A Good Defense Without Being Offensive

I recently had to learn a lesson which I often suggest that my clients learn: how to set boundaries and convey the truth in such a way that the other person doesn’t feel attacked. In other words, how to respond when someone has irritated, frustrated, or infuriated you.

The main aspect of this kind of communication is to make “I” statements. In my case, I received an unjust criticism. I wanted to respond, “You dirty, rotten so-and-so! Who do you think you are?” I wanted to recount every fault and point out every failure in this person’s history. I wanted to lash out. You know what that would have done. It wouldn’t be pretty. I thought better of it. Not knowing what to say, I didn’t say anything.

That was a mistake. Not saying anything just let the injustice stew in my gut. I turned it over and over, looking at it from every angle to see just how inaccurate the criticism was and feeling mighty justified about being indignant. I was giving up my own sense of peace and well-being, fighting a battle that had no end.

What to do? I mentioned it to a wise friend who suggested something I should have done in the first place, “Tell him how his words affected you. Say something like, ‘When you said this, I found it very difficult to do my job properly. Please be more supportive and constructive.'” That statement is true. It probably wouldn’t have caused a conflagration and, more importantly, I would have set my boundaries.

Making “I” statements is a good technique. Expressing the felt emotion is a remarkable tool for dialogue. But what if the person you must communicate with is too powerful or too unstable to be trusted or has moved out of your life completely? What if you don’t feel safe telling the person anything about how you feel? What then?

Even when it’s impossible or inadvisable to express your feelings to the appropriate person, it is still important to define how you feel to yourself. You can write a letter and never deliver it. You can say it to someone who has a sympathetic ear. But define it you must because keeping a list of grievances can fester and bubble up when you least want them. For me, when I examined the frustration I felt from this unjust criticism, I realized that my not addressing it immediately made my life difficult; I had constant rebuttals bouncing aimlessly around in my head.

When I asked myself what emotions I felt, what was under the frustration, I was surprised to identify feelings in my chest. We feel sadness and grief in our chests. I thought it would be anger but under it all was sadness. I am feeling sad about having never built an alliance of mutual support with this person. I was letting go of lost dreams and more than anything, that was the root of my frustration.

What can you do to communicate what you feel?

* Stop whatever you’re doing and take several deep breaths.

* Scan your body for sensations.

* Equate locations of sensations to the major emotions.

Belly, solar plexus = Fear

Center of body, heart = Love

Chest = Sadness, grief

Shoulders, jaw, back of neck = Anger

* Express your emotion in a non-judgmental way.

Remember the adage: “Good fences make good neighbors.” Create good boundaries and express your emotions when someone crosses one.