"Do not let the behavior of others destroy your inner peace" -Dalai Lama
When someone pushes our buttons, it's hard not to automatically react. When another person says or does something we don't like, we might feel angry, upset, or anxious. Our automatic "mindless"reaction to that feeling might be to yell at the person, make a snide comment, or avoid the person altogether. Using mindfulness tools, rather than automatically reacting, we can learn to choose a meaningful response. Since this is very difficult in the moment, the first step in mindfulness is often to simply STOP and take a pause before reacting. This may be a few moments or a few days if needed. In the pause, you may take some deep breaths and allow your feelings to pass by like a wave. (Practice the Calming Difficult Feelings Meditation here.) Once calm, you can mindfully choose how to respond in a way that is in line with your intention for the relationship.
What is in your control?
The first step in choosing how to respond to any situation, is identifying the aspects of the situation that are within your control. Clearly, you can't control another person. As much as we'd like to, we can't make another person think, feel, or behave in a certain way. All you can control is your response to the other person.
The framework for a Mindful Relationship = Intention + Boundaries. Your intention and your boundaries are both within your control. If you know your intention for a particular relationship and you know what your boundaries are with the other person, then you have a framework to guide your response.
Setting Your Intention for a Relationship
To clarify your intention for a relationship, ask yourself questions like, what kind of relationship do I want with this person? Is this person capable of that kind of relationship? Given this person's limitations, what would I like the relationship to look like going forward? What would I like our time together to be about? What kind of friend/partner/family member do I want to be?
Since you can't control the other person's intention or behavior, you'll notice the questions are about who you want to be in the relationship. Your intention may be:
to be a loving, supportive family member
to preserve a positive work environment with a co-worker
to be an accepting partner
to enjoy meaningful time together
to be fully present with someone
to send compassion to someone
Compassion always works as a positive intention. Compassion is a wish for someone else to be truly happy and at peace. Even if you are physically removed from someone, you can always send compassion from afar, e.g. “May you one day be truly happy and at peace [and no longer harm others].”
4 Options for Setting Boundaries
Once you've clarified your intention, you're ready to kindly set boundaries. Your boundaries are the limits you choose for yourself. The purpose of your boundaries are to protect your time, energy, values, self-worth, self-respect, and peace of mind.
Often when I ask someone what they want a relationship to be like, they respond with how they'd like the other person to change, e.g. "I want Henry to be more considerate." Since we can't control how considerate Henry is, here are the 4 options we do have in response to Henry's behavior:
1. Ask for a change. If you think the other person is capable of change, you can ask for a specific change in behavior. Instead of asking for a change in a quality or personality, ask for the exact behavior you'd like in a specific situation. Stick to what you can see in a videotape. Instead of, "Why can't you be more caring?" kindly ask for the behavior you want. "I'd really like it if you could sit next to me when I tell you about a problem, and rather than trying to fix it, just give me a hug and say 'I'm sorry, that really sucks.' That would make me feel better." Try the format, "I'd like it if you could ______ in this situation because it would make me feel more/less _____." Don't include any criticism, complaints, sarcasm, or negativity. You're much more likely to get cooperation if you don't put the other person on the defensive. Negotiate either change or what you can gracefully live with. Each time the person makes an effort to do what you ask, notice and appreciate, "Thank you so much for your effort in trying to do that for me. I really appreciate it. It means a lot to me."
2. Set a limit. A limit is a guide to your response to someone else's behavior. You can't control someone else, but you can decide what you are willing to do, what you're not willing to do, or what you are willing to put up with from someone else before you remove yourself. You can decide what your limits are for yourself and then enforce them as necessary. This may be by saying no to certain requests or with statements such as, "This is what I can do (or what I'm willing to do)" or "I've decided I'm no longer going to..." or "I appreciate your input, but I've decided to..." or "No, I'm sorry I've decided not to..." If your limits are new with certain people, you will likely have to enforce them over and over and over again. Be prepared to follow through. And repeat. If challenged, don't get into a debate on the merits. Just repeat. Become a broken record if necessary.
3. Acceptance. This means mindfully choosing what you can gracefully live with. This is a choice to no longer sit in silent resentment. Instead you accept that this person will likely not change in a particular way. And you've decided to be ok with that. Acceptance can be big or small. For example, you may accept that husband will leave his socks on the floor, or that your mother will never change her ways. You can choose acceptance along with or after trying other options. You don't ever have to let another person harm you.
4. Remove yourself. You have the option to remove yourself from a conversation, a situation, or even a relationship if necessary. You may choose to remove yourself selectively, such as limiting important communication with a co-worker to email or only seeing certain family members on major holidays. Your limit may be to remove yourself if someone is engaging in a particular behavior, for example, "If you raise your voice or become critical, I'm hanging up the phone." Again, be prepared to follow through and repeat.
Practice Compassion Meditation
Compassion works as a positive intention for any relationship. Practice the compassion meditation here in order to strengthen your meaningful intention in relationships and respond more mindfully to others. Even though we can't control others, we can control our intention and our boundaries in relationships. If we know our intention and we know our limits, we can decide how to respond mindfully with intention in relationships. Rather than automatically reacting, we can take a pause, allow ourselves to calm down, remember our meaningful intention for this relationship, and respond accordingly. If needed, you can always wish someone compassion from afar once you've removed yourself,"May you one day be truly happy and at peace... over there."