Setting boundarie

I am so tired of all the slanderous gossip. Will it never end?

After an intensive work week, I pause in an Espresso House while waiting for a friend I’m planning to spend the evening with. I sit there – just me, my thoughts and my latte. Two women come in, a couple of years older than I am, and sit a little ways off. I start to eavesdrop absent-mindedly to their conversation. Really I have no desire to listen – but their voices override my own inner conversation. One thing leads to another in the conversation. The one woman talks about some dumb person who can’t do their job. The other listens attentively and chimes in with a story about another completely incompetent individual. Perhaps she’s talking about TV journalists. I don’t hear the details. They end each other’s sentences, sigh and groan. Both are deeply involved and the conversation seems to have a life of its own and gives them both energy.

As I sit there, I feel the fatigue creeping in on me. But suddenly another, more energizing emotion takes hold. Anger. I get so mad. I understand that they enhance their own self-confidence and feel better by affirming their own excellence through the shortcomings of others. But it makes me so angry! They leave the café with a smile and seem ready to take on the world.

This never-ending negative gossip about others. It’s as though we can’t socialise without having a common enemy. What’s it about? And where does it lead?

Usually, it’s about the Critic within. This staunch defender holds our flag high and knocks others down. Anything to avoid coming into contact with my own fears and shortcomings. If I criticise you, then my own faults don’t hurt as much. But really it’s about me not needing to feel my own fears for a little while.

When I put down a colleague I momentarily avoid my own feelings of, for example, incompetence. Perhaps I’m afraid that I am not up to par in some area and instead of acknowledging this and talking about it, I choose to focus on someone else’s shortcomings. Often it’s the very person in whose presence I feel incompetent. But with the help of the Critic, I happily shift the blame to her for our relationship. That’s how I get out of changing my own behaviour.

But as with all defences, it only helps for a short moment – then the uncomfortable feelings return. Additionally, if I am the type of person who deep down inside really doesn’t want to gossip about others, it can be a painful experience to realize that that is exactly what I just did.

The Critic can be active. It’s rather easy to discover. It expresses itself clearly in that the problem/fault lies with someone else: ”She’s so pushy.”, ”He’s always showing off.”, ”You always think you know best.”, ”She never calls.”, ”You never do anything.”

The Critic can also be passive. As a boss/colleague/partner/co-worker/family member you may perhaps experience the silence treatment or the cold shoulder. Personally, I notice that I feel nervous or uneasy in the presence of this silent critic. Simply put I am not as calm or secure as I want to be – and can be. This can also be the Silent Critic’s purpose. If I feel uneasy, then she/he can feel calm and a little “better.” For me, silence is more frightening than words.

What can we do instead of speaking badly about someone? Shift your attention inward to yourself instead of towards the other person. Begin by noting for example:”Now I really feel like talking about my boss/co-worker/colleague/partner who …” When you realise that this is where the pressure is, you can close your mouth. Say nothing. Instead, quietly ask yourself: ”What am I afraid of? What will I really achieve by talking about her/him?” Often the need to talk about someone diminishes when you know what your part is.

I have the great honour of sitting in on many conversations where people tell me their innermost thoughts. They talk about what is important to them. That which is true just for them – their wishes, fears, relationships, etc. All of them are people who are doing their best – and are sad that they aren’t perfect. Just like me.

All these meetings and life histories make it difficult for me to talk behind anyone’s back. I have heard too many people tell how they try to do their best, how they have developed the strategies that they have, how sad they are over events that didn’t turn out as they wished, and how frightened they are – not to understand that these feelings exist for all of us. Even for the person I want to gossip about.

Imagine if more people spoke openly about their innermost feelings – and in a wider variety of contexts. Perhaps then the negative gossip would diminish.

Setting boundaries is the best thing in the world

Why is it so hard to say no even though that’s what we truly want to say? I wish that saying no was as obvious as saying yes.

How often do we take a stand when someone slanders someone else? Not as often as we would like. Even if we perhaps don’t agree, we occasionally say nothing. We stand there and nod. Nowadays, I often say something, but there are also situations where I feel like a hostage – and still say nothing.

What prevents us from setting limits? What are we afraid of?

When you say stop or no to something you don’t want in your life, you’re also saying yes to something much more important. Yourself. You affirm for yourself that you are the person you truly want to be. It often feels like a powerful signal to yourself. You contribute to your own positive self-image – self-esteem increases.

Is there anything more important than strengthening the positive feelings that you have for yourself? Probably not. So what’s stopping us?

Often it’s because we’re afraid of what others will think about us. And especially the person we’re with. If you refuse to discuss others, it can easily be interpreted as criticism. You can suddenly find yourself in a minor conflict and you risk being rejected as boring, cold, self-righteous or something similar. So you choose instead to listen, to participate, to not stand up for yourself, and to perhaps one day be rejected by the one you’re talking about instead.

Conversely, let’s imagine that your starting point is that setting limits is wonderful. That it’s the absolutely best thing there is in the entire world. That this is how you say YES to yourself and to the person you truly want to be. How would you act then?