Make Boundaries like a Peanut Butter Jelly Sandwich
Interpersonal boundaries are like good fences: They keep the bad stuff out and let the good stuff in. But many of us are really bad at making and keeping good boundaries. We are the pushover at the office– or the doormat in our family. And it feels terrible.
Poor boundaries, like weak fences, invite trespassers. Strong boundaries, like strong fences, inspire respect. But do our boundaries need to be electrified and topped with razor-wire to be effective? The answer is, “No.”
Many people hesitate to create strong healthy boundaries because they have only seen the “electric fence” version in the past. Is there another way that you can communicate clearly, but still strengthen your relationships in the process?
Enter the Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich Method to boundary-making. The PBJ method is easy and most people like it. Not like electric fences.
o First Slice of Bread: Validate the relationship. Like the slices of bread on a PBJ, healthy boundaries start and end by valuing your relationship. In the office it might be, “You know, I’m glad we get to work together in the same office.” If your relationship is strained you could truthfully say, “You know, we need to be able to work together to be successful, and I really want that.” In your family you might say, “I’m thankful to be your Mom and I’m glad you are my son. Nothing will ever change that!”
o The Jelly: Validate their strengths. Jelly is the sweet stuff – and it needs to be dolloped on first so you don’t get peanut butter in your jam jar, right? In the office, you might say, “You do a great job with making everyone feel important and comfortable, and that is a huge benefit.” In your family you might say, “Honey, I just can’t tell you how much I appreciate your driving the kids to all their sporting events.”
o The Peanut Butter (Smooth/Creamy): This is the boundary. Address what isn’t working. Do this by explaining what behavior is impacting you negatively. The “smooth part” is where you use “I messages” and qualifying language to “soften” the impact. These techniques make the bad news easier to take. Instead of saying “You always. . . “ try for, “Sometimes, it seems to me that . . . “ In the office it might go like, “ . . . that is a huge benefit. And at the same time, it seems to me that the monthly reports are late — not every month, but more than we would like.” At home it might go like, “ . . . all their sporting events. And along with that, it seems like I often come home and nobody even notices.”
Did you notice that neither example used the word BUT? Using the word “but” effectively wipes all the jam off the bread and negates all the sweet stuff you pointed out. Use, “And at the same time,” “And, along with that,” “And on the other hand,” or some other transition that doesn’t cancel out all your acknowledgments.
Many times, smooth creamy peanut butter is enough. People get the message. But what if you need to put some teeth into your boundary?
o The Peanut Chunks: State the Consequences. Be direct, but brief. Don’t draw out the pain. You might have lots of chunks or just a few, but make sure you are both clear about the consequences. In business it might be, “If this happens in the future, I’ll need to document it in your file. It will impact your review.” For family it could be, “If this keeps happening, I’ll need to make an appointment with a marriage counselor.”
o Last Slice of Bread: Validate the Relationship (again). That’s right, the last step is the same as the first – you bookend the boundary by emphasizing the relationship. In the office it might be, “ . . . And the reason I’m meeting with you about this is so we can successfully work together. I want to be a productive co-worker (boss, secretary) with you.” In the family, it might look like, “And the reason I’m talking to you about this, is because you are so important to me. I want our marriage to thrive.”
If your trust level is high, or time is short, you may be able to serve an open-face PBJ (Validate strengths, Explain the Boundary, Validate the Relationship). Or possibly just peanut butter on one slice of bread (Explain the Boundary, Validate the Relationship). But remember, if you expect people to eat peanut-butter straight from the jar, they will have a mess stuck to the roof of their mouth! And that stops good communication. Try always to dole out boundaries with some good stuff, too.