For the purposes here I will define a personal boundary as your decision about what you are willing and not willing to take responsibility for in a particular relationship. The strength of a personal boundary depends on how conscious and clear you are and your skills in expressing that.
What does setting boundaries look like when you are coming from the framework and consciousness of Nonviolent Communication?
Here are three key elements in setting boundaries from a NVC consciousness:
1. Loyalty and responsibility regarding your own needs
2. Ability to connect to the needs of others without assuming responsibility for them
3. A Clear "yes" and a clear "no"
The following vignette demonstrates these three elements.
On Friday evening you receive a call from your mother. She asks you to come over and spend Saturday afternoon helping her with a project. You notice a feeling dread and tension fill you. Your feelings are alerting you that important needs are up.
You realize you need time to identify your needs before you respond (Loyalty and responsibility for your needs).
You give mom a clear no and a clear yes:
"Mom, I am not going to answer right now (clear "no"). I need to get clear on what's up for me (identify your immediate need). I will call you back and let you know before the end of the night (clear "yes")."
You then take some time to acknowledge the facts of the situation and notice your thoughts, feelings, and needs. First, you remember that your mother is terminally ill and you notice guilt arising when you think of that. You notice that you have a thought that you should be there for mom every time she calls. At the same time you realize that you don't want to try to connect with your mom out of guilt and obligation. What's keeping you from that place of naturally wanting to give to mom?
You have some needs up. You have worked a full week and you have needs for rest, play, and peace. You don't think these needs will be met with helping your mom with her project. When you think about spending Saturday in ways that would meet these needs, a sense of lightness and relief washes over you.
You know what needs you are saying yes to. You get more clarity by spending some time deciding exactly what strategies would meet those needs and how much time for each.
Knowing you are going to take care of yourself, you now have some emotional space to consider your mom's needs. You guess she has needs for connection, companionship, and support. You try to connect to and honor these needs in your mom, without thinking you are the one that has to meet them.
You notice the guilt voice comes up in you again. You hear it say, "You should be with your mom, she is sick and dying. You should spend every spare moment with her!" You recognize that behind this voice are your values around love and caring and its very important to you to live in accord with these values, perhaps, especially regarding your mom. How can you truly live in accord with these values?
You realize that loving and caring for others comes naturally when you have taken care of your own basic physical, emotional, and spiritual needs.
When you call your mom back you can clearly tell her the needs you will be saying yes to on Saturday. You can also say yes to her needs for connection and support and to your needs to offer love and caring, while at the same time expressing a clear "no" to her proposed strategy to meeting those needs on Saturday. At this point you enter into a negotiation about a strategy that meets needs for both of you.
But, what if mom doesn't connect to the needs you are saying yes to on Saturday and she offers some words that are difficult to hear instead, "You know I need help. You know I am sick. You are just being selfish. I guess you just don't care."
This is the point where you might be tempted to defend yourself and restate your needs in a pleading sort of way. This is exactly the point where it is important to remain connected to your needs and to hear her feelings and needs without taking responsibility for them. You might answer with, "Sounds like you are feeling frustrated and needing support?"
"Yes, so why won't you help me when I ask you to?!", she demands.
You don't respond to the demand energy, but rather stay connected to feelings and needs. You make a guess about what thoughts and feelings your mom might be having. You try to see the world from her heart.
You:"I'm guessing that when you heard me talk about my needs for rest on Saturday, it was hard for you not to hear that as a lack of caring for you. Is that right?"
Mom:"Yes, if you don't care. I don't want your help."
You:"It's a difficult time for you and you need to know that you have the support you need. Is that right?" OR "I am really wanting to have understanding between us. Would you be willing to hear me again and try to hear me differently?
You can see in this vignette that the three elements help you to stay grounded in feelings and needs and prevent you from getting caught in an argument with the other.
When you can stay connected to feelings and needs you send a clear message that you are not going to be swayed by the dynamics of guilt, demands, or criticisms.
If you were able to stay in the dance of empathy and honest expression with mom, chances are she will at some point be able to own her own feelings and needs and acknowledge yours.
How long this dialogue takes depends on your own circumstance and relationship. With my own mom, I spent about six months offering empathy before she could own a feeling and need and acknowledge mine. Six months is a short time for me when I look at it relative to the length of our lives.
Choose a relationship or situation in which you find yourself saying yes when you want to say no and no when you want to say yes. Use the elements above to help you get to the clarity you need to make decisions that use your energy in a way that truly serves life.