Asserting Boundaries

Alex Robboy, CAS, MSW, LCSW
Individual, Couples & Family Therapy
IMAGO Certified Marriage Counselor
AASECT Certified Sex Therapist Supervisor
Founder & Director of the Center for Growth Inc.

Posted by: Alex Robboy
CAS, MSW, LCSW Individual, Couples & Family Therapy IMAGO Certified Marriage Counselor AASECT Certified Sex Therapist Supervisor Founder & Director of the Center for Growth Inc.
267-324-9564

Autism Therapy in Philadelphia: Asserting boundaries can be a really hard thing to do for just about anyone. It can feel especially difficult to assert your boundaries if you’re on the Autism Spectrum. Most people do not like asserting their needs and boundaries because they don’t want to hurt their friends and family members’ feelings. Yet there are times when those around us do or say things that make us feel upset, uncomfortable, sad, mad, or hurt; and we need to ask them to change their behavior.

Lots of people who have Asperger’s or an Autism Spectrum Diagnosis sometimes struggle with understanding the nuances in negotiating their own emotions in conjunction with others’ emotions as well. Understanding how a particular situation, behavior, or person makes you feel, explaining your stance, and being receptive to feedback from others are some of the main skills in asserting boundaries. When it comes to dealing with the complexities of asserting boundaries and trying not to hurt anyone’s feelings, there’s a simple 5-step formula that can be used in almost any situation.

1.Use an “I statement.” An “I statement” is exactly what it sounds like: a sentence that starts with the world “I.” You are going to be starting off the conversation by owning and stating how you feel. Using the words “I feel” or “I need” shows the other person that you are expressing something that is important to you. This is step one in the formula because it is most important; however, you will use the “I statements” throughout the conversation.

2. Make it about the behavior, not the person. When asserting boundaries to a friend or family member it is important to let them know that it is the behavior or event or situation that you want to change, not the person. This will help your friend or family member be less defensive and more open to your request. Try to be as clear as possible about what the trigger for the boundary is.

3. State how the behavior/event/situation makes you feel. Use a feeling word to describe how the event, behavior, or situation made you feel. Tell the other person if you felt sad, mad, upset, uncomfortable, anxious, hurt, scared, frustrated, or misunderstood. Feel free to swap out these suggestions for how you specifically felt in that moment. Using feeling words allows other people to put themselves in your shoes. If a friend or family member knows how their behavior made you feel, then will better understand why you are asking them to make some changes.

4. State what you value about the person/relationship/situation. This stage of the formula reminds you to state something you value about the person or your relationship. This is important to do when asserting boundaries because it will help your friend or family member understand that you want to remain close with him or her but you need to make some requests. It will also help reduce their defenses and make it easier for your request or feedback to be heard and validated.

5. Ask for what you need changed. The last step is to state your need, boundary, or request. Ask your friend or family to either reduce, increase, or completely stop doing something that bothers you. You might need to make a couple requests. Simply state each one and allow the other person to decide what they are capable of doing for you.

Examples of how to apply the formula:

Example 1 (Asserting a need/boundary/request to a friend/peer): Sally who is 20 is receiving text messages of a sexual nature from her friend Bob, also 20,  and she would like him to stop because she is not attracted to him sexually and the text messages make her feel uncomfortable. Let’s fill in the formula with Sally’s request to Bob. First Sally would say, “Bob, I would like to talk to you about something. I have a request that is very important to me regarding our friendship.”  Next she will tell him what behavior she needs changed: “Bob I need to talk about the sexually explicit text messages you were sending me last week” Remember, it’s about the behavior not Bob. Then she says how that made her feel and explains briefly why: “The messages that you sent made me feel uncomfortable and anxious because I am not sexually attracted to you.” Now she tells Bob something she values about their friendship. “Bob, I really like you as a friend and I think we have a great time playing video games together.” Lastly, she makes her request. “But the nature of your text messages bothered me and in order for me to feel OK to hang out with you; I need you to stop sending me text messages that are sexually explicit. It’s alright if you send me funny pet pictures, but I feel too upset when I get a text that is sexually explicit. I hope you understand.”

Now the situation lies in Bob’s hands. Most likely he will still want Sally as a friend and say that he will try his best to refrain from sending texts that make her feel uncomfortable. You can use the basic example of this formula to assert a need for personal space in a relationship, to ask a friend to stop doing something you don’t like, to encourage a friend to keep being supportive, or to ask a friend to help you out on a tough day. Most of the time friends and peers will be very receptive to your boundaries, once they know that they crossed it. The formula will help you ask them what needs to be changed. Just keep in mind that sometimes our friends can not meet all of our needs and requests. If this is the case, they will tell you their stance, and you will have to try and compromise to see what an acceptable solution is for both people.

Example 2 (Asserting a need/boundary/request to a parent, caregiver, or someone in an authority role): Sally now wants to ask her mom for advice about the texting situation she is in with Bob; however, she doesn’t want her mom to get upset with her or with Bob. Let’s use the same formula to help Sally ask her mom for help, but also be specific in what she wants and what she doesn’t want from mom.

First Sally starts with an “I statement.” She could say, “Mom, I could use some of your advice on a situation that is upsetting me.” Next, she describes how Bob’s behavior of texting bothers her, which could go something like, “My good friend Bob has been sending me some texts that are upsetting because in them he mentions wanting to be involved with me sexually.” Next Sally shares how this makes her feel and why, “I feel uncomfortable when he sends these texts to me because I’m not interested in that kind of relationship with him. I also feel torn because Bob is a nice guy and I do want to remain friends.” Next she will state what she appreciates about mom’s help (notice the change from the last example) “I really value your opinion, Mom.  You always seem to know how to handle tricky situations; that’s why I’m coming to you for some guidance.”  And last, Sally will request that she wants mom to give her suggestions for how to handle this particular situation, but not interfere with the friendship overall. “Mom, I’d really like you to tell me what I can say or do to help Bob understand this bothers me and he needs to stop. But I don’t want you to be upset with him, or with me for still wanting to be Bob’s friend. I think he just misunderstood what I’m comfortable with.”

Now that Sally has made her request very clear to her mom about what she does and does not want; Mom gets the opportunity to try and help Sally out. Just as in the last example, the turn to talk has passed to the next person. Most likely mom will be respectful of Sally’s wishes and simply offer her new ideas for talking to Bob, as well as ways of spending time with him that keep Sally’s intentions clear. In some cases though, parents, caregivers, or people in authority roles like teachers find it difficult to separate their wishes from yours. In this case, Mom may try to tell Sally not to be friends with Bob anymore. If that happens, Sally will just re-state her boundary to mom saying “Mom please, focus only on what I am asking you. I do not want to end the friendship with Bob. I want to stay friends for right now. I just need help to clearly tell him the sexual texts are too much.” Hopefully Mom will understand Sally’s request better once she expressed the need another time. If Mom still does not get it, which some parents might not; Sally can simply end the conversation by saying “Thanks for trying to help me out Mom.  I know you just want what you think is best for me. However, I’m feeling like we want two different things from this conversation today. Let me talk to Bob, try it my way, see what happens, and I’ll keep you updated on the situation.” Now Sally has been clear with Mom about what she wants and needs, and even though Mom was unable to give that to her, Sally expressed appreciation for Mom trying her best to help. This will help Sally and Mom be able to continue talking in the future.

Real Life Application:

To use this formula in a real life conversation, simply write down all 5 steps on lined paper. Leave two spaces in between each step. In the space between each step fill in your own words; just as we did with Sally’s words in the example. If you’re worried your friend or family member might also have some trouble with this conversation, you can provide them a copy of the steps as well. Going into a talk prepared with what you want to say will help you keep your tone and body language neutral and reduce your anxiety or nervousness. Try to be as clear and concise as possible when you talk. Practicing in front of a mirror will also help. Once you feel like you know what you need to say, call up your friend or family member and ask to talk. Then, just follow the formula to assert your boundaries.

This formula covers the basic steps you need to take in order to assert your boundaries to a friend or family member. Remember that after you state your need or request, they get to take some time, digest what you said, and decide what they can or can not do to accommodate your needs. This will require you to be patient and give your friend or family member some time and space to come up with a solution. If what you need to tell you friend or family member is a simple statement that doesn’t require action on their part; then simply ask them to acknowledge what you said and you can both move on. If you asked them to make a behavior change, you may need to have a couple more conversations about this topic before it is 100% resolved. Keep going back and forth using the formula dialogue to come to your compromise.