What’s the difference between setting boundaries and giving ultimatums?
Often we believe that setting boundaries requires ultimatums. In reality, ultimatums are most often about wanting (or feeling the need) to control someone else’s behavior or attitude, often, “for their own good.”
Setting boundaries, on the other hand, is about taking care of ourselves. Our job is to clarify one from the other.
Before we can set the first boundary we must be clear about what we are responsible for and what we are not responsible for. If we are living with an alcoholic spouse, our job is not to get them to stop drinking. That is their business. Our job is to take care of ourself. In analyzing what taking care of ourselves means, we may see the need to leave the situation, or ask them to leave. We then set the boundary – not by threatening or demanding, but by clearly and concisely stating our intentions.
Personally I do not see a need for ultimatums because, as I said, they often come across as a threat, and end up being an empty threat when we don’t deliver. Ultimatums often require that we deliver consequences we are not really prepared to deliver. For this reason, and others, they rarely work. Even when ultimatums give the appearance of working, they may be being used as a deceptive maneuver to get us off their back.
What does work is knowing what our business is and attending to that. We are not responsible for delivering our family members to safe and happy lives; We are not responsible for their health; We are not responsible for what they do or don’t do. Trying to get them to be or do something we think they should be or do only prevents us from being able to tend to our own life.
When we have clear boundaries, we are responsible for our own safety, happiness, and health. We don’t need others to change for us to take care of ourselves. We just decide what we need to do to take care of ourselves and then proceed to do it. We may inform our loved ones of our intentions and needs, but we do so without blaming them or demanding that they change so we can feel better. We let the outcomes of their lives be theirs to decide, while we steer our own ships in the direction that we want to go in.
By staying clear about what our business is vs what their business is, we not only feel better all round, we are nicer to be around. No matter what they are doing, because we are taking care of ourselves, we are able to deal with it.