Have you ever felt defenceless against the imposing behaviour of another person? You want to live your life undisturbed, but they insist on encroaching on your space. They have all sorts of reasons why their demands are urgent and cannot be ignored. You want to be considered a kind person… but this person makes you feel tired. It’s affecting your happiness, and also your ability to run your own life effectively.
Welcome to the world of boundaries. A better name is ‘appropriate structures’. Appropriate structures are ways, in time and space, to manage the influences in your life so that no one person or thing ruins your ability to function. It is a question of architecture. An architect divides a house into rooms so that people can perform various functions undisturbed. A wise person divides their life into appropriate times and places. This allows us to focus on specific activities without being unduly disturbed by others.
BOUNDARIES IN TIME
Demanding people are often chaotic with their own time management. They may have difficulty dividing their day into discrete sections, and so will want attention at apparently random times.
This leaves us with a dilemma. To refuse attention feels mean. And yet, if we give in to chaotic demands for attention, our own lives can start to become chaotic.
We need to learn to limit our own availability. We can make it clear that we still care, but we can also make sure that certain times in our day are free of interference.
With demanding people, it’s wise to create ‘appropriate structures’ for contact. The aim is to teach both ourselves and the demanding person what works. Examples include:
- Only answering phone calls at certain times of the day
- Being clear, before meetings or phone calls, when the time is going to end
- When waiting, being clear how long we are going to wait for the other to arrive
- Setting up clear consequences for chaotic behaviour – not to punish, but to protect ourselves against the chaos
BOUNDARIES IN SPACE
Demanding people are also often chaotic with their management of space and possessions. They may have difficulty being disciplined about where objects live. Their houses can become full of randomly placed objects, untidy and hard to navigate.
If we don’t live with them, the problem for us is significantly reduced. However, there will be times when their chaotic need for storage becomes a demand. ‘I’ve got nowhere to put my stuff,’ they might say, leaving a pregnant pause which we are supposed to fill with an offer of our own space.
Again, we need to create ‘appropriate structures’ in terms of our living space. The rules are unlikely to be popular, because, to the demanding person, their need is great, and we are denying them.
But if we gave in to every demand for space, we would soon be unable to organise our home in a way that works for us. Even a sanctuary, such as a monastery or animal shelter, has clear rules of space management, in order to remain efficient.
5 THINGS TO WORK ON
It’s hard to reimpose boundaries with demanding people. It can seem a never-ending battle to liaise with them. There may always seem to be a sudden plea for help, an urgent time pressure, or an urgent need to manage possessions or resources.
Here are 5 skills to work on, techniques which can limit the damage, while maintaining some sort of reasonable contact.
- USE THE DIARY – Use the diary as a negotiating tool. When a demand comes in, diarise when you will respond. If a conversation is requested, agree and diarise when and for how long. You are teaching both yourself and the other that negotiation is involved, and that you are not an open biscuit tin!
- ASK FOR SOMETHING IN RETURN – Demanding people have a distorted sense of who owes whom what. Get used to asking for something, however small, in return. Again, this avoids you being treated as an open biscuit tin.
- DEVELOP AN EVEN TONE – Demanding people thrive on drama. If you don’t rise to it, then your emotions are kept more under control. If you listen carefully, you will hear a huge number of cues, or provocations. Your job is to be patient, and focus on the task in hand, rather than being sucked into the hyper-emotional vortex.
- BE UNAVAILABLE UNLESS CONTACTED YOUR WAY – If you prefer text or email, then don’t answer the phone. Try to teach the demanding person what works for you, and reward only that type of communication.
- OFFER A ROUTINE – Many demanding people are after security. Routine gives that. A regular weekly or monthly meeting can be very calming, and reduce the need for panic interim requests for contact.
In summary: if you remain an ‘open biscuit tin’, then demanding people will dip in whenever they want, and you will often find yourself empty.
If you are finding someone in your life demanding, then bring in an element of routine and diarising to bring structure. Be clear how you want to be contacted, and enforce that method. Keep an even tone, and ensure that the other person knows you expect them to remain accountable for their actions.