are going to yell at me, I am going to ask you to stop yelling at me. If you continue to yell at me, I am going to leave. Thirty minutes later, I will give you a call. If you are ready to talk again without yelling at me, I am happy to reengage. That would be an example of a boundary. It is not asking them to do anything any differently, but you are immediately able to love them more because you are not accepting some sort of behavior that’s belittling to you.
It is really hard to love something that can dominate you and that does dominate you. It is an incredibly difficult thing. If you think about boundaries and love, there is no iconic figure of love. There is no paragon of love that isn’t really strongly boundaried whether that’s a great mom or Martin Luther King or Mother Teresa. All of these people were incredibly boundaried. Boundaries are a part of what makes a loving relationship. It creates trust.
Alexa: I really like that definition, boundaries that make more room for love.
Joe: It can’t exist without it. I think the thing that makes that so hard for people to grab hold of is that love is often conflated with care taking. I know we did a podcast on care taking, but love is often conflated, meaning loving is conflated with being nice. Making sure the other person doesn’t get mad is what I actually think it is. If I love them, then they can’t be mad. Actually, compassion can really fucking piss people off. You can be very compassionate with somebody, and they can get really, really upset with that. That’s what makes it compassionate. It means you are willing to take their anger because it is what is right for them. It is not what makes it compassionate, but that is the harder compassion to have is to suffer for the compassion or apparently suffer for the compassion. It is not actually ever suffering, but it really feels like it when you are thinking about doing it.
Alexa: It strikes me there is this way you said that. The compassionate thing is you are willing to take their anger. I don’t disagree, but the way I would say it is something like, the compassionate thing is being willing to accept their anger.
Joe: Yeah, that’s a better way to say it. I would say most accurately probably is to love their anger. You might not take it, and you might tell them they need to leave but you can be in love with their anger. You are not avoiding it. Nice catch.
Alexa: Also, the other thing that’s coming up for me is I think that there is a really big mental change over that happens when people understand several of the building blocks you are referring to and then change from being a person who considers the right thing to do in a relationship to be making sure the other person isn’t mad kind of niceness to being the kind of person who is like the really compassionate thing to do here is to say what’s real for me even if that makes them upset.
Joe: Making them not upset would be things like walking on eggshells, care taking them, doing things for them that build resentment for you, bending what you want because they will be happier, etc. All that does in a relationship is continue to create resentment and a sense of obligation. Then in a sexual relationship, that resentment becomes very parental child. One is the caretaker, and then the sex dies. It is a horrible loop.
Everybody is in these horrible relationships, and they are like I have given everything I can give to this person, and they still don’t blah, blah, I’ve tried. I don’t know what I have to do to make her happy or him happy. It is like be yourself. The only thing people aren’t trying is just be yourself, be authentic, show up as you and don’t try to change them.
Alexa: I do think a trap people fall into is feeling like I authentically want them to be happy, though.
Joe: Right, that’s beautifully put. That’s trying to change somebody. In a relationship, the state that creates most freedom in my system is where I can love the person unconditionally. I don’t need them to be different than what they are. Obviously, that ebbs and flows at different levels of subtlety, and that’s why I am not defining a boundary as you have to do this because that’s changing them. It is just saying what you are going to do.
If you are not capable of loving somebody for who they are, then what that really means is you are incapable of loving that part of yourself. I really want them to be happy means I can’t love my own sadness. I really want them to be more faithful to me. There is some part of yourself that can’t love either your desires that are outside of the relationship or loving yourself in a way that you can get what you deserve. All of it is just this reflection. Anytime you want someone else to be different, it is a reflection of a way you can’t love yourself.
This is where it gets really confusing with boundaries is that people hear that and they go, oh, so if I love them, then I will accept that. No, you might not. You might be like I love you just the way you are. I understand you need to have sexual relations that don’t work for me, but they don’t work for me. If you are going to have sexual relationships in this way outside of our relationship, then I love you, but I am not in the relationship. That’s not the relationship I want. It’s not trying to change them. It’s just being clear about how you are going to respond and being authentic and truthful to yourself in that.
Alexa: That raises another question for me. Is it ever appropriate to try to change someone?
Joe: Appropriate assumes a right or wrong. It is incredibly ineffective. It doesn’t create happiness for anybody. Even in the work that I do where I am working with somebody where apparently I am creating transformation for people, I won’t do it unless there is a question. I won’t impose my ideas. If somebody wants help transforming their lives, great, help them. But to impose your idea, it is incredible hubris. It is incredible to think that I know what’s better for the person.
More specifically than that, every way that you want somebody else to change is really just a reflection of a way you don’t want to feel. They do that thing, and it makes me feel X. If every time somebody yelled at you you felt like a million bucks, you really wouldn’t care if they yelled at you. If every time somebody was late to dinner it made you feel loved and adored, you would be like cool, be late to dinner. What’s really happening is you are saying I don’t want to feel a certain way and you are making me feel it. You are holding them emotionally responsible, which is totally disempowering to yourself, and you are trying to control them, which is disempowering to them. It is just a horrible situation. Take responsibility for your own emotions, and the best way to do that is to say how I am going to respond.
Alexa: It sounds like you are mostly exploring this in terms of interpersonal relationships, like romantic relationships, but I imagine this comes up a lot in a work context. The traps seem similar. Somebody is feeling like they really need this job, but you really want them to be different if they are going to be on the team.
Joe: I will say if you look at the way the boundaries are held whether it is the way Martin Luther King held boundaries or a great CEO held boundaries or how you hold boundaries in a work context or in a love relationship, the principles are very much the same.
The thing about a work context is at some point there is this moment of control of I am going to fire you. I am going to let you go. That is really not what I am going to do. I am going to fire you is what I am going to do, but you are forcing somebody out of a situation. Usually when people are clear about their boundaries up front, there is no firing of anybody. They just leave. It is really clear.
We’ve talked about this, Brett and me. The last four or five people we have let go in our company, literally I go to have the talk with them to say this isn’t working and they say it is time for me to go. It is disturbingly the case. I had a client recently ask me if that is because I am too slow letting people go, and it made me think about that. It feels like it is the right time for me, and it feels like it is the right time for them. It is because I am constantly drawing these boundaries saying this is the expectation, and if this can’t happen, then this is what is going to occur, and this is what I am going to do to respond to it. I am very clear about my own wants, and I am very clear about expectations. It usually doesn’t come down to that.
The unique part of the work stuff is that you can eventually say you are fired or be fired. But the thing for the person who is having the boundary drawn is it is always about the fear of a consequence that prevents somebody from drawing the boundary. I can’t say that to my boss because they might fire me. I can’t say that to my lover because they might leave, which is basically I can’t be myself and be accepted here. That is really what you are saying, or I am scared.
The interesting thing about that reflection is it is usually based on their projection of the way the world works. A great example of this is I have a conversation with people a lot that goes something to the effect of I think I am going to quit my job, or I think I am going to break up. I will ask what’s wrong, and they will talk about it. I am like what if you were just yourself, let’s see what happens. Since you are going to quit or you are going to break up anyways, just assume it is already lost so why don’t you show up exactly how you want to be at work and see what happens? Literally eight of ten times they get promoted, get raises or their relationship turns out great. Twenty percent of the time they get fired. That’s really not what they wanted, but eighty percent of the time it was their projection of the world they were scared of, not actually the world.
For the twenty percent that have gotten fired, none of them are like oh shit, I got fired or I got broken up with. What they did instead was they realize this is how I want to be. That means this is the kind of company I want to work for. We are scared of the consequence, but whatever the consequence is, it is a direct path to the life where we are accepted and loved for who we are.
Alexa: I love that.
Joe: I like the way I said it. I don’t think I have ever said it that well.
Alexa: It just feels so good and so exciting for them to set boundaries.
Joe: Exactly, until you actually go to set them, then there is a really big scary moment often. For instance, the other thing that’s interesting about boundaries is they move. I think I have said this as an example. My dad was a drinker, and I started with the boundary with him of I am not going to be around you. Then it was I am not going to be around you when you are drinking, and then it was I am not going to be around when you are behaving in a certain way because of drinking. Those are my boundaries, and it was about me not being around him. Each one of them allowed me to love him better, but it was really important for me to have that really big strict boundary at the beginning of just I am not going to be around you because I needed to convince myself it was okay for me not to be around that person.
If there is an abusive relationship, whether it is emotional or physical, the first step is the person has to be convinced that they don’t deserve it and that it is not their fault. They are worthy of a deeper love, and that is what helps you draw the boundary, and that boundary is what confirms that. But that moment is really scary to actually draw the first time because you are still not sure if you deserve that love. You don’t know if the world is going to provide for you because your whole life it hasn’t. There is this great moment of fear when you are drawing especially important, big boundaries. There is this big moment of vulnerability because you are testing to see if the world is going to work the way your projections say it is going to work. If it doesn’t, then, man, your whole self-definition has to bend and be reshaped.
Alexa: It is actually scary either way. It is scary if your boundary is accepted and the person loves you in your boundary because then that means that the way that you have modeled the world in the past has to now change, and that means you have to change.
Joe: Yes, and it also means that you have to grieve the fact that you have been living under a cage that was never fucking there, and who you think you were and what you defined yourself as. Boundaries and apologies are some of the most effective change agents for healing transformation because they are direct tests about how you see the world.
Alexa: When your model of the world changes, so many things can change. It can feel really destabilizing even though it is growthful.
Joe: If your model of the world changes, inevitably your model of yourself and how you look at yourself changes.
Joe: Right before we did this, you said to me really there was just one question everybody was asking. Lots of people were asking questions about boundaries, but there was one question. What is the one question?
Alexa: It takes two forms. The question that rose to the top was what is the difference between a boundary and an ultimatum. The other one is how you know if you are setting good boundaries. They are basically the same thing.
Joe: Yeah, but it is nice they are reflected in two different ways. The second one I think we have answered pretty well. You are not asking them to change, and it increases your love. The not asking them to change can still feel like an ultimatum and it can still be a power over them, but not if it increases your capacity to love. The ultimatum part, when our boundaries sound like ultimatums, it means we are really scared. We are operating out of fear because we are trying to control the other person in one way or another. There is this subtlety of it, and I think you heard it in my first example of a boundary, which was: I will be gone for 30 minutes. I will call you then, and if you are able to not. What I am doing there is I am not abandoning the person.
Oftentimes if you are going to stick with “it increases your love and it is not what they are going to do” to just completely make sure you are not creating an ultimatum and you are not in a power struggle, you want to make sure there is no abandonment. This is a weird thing because abandonment doesn’t mean you are going to be there for them, but it does mean that they have a choice to get back into connection with you. The choice is don’t yell at me, and then we can be in connection. If you say I am done with your yelling, I am leaving. That’s a boundary. It is not going to increase your capacity to love them, and it can be very much power over situation. But if you leave that opening that says I will do business with you in the future if this, this and this happen, then there is a door open. There is a way for that to continue.
Sometimes it is really necessary to not give an opening for your own healing. For instance, if I saw somebody embezzle money from me, there wouldn’t be a response like, “When you can show that you are honest again, I will be open and reflective.” It is just that I don't want to do business with anybody who stole from me, and so that’s a choice I get to make, and I am going to make it. Is that an ultimatum? Absolutely, it is an ultimatum. It is not even an ultimatum. There is not even a choice. It is just leave or I am leaving.
I think that’s absolutely fine as well but notice in that case I am not trying to control them. I am just saying this isn’t a relationship I want to be a part of. The underlying principle is the same. I am still not trying to control another person. I might try to control them to get my money back from the embezzlement. But that’s not a boundary.
Alexa: I wonder. Are you saying boundaries are never a way to try to control someone or change someone?
Joe: Correct. That’s right. That’s a fool’s errand.
Alexa: I want to ask what makes it a fool’s errand.
Joe: The things we talked about before. The idea that it is not empowering to you, and it is not empowering to them. There is a great saying. Moving a mountain or changing a man, I would rather move a mountain. It is easier.
Alexa: There are some things that come up in life. I think a work context is a really good one. You are on a team with someone. You have a shared project, a shared resource of some kind. You are living together in a group house, maybe. You are both paying into the lease, and so leaving is very disruptive to both of your lives. How do you set boundaries in those kinds of situations that aren’t ultimatums?
Joe: Give me a specific example, and then we will see if we can come up with it.
Alexa: Let’s try a couple of iterations of this because I am not sure if I have come up with a good one. There was one that was on my mind earlier in this conversation. In a work context, if I am constantly triggered that you are defensive, like I can’t work with your defensiveness, and that’s about them, but at a certain point, if you have power to be like we can’t work on this team together.
Joe: In that context, there is first the VIEW conversation before any boundary is necessary, to just learn. I notice that when certain things happen, you get defensive. What does that mean for you? What’s triggering that? How do you see me in those moments? There are a whole bunch of conversations so you can start to understand the defensiveness.
I’ve seen CEOs do this with their executive team. It is like oh wow, you are being defensive. We’ve talked about that. I need you to leave the conversation until you can come back in a non-defensive way. We will make decisions without you. The thing about you needing to leave the conversation, you can do that at work, which is interesting.
But the non-work version of that is I don’t want to engage in a conversation with you, if this is a house, that’s defensive. I am totally happy to reengage with you when this conversation isn’t defensive at which point they will probably say I am not being defensive. That would be the typical response to that. Then you would say it feels very much like it is defensive to me right now, and I don’t want to engage in that. You don’t have to justify. You are not going to get into the court of law with a person because you get the choice to whether or not you are going to engage in a defensive conversation. That’s the choice you get to make.
Alexa: The other thing I love about what you are saying is I am realizing that probably any need, want could be expressed in terms of a boundary, but that’s just not usually the best tool for every kind of interaction.
Joe: It is usually the last case scenario tool, and it usually means there is some place that could use some healing in you, too. But sometimes the boundary is the best way to heal it, so it is an interesting paradox. It is usually some place where someone gets really triggered. If someone is defensive with me, for instance, I might ask about it. I might laugh at it. I might promote it. I might, with a big smile on my face, go absolutely not, that’s not true at all. If someone gets defensive, for the most part, I don’t really mind. I notice I get a little triggered when people are defensive if it shuts down a group because I notice that. When someone is defensive in a group, it shuts down the group, and that will actually get me a little bit more. But one on one, it doesn’t.
It is usually something in that if you can’t play with it, there is something in you that needs to be able to say I don’t have to be around defensive people. As soon as you know you don’t have to, then the boundary immediately changes.
Alexa: And becomes more nuanced?
Joe: With my dad, it was I am not going to be around you. Once I realized that I don’t have to be around his drinking, but I miss my dad and I would like to be around my dad, I am going to be around my dad, just not while he is drinking. Oh, I don’t mind if he is drinking as long as he is not being a prick. I had to learn I could not be around his drinking, and that’s why the boundary was such a huge tool.
Another example of this for me was earlier on when I was teaching and coaching, I felt like I held a little bit too much responsibility for other people, and so when people started to not trust the process, I would feel responsible to make sure they were taken care of. I had to draw the boundary of if you don’t trust the process, then I am not in the process with you anymore. That’s not because I don’t love you. It’s because the process doesn’t work if there is no trust. I’m happy to address the trust. I’m happy to have whatever conversation we need to have, but if there is no trust on your side, it would be as stupid as me continuing the process if I didn’t trust that you can transform. That would be ridiculous. The trust needs to be there.
I had to draw that boundary with several clients to get to the point where now that boundary gets drawn so early that it never seems to get to that point anymore. I see that there is no trust here. I don’t want to work like that. Then they will be like this is why I don’t trust you. Then we are talking about it. Before it was what I had to do to help them, which never worked.
Alexa: Interesting. That brings up another question I had. I don’t know if you want to go into this or not. It was from what you were saying earlier. I wondered if resentment is always a pointer to a boundary that’s not being drawn.
Joe: There are two ways to think about resentment. It is a real indicator you are trying to save other people. In the fear triangle, it is the savior holds a lot of the resentment and obligation, and what that really is is that you are trying to make your world that way you want it by saving other people and making sure other people are happy. There is a lot of resentment that gets built there, and so absolutely there is a boundary they are not drawing. The thing about a savior is a savior tries to make the other person happy instead of having the boundary of this is how I want to be around you.
To see every time you are resentful as a boundary that needs to be drawn can be a little bit dangerous because it uses the bazooka of the tools pretty early instead of just saying I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to do the dishes every night, or I want to do the dishes together. I would love to do the dishes with you. There are so many places where resentment is just an indicator of what the wants are that you haven’t expressed, what the vision of the world you want to live in is that you haven’t expressed because you don’t think you can get it, which is, like you said, another way of saying it is a boundary, but it might not need to be a comblamo boundary. It can be: “What I really want is for us to enjoy doing the dishes together and have fun doing dishes together instead of why aren’t you doing the dishes, or if you don’t do the dishes, then I am not going to do the dishes.”.
There are so many solutions to the problem. On the dish thing, I always think about this particular example. There was a guy I know who lived with these friends and none of them wanted to do the dishes. It was all this hardship with the dishes. This was their solution to the problem after sitting down and everybody saying what they wanted. They went and got two huge Rubbermaid trash cans, and they filled them with water and a little bit of bleach. They went to the Goodwill and bought all the cheap dishes they could buy. Every time they were done with their dishes, they just put them in these two Rubbermaid trash cans outside with all of the bleach. Once a month, they would put soap in and wash it with a sprayer. They all did dishes once a month on the driveway. Kind of gross, but also awesome. There are that many solutions to the dish problem that is haunting half of the marriages in the United States. Instead, we sit there and try to fucking control each other. It is kind of silly.
Alexa: One thing that’s really coming up for me in this discussion because I am worried, or I should say triggered by what I see as the weaponization of the concept of boundaries.
Joe: Me, too.
Alexa: It happens a lot around the periphery, I guess, of these communities. It keeps coming up for me in this conversation. How can I talk about this? But that example is pointing at something that I think is going on with a lot of the weaponization of boundaries, which is somebody has decided that they know the way. I know how to fix the problem. I am having a problem. I know what the solution is, so I am going to say this is my boundary so that you do it the way I want you to do it. There is a little bit of a lack of ownership of what it is they want that if you could lead instead with what you want or what your need is, maybe there is a much larger solution space that’s possible.
Joe: Oftentimes what I notice in modern society is they will use safety as the thing. The boundary will be about safety. I don’t feel safe, and therefore, everybody has to change to make me feel safe. There is a way in which having people feel safe is really great and important, and it allows us all to thrive. There is a way in which life is inherently unsafe, and so if you need other people to make you feel safe, you will never feel safe. The only way you can feel safe is to learn how to create safety for yourself, and obviously, don’t go live in a war zone because it is unsafe. It is this interesting what seems like a paradox.
What I notice is with all of these things, let’s say safety, safety becomes a way to control others, and boundaries can become a way to control others. Oftentimes you will notice in those boundaries they are asking someone to be different. They are asking them to do a different behavior. The psychological reason behind that is the abused becomes the abuser, and you will see this everywhere. It seems like it is a natural evolution for people to move out of an abuse cycle. You will see it in countries that got deeply abused and then started abusing. You will see it in kids who were abused often abuse others or kids that are bullied at home bully at school. You will see this passing down of the abuse cycle.
What happens is as somebody is feeling disempowered, they think the way to get to empowerment is to control other people. They use, I would call it, topping from the bottom. They use their victimhood as a way to dominate other people.
Empowerment is, as we have discussed early in these podcasts, being yourself despite the consequences. You never feel empowerment by having power because power can be taken away from you. There is no way you feel safe because you have enough power. I know billionaires who don’t feel safe. I know heads of state who don’t feel safe. Safety and empowerment is that internal, understanding that I am going to be truthful despite the consequences.
I think that’s where that stems from is that they are still in the power cycle. They are just trying to get the power instead of be powered over, but the solution is empowerment. That’s why something like Gandhi worked for the time that it was working, or Martin Luther King is because those movements were about empowerment. The movements weren’t about having power over somebody else.
When you see the movements are about wanting to have power over somebody else, that’s when one group of dictators gets replaced with another group of dictators, with a different philosophy and it is the same thing. One abuser gets replaced with another abuser inside of a relationship.
Alexa: Two different pathways are presenting themselves in my mind. One is if you find yourself on the receiving end or the giving end, if you find yourself in a dynamic where there is this topping from the bottom kind of use of safety or boundaries, how do you respond?
Joe: It is actually a really tricky one. In a context of coaching, I will say you seem pissed. Tell me all about it. I will elicit the anger that’s underneath it. If that doesn’t elicit the anger underneath it, I will call them out in such a way that shows that they are topping from the bottom, and then they really do get pissed. You will notice that anybody who is doing that kind of what I call the aggressive victim stance and you call them out on it, they get really pissed at you then. You get to see what’s really underneath it all, which is far more beautiful for me.
In a business context, in a non-coaching context, if I see that that’s what is happening, I will call it out. I will say something to the effect of I don’t want to be in a power dynamic with you, and I don’t agree to be your bully. I don’t agree to be the person who is oppressing you. I will just say it directly like that. I am not going to buy into a situation where you are not empowered and able to do what you want to do, and I am not able and empowered to do what I want to do. I am not interested in any relationship where we are trying to change each other.
Alexa: Which kind of sounds like a boundary.
Alexa: What happens to the dynamic?
Joe: Sometimes people get angry or leave, or we are not in interaction anymore. Sometimes people see the freedom in it, and a deep loyalty and trust is born because we are meeting each other as humans, not as objects to be controlled, not as ways to achieve power with each other. In teams, it is incredibly amazing. You will see teams where there is an idea that there is some power structure, and there is a control structure and there should be in an organization, meaning that some people need to be in control of certain decisions or make those decisions or nothing ever happens.
But if there are power dynamics where there is fear happening and people are trying to feel safe through having power over or influence over other people, you will just see that that’s a super dysfunctional team. They can get pretty functional, but they die quickly. It doesn’t last very long. You have to have a really good product, high margins and good patents to pull off a business like that.
Alexa: The thing I noticed you didn’t talk about was in an interpersonal, non-coaching relationship, a romantic relationship, a shared house.
Joe: I don’t tend to have relationships with people who like to top from the bottom in my personal world but let me just think. The last time that that happened, I eventually created separation. In that particular case, I talked about it, and they weren’t willing to see it. I think it is really hard for someone in the aggressive victim thing to see that that’s what happened because they are so defined as the victim. If they stop putting you in the oppressor role, it is really hard for them to see they might be the abuser in the situation or might be part of the abuse cycle in the situation.
Those abuses can be really subtle. Usually the aggressive victim shows up late all the time or says the little snarky comment in front of other folks, and refuses to change. We agreed this is how it is going to be, so I am never going to change on this topic. There are all sorts of little things that they do. They become incredibly indecisive so the other person can’t move freely. There are all sorts of things, but our society so much sees those people as the victim that needs to be saved, whereas the person who is yelling and doing that kind of thing or who is like come on, God damn it, they are the bad guy. There is a societal norm that makes one of them the bad guy and one of them the victim and the poor person who this is being done to.
I don’t usually interact with either bullies or victims very much in my personal life.
Alexa: I have a question that coming directly off of this sounds one way, and the other way it sounds is how we can somatically tell in ourselves whether we are having a good boundary or not. The way it sounds off of this topic is okay, so you find yourself in a situation where you are in that fear or where you have been using boundaries badly or you are tempted to use a boundary badly to control someone. What do you do?
Joe: There is a feeling of fear, and there is a feeling of expansion when the boundary creates deeper love. Somatically you will feel that love. You will feel that expansion. That’s how you know it, for your first question. Then the second question is play, experiment, do bad boundaries, and when you do them, say I am sorry. I was trying to control you. That’s not how I want to be with you. You are not going to get it perfect, so fuck it all, mess it up, screw up, blah, blah, blah and then apologize and let that apology be one without shame and that’s heartfelt. Then, it will be harder and harder for you to do bad boundaries.
Apologies are really useful that way. If you really give a heartfelt, non-shame-based apology, it is a great way to modify behavior. We are all going to mess up. We are all going to get scared and think we are trying to draw a boundary when we are trying to control somebody else. But it is amazing if you can say to somebody I noticed I was trying to control you, and that’s not what I want to do. It is not the relationship I want to be in with you, how much people want to hear that and how much trust that builds.
Alexa: I feel like boundaries can be really inspiring. Is there a story you know of somebody coming into their empowerment and setting a boundary having beautiful results?
Joe: I don’t have a story. I have infinite stories of this. I cannot tell you how many people this story has happened to, which is they are in a relationship. They have fully bought into the fact that they are in a relationship for somebody else’s emotional state. They are constantly thinking about what I did, what I need to learn to make this relationship better. Then they draw the boundary, and the relationship just immediately either ends or changes. Just immediately the relationship is done, and they are free of it.
I remember we had somebody here living on the property, and my relationship with that person was good. My wife’s relationship was not. It didn’t feel good that she couldn’t put my relationship with this person in damage or it didn’t like she had the right to ask. Literally the moment she did it, the person was off the property. I felt relief, and she felt relief. I am sure the person who left felt relief as well.
I can’t tell you how many times it has either gone that way, or the person who has been the abuser feels relief. I don’t want that relationship either. Just the other day I was talking to a client, and she was saying she had a good friend. I remembered the story from two years ago. It was this passive aggressive shitty friendship, but they had been friends for so long. At some point, the woman came to her and said she had been caretaking her, and she was not going to care take her anymore. She was going to be really honest and straightforward. There is a way in which you have been to me, and I don’t understand why or how you could be resentful of me, but I don’t want a relationship where we have resentment. I don’t want to be a part of that. Their relationship, just from that single conversation, completely transformed.
The woman who it was said to, she said I was angry at you, and I just couldn’t tell why. I didn’t know what was going on, but as soon as you said that to me, it just all dropped. I was resentful for the care taking, and you weren’t treating me like an equal. Now that we are, it is just wonderful. I can’t tell you how many people. That happens all the time. It really makes you question if the thing that is scary about the boundary is the freedom we get on the other side.
Alexa: The whole thing that came up for me that I don’t know how to handle was when I was living in this group house. There was some tension with me and another housemate. Then a different housemate than that was like I can’t have this kind of tension in my house. I need you to fix this or else I am going to leave. That was a boundary.
Joe: It was a boundary that wasn’t done out of love, but it was done without trying to control you, which is interesting.
Alexa: I find it really complicated, and what I was noticing during our talk is one of the things that was happening there is it was really constricted. I know that when I come at people with constriction around my wants, it doesn’t land well. I think that’s how the boundary and the whole thing of that’s just my boundary got used there.
Joe: Be that person for a minute. I will set up how I would potentially handle it. We will call you Joan.
Alexa: You are Alexa.
Joe: I am Alexa. I just got a lot more attractive.
Alexa: But also now your name is a trigger word for everybody. Can you turn down the music? Alexa, there is just so much tension in this household right now. It just makes me feel really unsafe. I can’t be planning a future with people who are going to have this much tension. I know you can fix it. I really need you to fix it or else I am going to leave. I can’t stay in this kind of a household.
Joe: Right? It is a fucking shit ton of tension, and it sucks. I don’t want it either. I don’t know if I know how to fix it. I really appreciate your confidence in me to be able to fix it. I would love any insight you have that would allow me to fix it and not feel like I am compromising who I am in the process.
Alexa: I already feel a difference from how I responded where I was also constricted. No, don’t put all this on me. It is not on me.
Joe: In that moment, their fear is their boundary wasn’t going to get respected, but they had to be firm, or they were going to be run over. That was their fear, and so as soon as I feel that fear in somebody, I can empathize with that fear, and I let them know that they are seen.
Alexa: That’s great. The other thing that was going on for me I am just noticing is [breathing sounds], judging myself in real time right now, feeling like that’s not fair. Tension happens. It is your own trauma, and it is your own story that’s causing it to feel unsafe to you. It is not my job to fix it for you.
Joe: That’s right. All of that is really true.
Alexa: I appreciate that, but I wish I could respond in a way like you. I really love how much faith you have in me. I can’t do that.
Joe: They are like I know you can fix it. That is faith in you. Maybe your authenticity in that moment needs to also say, “And I definitely don’t want to fix this tension to make you happy.” I do want to fix this tension, but I definitely don’t want to fix this tension to make you happy. I definitely want to feel like I have to keep you happy to get you stay because that would just be a crappy relationship. There would be so much resentment.
That’s the thing. You heard what I said, and something in you relaxed and then something was still like ahh. Listening to that ahh is the way you get to that next level of clarity. There is still something there. How do you say that in an undefended way of not trying to change them?
Alexa: Yeah, it is really good. To tie this back into the podcast recording we just did, at the very end, your examples of great boundaries, I was kind of surprised. It seems kind of scary. It was great. It ended that relationship. That person left. My experience of boundaries, especially through work with you, is things that are a lot more subtle.
Brett has a boundary with me. I need you to not stop me from base jumping. I am like okay.
Joe: I was going to ask that question in the beginning, your boundaries around base jumping. Immediately, he is asking you to do something.
Alexa: One that came out for me from that was I want to be supportive of you, and also I am not going to shut down my fear and my feelings to make you feel safe. Stating that boundary felt there is so much more openness here. I can be who I am and how I am, but it is not as scary. It is scary to say, but it is not as scary as your examples.
Joe: I gave extreme examples. That example is beautiful. I love that example. I hope to use it in the future.
Alexa: It felt to me a minute ago that there was something stitching all this together. It sounds to me that something that’s emerging for me from this conversation is that boundaries are actually scary for a lot of people, to set and to hear. Those boundaries that you are coming to an interaction with a lot of constriction have more potential, I think, for something kind of damaging because what ended up happening with my house is that I did shut down in this way. You coming at me like that makes me not want this relationship and not want this household to work. It did fall apart. They left.
Joe: That’s the love thing. That is the thing about it immediately puts me into more love no matter what their response is. That’s what that pointer is indicating. It is to drop the defense. If you draw a boundary as a way to defend yourself, you are in the fight. You are in the back and forth. You are in the fear triangle. You are in the power dynamic. It might be a really good pointer to put into it, which is the fear that I am not going to be able to hold my boundary. That really makes boundaries come out wonky as shit.
Alexa: You are absolutely right.
Joe: If you hundred percent knew I am not going to put up with this, I am not going to put up with this fighting, if you were hundred percent sure of it and you knew you deserved it, it would sound like hey guys, I don’t want to live like this. How do we fix it so I don’t have to and so I don’t have to leave because I really love being you guys otherwise?
Alexa: I really think there is something to that.
Joe: Which ties into the internal work.
Alexa: To feel empowered.
Joe: And to know you are worth it.
Alexa: It also seems like once you really feel empowered and you really trust yourself, you can state a boundary and it doesn’t land in anyone as a boundary.
Joe: Correct. You don’t want to say that to people because then they are going to have an excuse never to say their boundary, especially the people who have a hard time drawing the boundaries think they have to be perfect all the time to be valuable enough to have a boundary.
Alexa: I definitely see your point there.
Joe: You have got to practice it.
Alexa: There is still something there. The people who are saying something like that’s just my boundary, then that’s a pointer that there is something constricted there.
Joe: That they are scared. It is all fear. If you can see it all as fear, then everybody’s boundary and your own boundary is just sweetness. It is like everybody is scared. Just dealing recently with a high-level executive and there was this big fight in the company, I kept on coming back to it. Can you see everybody is scared? Scared, powerful people throwing big temper tantrums. As soon as you can see it, it is so easy to see through and navigate. That was good.
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