Jessica sits in her car, absent-mindedly gazing at the motel she spent the night in. An unexpected rapping on her window interrupts her thoughts. A stranger stares in at her, an ear-to-ear grin pinned on his face. He motions for her to roll down her window and although she feels uneasy, complies.
“You recognize me? I was the one on the road who cut you off yesterday.” He pauses to smile again before continuing. “Sorry about that. I was texting, got distracted.” Jessica holds her breath in disbelief, unable to break eye contact. “You live around here?” His tone so casual it isn’t. “No, not really.” “Where you headed?” “North.” “I’m around this way all the time...You have a name?”
“Don’t you dare continue to appease this person!” I yell at the TV, a tiny piece of me believing she might hear me, and the course of the movie might change from the foreshadowed dark path.
“Jessica,” She half whispers, her wide, glossy eyes locked on his, as if something had her frozen in place and compelled her to obediently provide answers. Although I was watching a fictional horror film (Alone, 2020) replete with hyperbole, the initial exchange between the killer and his victim demonstrates the obligation we feel to be nice to others even when we’re so uncomfortable our bodies alert us it’s wrong. Our habit of being agreeable allows us to fall into slippery-slope conversations, ending us up in situations we would prefer not to be in.
Yes, most of us understand the danger of letting our guard down for a stranger, but someone doesn’t have to fantasize about holding you against your will in a remote log cabin to be motivated to test your boundaries. There are those at our work, in our family, our social groups, dating, and passers-by who when we reflect later concerning everyday interaction(s) with them, we wonder “What happened? Why did they do that? How did I even get here?”
Just like Jessica’s run-in at the motel with the same person who terrorized her miles away on the highway the day before, events that seem co-incidental or ordinary in the present, can build on one another into the dramatic climax you didn’t predict.
Boundary-pushers write a scene where you compliantly cast yourself in the role of their supporting actor. Your character has the potential to stick around to be part of an act, the full feature, parts II and III and even the entire Saga. But before receiving your invitation to play this integral role, you’ll undergo boundary testing to see how you react to specific verbal and non-verbal(physical) stimuli.
Boundary testing begins the instant you engage with a boundary-pusher and at first won’t look much (if any) different than interactions with anyone else. That’s why it’s so important to have support when reflecting on toxic relationships and an understanding of how essential setting boundaries is in ordinary life with everyone you interact with.
At THE GRAND LIFE Coach, we believe in prioritizing our self-worth over our perceived value, regardless of our income level, achievements, accolades or current status. Our bold choice stems from our commitment to living the FOUR PILLARS FOR A GRAND LIFE- Truth, Kindness, Love & Strength. We will never completely prevent people from testing us who would eagerly erode our Strength to further their own agenda, but we can learn their playbook and identify their game quickly.
A look inside “The Boundary Pushers’ Playbook” reveals four methods of how they hook you
1. They immediately find common ground by making rational statements and asking reasonable questions. Have you ever heard someone say, “They were so nice/fun/charming/cool/normal at first and now it’s like they’ve become a different person!”
It’s not typical for anyone to progress in conversation by being awkward. People who push boundaries are, well, people. And people get to know each other by being relatable. They point to your athletic team t-shirt and high-five in solidarity while asking how long you’ve been a fan. They chat with you at the coffee station and agree that Mondays are the worst. They sit behind you in your Saturday class and are curious about what brought you back to school. Before you know it, you’ve told them your dog’s name and you’re following each other on Instagram. Normal.
The degradation of the relationship's healthy normalcy can happen within one conversation or cycle over many years. The following examples demonstrate that it’s not until examining how events unfolded that the average person identifies the boundary testing present in the beginning.
2. They don’t take the first “no” for an answer Robert was thrilled when he signed his contract to join a new accounting team. The previous company he worked for was disorganized and understaffed and as a result, he was responsible for an impossible workload. He felt guilty coming home after 8:00pm most nights and was sad he was missing out on the ritual of he and his wife bathing their new son and putting him in the crib.
“I candidly explained to the recruiter that I love my work but being able to leave by a specific time each day was my motivation for making a change. The recruiter emphasized to me how the company’s new work-life balance initiative gives employees flexibility by allowing them to choose from schedule blocks. My future supervisor confirmed the new policy in my interview and assured me I would be able to leave at my scheduled time. She also agreed with me about how important it is to disengage from work after- hours and be fully present with family. Two weeks into the job she missed our scheduled one-on-one and called me an hour after I left work. What I was assured would be a 10-minute conversation was almost an hour. I was annoyed, but I thought she was just catching up because I was new. I hoped it would be a one-time thing, but she missed our meeting again the next week.
At my scheduled quitting time, she rushed over to ask me to stick around for our meeting. I politely reminded her I had the baby at home and no, I couldn’t stay. She mentioned that she is a mom and then started asking me about my son. Somehow, the conversation got back around to work, and she was instructing me to bring my laptop into the conference room and open a document to review together. I didn't leave for another hour.”
Robert expressed he was blind-sided. “She and I connected so well in the interview about work and family.” Though when prompted to reflect on the entirety of the interview, Robert recalled she was roughly 30 minutes late, repeatedly checked her watch and interrupted him to take a phone call. He assumed those distractions were simply a co-incidence of her having a busy day, but later identified them as boundary tests.
When and what was Robert’s first “no”? When he told the recruiter and supervisor he needs to leave on time each day. He was saying, “No, I will not stay late because I set boundaries between my work and home life.”
Given how the events unfolded, when did the supervisor first test Robert to see if he meant it? When she showed up 30 minutes late for the interview. She was signaling to him that the company policy wasn’t realistic and if he were going to be a fit, he would have to be flexible with his time.
3. They will be on their best behavior 99% of the time Rosa was excited for the second date; seeing live music at a neighborhood lounge. Not only was the guy attractive, she had already connected with him through deep conversations. She even knew he was verifiably single because she met him through a close friend who assured her of his interest in a relationship.
“It was a little chilly outside. A few songs in, he put his arm around me, and it felt good! I was excited because I thought he must be attracted to me, so I leaned in a little. A minute later he started rubbing my shoulder, then squeezing it a little too hard. My body stiffened and I tried to lean away. By the end of the song, his hand was aggressively moving from my neck and up and down my back. I was embarrassed because we were in a public place, and he hadn’t even held my hand or kissed me before. I didn’t say anything because I am attracted to him and didn’t want to make it a big deal when he was probably just trying to be romantic. I know he’s a gentleman because after he dropped me off at home, he called me and we talked for two hours. In the past, other men had pressured me for sex already, but he’s really trying to get to know me.”
A week later, Rosa’s new love interest canceled their third date last minute. It wasn’t a big deal to her because he provided a valid reason, and they were still getting to know each other. She didn’t hear from him again for two weeks until he called and asked her to join him the next afternoon.
They met at a popular park busy with other couples and families. He orchestrated an elaborate picnic accenting their large blanket with catered charcuterie, sunflowers and Prosecco. Rosa found herself again wrapped up in meaningful conversation, enchanted by his emotional sophistication. He gently ran his fingers through her hair while she took a breath and dreamily closed her eyes. She anticipated a lingering but brief touching of their lips. Instead, he initiated a heated make-out session with one hand tangled in her hair resting on her shoulder and the other flat on her abdomen.
“I was uncomfortable and went stiff. He didn’t seem to notice, so I pulled backwards, but he leaned further in, so I fell to my back to catch my breath. I laughed it off as an awkward new couple moment. Besides that, it was such a romantic afternoon and he’d gone above and beyond to make it nice for me. I didn’t want to say anything to send mixed messages. I can’t quite explain it, but I feel anxious about missing out on him.” Rosa felt uneasy about the behavior of someone she was just getting to know, but the majority of what she felt was excitement. That was enough to compel her to continue to not only explore him, but to invalidate the two incidents that made her uncomfortable. She rationalized this by stating, “I don’t want to miss out on a great guy just because he’s a little too into PDA.”
Given how the events are unfolding, how do we know despite 99% of his gestures seeming romantic, that the remaining 1% exposes him as a boundary pusher? Because he ignored her physical reactions when her body language demonstrated she wasn’t comfortable. He was signaling to her that he liked being physically aggressive, even when she didn’t reciprocate.
4. They appeal to your identity as a rational, easy-going and/or helpful person Skye and Keisha were teammates on their college tennis team. Also roommates, the two of them spent most of their time together throughout the four years. “I saw Keisha as not only my best friend, but my guiding light. She was that outgoing, nice girl who everyone wanted to be friends with. So when she teased me in front of our peer group, it hurt my feelings, but I brushed it off, assuming it was just what close friends do.
Then, she came up with a code word to let me know at social events when I needed to tone down my excitement and lower my voice. I figured she was just concerned about my self-awareness, even though I thought I was naturally expressing myself.”
Years after graduation, Skye still considered Keisha her best friend and the two women remained intertwined in each other’s daily lives.
When Keisha got engaged, she ceremoniously extended ten friends the honor of serving as her bridesmaids. Skye was dumbfounded when saw the pictures on Facebook, her name missing from the tags. Later, Keisha suggested it wasn’t personal by half-heartedly explaining the wedding photos wouldn’t be symmetrical with an odd number of people.
“I was really shocked she didn’t ask me, but I really wanted to be part of this important life event and make it special for her. I was instrumental in helping with tasks to prepare for the wedding, took photos at the shower and gave her a nice gift. When everyone went for a dress fitting, I was asked to fill in for a girl who couldn’t make it. I stood in front of everyone while the dress I was wearing was pinned to be worn by someone else.
I acted like everything was fine, but the moment I got home, I collapsed into tears. That’s when I finally had to face she didn’t value our friendship the way I did.”
Given how the events unfolded, when was it apparent Keisha knew Skye was so easy-going she would go along with whatever Keisha wanted? When Keisha ridiculed Skye in front of other people and instructed how she should behave, Skye complied. Keisha was signaling to Skye that she was not her equal and was required to follow specific guidelines to be worthy of Keisha’s friendship.
Now that you have a piece of the playbook – let’s train
When studying these examples, it’s easy to string together the events and see how each person was tested, and then their boundaries pushed. But how do you know for sure in the beginning the person you’re dealing with is leading you somewhere you’re unaware of? You don’t always.
The better question is, “How do I learn to better relate to every person I engage with?” That’s why you work on establishing who you are and building Strength so that you can confidently engage with anyone without being tuned-out or hyper vigilant. You need to sharpen your skills so that you formulate responses directly in relation to the verbal and non-verbal stimuli in your environment.
A great way to learn is to observe others and how they respond to one another. What is their body language saying? Words? Tones of voice? Subtly observe couples and families in the grocery store, at restaurants or the mall. Go to the gym or recreation area and see how strangers navigate sharing equipment and the space to use it. Sit quietly while your friends or colleagues banter, and observe behavior while your leadership addresses the team in meetings.
Another way to train is through viewing cinema. A great movie or TV show entertains while aptly demonstrating the boundary testing/pushing/breaking/setting dance. A few strong examples include: Alone (thriller), Vacation Friends (comedy), Power Franchise (drama), Homicide Hunter (documentary), Daddy’s Home (comedy), House of Cards (drama) and The Big Bang Theory (comedy). When you watch, start asking which characters are after something and how they enlist others to get it. How does a character say “yes” or “no”? Is it clear? Do they stick to it? What are the stakes involved that influenced their entanglement with the pusher?
Start to reflect on similar situations from your own life. Then, write them down and look for patterns. What was appealing about the person? When did you first feel uncomfortable with their behavior? Why or why didn’t you address it? What was the moment you realized they weren’t the person you believed them to be in the beginning? What would you change about the outcome if you could?
The best way to explore the answers to these questions is by writing your thoughts, discussing with a trusted friend and scheduling a session with me.