Whether online or in-person, disagreements can get heated and ugly pretty quickly. Especially when touchy subjects like politics and personal beliefs lie at the heart of them. When someone disagrees with a belief or opinion we hold passionately, it can feel so threatening to our sense of self it triggers our instinct to fight. Of course, if you’re someone who loves to fight, this may not seem like a problem. But if you’re someone who’s trying to cultivate a more enlightened way of living, it can be difficult to find the balance between standing up for what you believe and upholding your intentions for peace, love, and light.
So, where is the balance? How can we disagree with each other in such a way that we cause the least amount of harm, to ourselves and others? That’s what I’d like to explore in today’s post – how to mindfully disagree. Respecting boundaries is the key.
Heated Disagreements Can Destroy Relationships
I’m thinking about this topic right now because I’ve seen so many vitriolic debates on social media lately. With the Covid-19 quarantine creating cabin fever and stirring up everything from accusations of blame to conspiracy theories about its origin, people are getting heated. Add to that a passionately divided media and public in the middle of an election year, and we’ve got a virtual war zone for ideas.
But the truth is fiery arguments don’t just happen in the public arena. They rip through our homes, families, and friendships too, and they can flare up around a wide variety of topics. Disagreements, no matter how or where they happen, can destroy relationships when they’re handled unskillfully. They can keep us hyper-focused on our differences and build impenetrable walls where there once were bridges.
And let’s be honest. At the end of an ugly argument, no one feels good. No one really wins. There’s rarely a real change of mind or heart, just a distance that leaves us feeling less connected and more isolated from each other. We may try to make-up for this by seeking reinforcements, garnering other people to rally behind us and our views. But our capacity for peace, love and connection has been diminished nonetheless. Once the fury cools, we’re left with an emptiness, a lingering irritability, or maybe even some battle wounds we need to lick. We have to work to find our way back to our center of peace and balance.
However, it doesn’t have to be this way. We can disagree with others without having to sacrifice our higher intentions. When we respect boundaries – both our own and others’ – we maintain a field where we can meet and communicate wisely, neither feeling the need to annihilate nor the threat of being annihilated. There’s room for us and them.
What Does Respecting Boundaries Mean?
When I think about boundaries, I’m always reminded of a scene from the movie Dirty Dancing. The one where Patrick Swayze demonstrates personal space for Jennifer Grey. He uses their arms to create an empty square between their bodies and tells her, this is my space; this is yours. You don’t come into my space, and I don’t come into yours.
Of course, he’s talking about maintaining good form while dancing. But I think the same could be said metaphorically about good form while disagreeing. Only here, the term space would refer to psychic or psychological space. Maybe even energetic. We all have a right to our opinions, perspectives, and beliefs. And while I may get push-back on this, I’d even venture to say we all have a right to our own interpretations of the facts.
None of us has perfect knowledge, wisdom, or insight. What we think, believe, and feel is always filtered through our own lens of experience. Certainly we can benefit from hearing each other’s viewpoints. Hopefully, we learn and grow from the exchange of ideas. But in the end, we have a right to our own psychological space. Respecting boundaries means we allow that space to exist, both for ourselves and for others.
For Ourselves & Others
Why do I make a point of saying for ourselves and others? Depending on your interior landscape, it may seem obvious one would hold space for one’s own ideas and beliefs. But this isn’t necessarily so. For some people, boundaries can be so fragile and thin, they’re easily penetrated by other people’s words and ideas. Holding one’s own ground with such porous boundaries can be extra challenging. It can leave a person feeling vulnerable or easily threatened in the face of disagreement. If this is you, putting a boundary around your own psychic space is important.
On the other hand, for some people, boundaries can be so rigid and fortified that opening up space to hear someone else’s point of view feels impossible. There’s only room for one interpretation, and that’s their own. This rigidness can compel them to trample on other people’s views and/or cause them to withdraw in disgust. Either way, the result leaves the other person with little to no room to express themselves.
If this is you, it’s important to open some windows in your walls. Maybe your mind can’t be changed. That’s okay. But it’s also okay to allow someone else to have their own point of view. This allows both parties to maintain their psychic space. If you repeatedly refuse to do this, you’ll increasingly cut yourself off from true human connection.
Respecting boundaries means feeling safe, secure, and self-determined within our own psychic space. And giving others the freedom to feel the same.
With my work in the addiction treatment field, I learned a lot about boundaries. That’s because they can play a big role not only in addiction, but also in many other mental health conditions, as well as in problematic family dynamics. But the more I learned, the more I realized respecting boundaries isn’t just relevant to people struggling with substance abuse, mental health, or family issues. Having unhealthy boundaries is a fairly widespread phenomenon.
So before we dive into respecting boundaries when we’re arguing, I’d like to take a quick look at what constitutes healthy boundaries in general. Boundaries delineate our personal space – physically, psychologically, professionally, sexually, etc. They basically determine what we allow to flow into and out of our personal space, and influence how we react when someone moves into that space, whether it be through words or actions. As mentioned previously, boundaries can be porous or rigid, each of which presents its own problems. (You can learn more here.) But when they’re healthy, they exist somewhere in between.
Respecting Boundaries Requires Flexibility
Healthy boundaries are flexible. They hold enough strength and firmness to maintain our sense of safety and autonomy, but they’re open enough to enable connection and mutual respect. When we have healthy boundaries, we’re willing to take responsibility for our own lives. And we empower other people to do the same. This means we don’t blame others for the consequences of our life choices or expect them to fix us or our problems. And we don’t accept blame for, or feel obligated to fix, other people’s lives either. Certainly we can help others and receive help when needed. But we do so while understanding and respecting we all have autonomy over our own lives.
Healthy boundaries keep us from losing ourselves in other people, and also from shutting ourselves off from them. We can see others, and we allow ourselves to be seen. It’s about balance and the delicate dance that keeps us from stepping on each other’s toes. One potent way to achieve this balance, especially in the context of disagreement, is to bring mindfulness to the process. Because even for people who usually keep healthy boundaries, a charged disagreement can seriously test our capacity to respect boundaries.
How Mindfulness Supports Healthy Boundaries
Mindfulness is the state of bringing awareness to the present moment, without judgment. It encourages us to experience the present moment as it is. Rather than rejecting or clinging to it, we simply observe it with acceptance and curiosity. As we cultivate mindfulness, we begin to recognize the fleeting nature of all phenomena – thoughts, emotions, circumstances, and even life itself. As a result, we develop an increased tolerance for uncomfortable states, because we know they will pass. Our resistance to what is relaxes over time. And as we observe the world with accepting attentiveness, our appreciation for the countless, interconnected ways life expresses itself on this planet grows.
All of this naturally supports respect for boundaries. Interacting with each other from this mindful perspective automatically grants both parties (ourselves and the other person) personal psychic space. When we approach our inner experience with acceptance and curiosity, we validate our sense of self. Our attentiveness reinforces our autonomous value. And seeing others through this same lens honors theirs as well. We don’t have to move into or away from each other’s psychic space to feel validated. We can co-exist, even in our differences, without feeling the need to devalue either self or other.
Non-Judgment & Boundaries
It may seem strange to tout non-judgment as a key to respecting boundaries. After all, boundaries by their very nature involve judgment. They determine who and what we allow into our personal space, as well as who we’re willing to reveal ourselves to. And how much we’re willing to share. We want to discern who and what is right or wrong, kind or malicious, trustworthy or untrustworthy in order to make these decisions. That’s a form of judgment, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. Boundaries help us navigate the world more easily. They help us make wise decisions about what we want to move toward vs. what we’re better off steering clear of.
As we interact with each other, we’re feeling-out where we meet on these notions. We have a natural tendency to be more open to people who see the world as we do and less receptive to those who don’t. We want to surround ourselves with people we feel we can trust and with whom we can connect based on our shared values. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this.
The mindful concept of non-judgment doesn’t require us to tear down healthy boundaries or agree with other people’s views. What it does do, however, is ask us to open up space for other people’s assessments to exist alongside ours. It invites us to listen with curiosity. To speak and act from a place of respect, rather than rejection. And when faced with something or someone we can’t change, to make peace with that reality.
At its most basic level, mindful non-judgment calls on us to recognize the inherent value every being possesses simply because they exist. And if we do this sincerely, we can’t help but respect our own and others’ boundaries.
Present Moment Awareness & Respecting Boundaries
At a more tangible level, mindfulness supports our intention to respect boundaries by helping us stay connected to our present moment experience. We’re better able to notice when we’re being triggered or starting to react to a person from a place of disrespect. We can feel changes in our body, like elevated heart rate, increased temperature, muscles tensing, a burning sensation in our belly, or a tightening in our throat. We might also notice we’re no longer listening to what the other person is saying. We’re no longer seeing the human, much less the soul, we’re engaging with. Instead, we’re preparing for our chance to pounce.
There’s a marked difference in how we feel internally when we start to get sucked into an argument or heated debate. Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book Anger, talks about the seeds that lie dormant in our deeper consciousness until something comes along to stimulate them. We have seeds for different emotions and mental states – anger, fear, sadness, compassion, mindfulness, love, etc. And when something we see, think, hear, etc. touches them, they sprout into form in our mind-body experience. We’re suddenly swept up in the energy of this new state of being, physically and mentally. It’s as though we become the emotion.
When our personal beliefs or opinions are challenged by another person, it’s natural to feel threatened. It can happen so quickly, we don’t seem to have a choice. The seed of anger, fear, or disgust springs to life instinctively. But mindfulness can help us recognize this change. Furthermore, it can help us cope with it. Not by stuffing, rejecting, or projecting the emotional experience, but instead by embracing it with our accepting attentiveness.
Mindfully Embracing Emotion
Once we recognize how our internal experience has shifted, we can choose to bring our mindfulness to it. We can acknowledge it as anger, fear, or disgust. Just that mental act of identifying what we’re experiencing can take some of the charge out of the experience. We’re no longer simply acting it out. Now, we’re observing it.
We can touch the seed of mindfulness within us, inviting it into our experience as well. And with mindfulness, comes acceptance. We accept the fact we’re experiencing whatever emotion is present, and that it’s indeed an internal experience. This means, we don’t try to discharge the emotional energy externally, onto someone else. We give it space to exist inside us.
Once we bring mindful acceptance to our emotion, it follows a reliable path. It expands, peaks, and then dissolves. As it dissolves back into its seed form, our whole internal experience returns to calmness and more clarity – the place where we can actively see and listen to others again. And the place where we can wisely choose our words again.
Can we really do this in the midst of a heated debate? It might seem impossible, but I promise you, it’s not. There are practical steps we can take to invite mindfulness into a disagreement, so we can honor our own and others’ boundaries.
Mindful Steps for Respecting Boundaries
If you’re not already practicing mindfulness consistently, starting a daily practice will greatly enhance your ability to invite mindful awareness into all aspects of your life. Just ten minutes a day can make a remarkable difference. It builds a strong foundation for mindfulness that makes it easier to follow these steps for respecting boundaries in the midst of a heated moment:
First, notice when you’ve been triggered. This may happen immediately upon seeing a post on social media or hearing a comment someone makes. Or, it may occur in the middle of a discussion that’s becoming increasingly disagreeable. Regardless, if things are getting heated, it means one of your seeds is being touched. Signs of the shift will begin to manifest in your mind-body experience. (Note: you may not notice you’ve been triggered until you’re already worked up and engaged in a full-on argument. That’s okay. You’re human!)
Second, take a break from the engagement somehow. It doesn’t have to be long. Just long enough for you to step out of the emotional vortex of it and invite mindfulness into the picture. Drink a glass of water. Go to the restroom. Step outside. If you need longer, go for a walk.
Third, identify the emotion you’re feeling. I’m feeling anger (fear, disgust, etc.) right now.
Fourth, invite mindfulness to come into your experience as well. Notice your breath. Notice the sensations in your body. Gently, lovingly give yourself permission to be feeling what you’re feeling. If you have time to sit with this feeling through its entire cycle – rise, peak, dissolve – take it. If not, continue to hold mindful awareness as you return to the disagreement.
Fifth, acknowledge the other person is likely feeling the same surge of emotion. They may have been triggered in the same way you have. They may feel threatened, and if so, their reactions are arising from this place of suffering, whether or not they’re aware of it. If you can gain further insight into what might be causing them suffering, let that open some space for compassion within you. (We’ll talk more about compassion in a bit.)
Sixth, listen actively to what the other person has to say. Remind yourself this is their opinion, belief, perspective, etc., and they have a right to hold it. It’s not your responsibility – or right, for that matter – to change it.
Lastly, when you speak, share your perspective with genuine respect for their autonomy in mind. Use words that communicate your truth as just that – your truth. There are a variety of ways to do this, many of which use qualifiers. Here are some examples:
- It’s my understanding that…
- I appreciate that, but (cite resource) says that…
- My experience has taught me…
- I realize you feel strongly about what you believe, and I respect that. However, my belief is…
- That’s an interesting interpretation. I actually see it very differently.
- I understand you feel that way, but this is what I feel…
Of course, there’s also the option of simply ending the discussion with an agreement to disagree. You can say something along the lines of, It’s clear we don’t see this the same way. It’s probably best for us to agree to disagree. If the other person can’t peacefully accept this, you may just have to walk away from the argument.
Not everyone will have the intention to respect boundaries. Some people feed off debates, simply for the sake of arguing. It’s an energetic addiction. When that’s the case, there’s nothing healthier for you to do than remove yourself from the equation to preserve your own peace.
Respecting Boundaries When Confronted With Offensive Ideas
It’s especially hard to respect boundaries when the person you’re speaking with clearly doesn’t value them. Whether they’re attacking you as a person, or their beliefs inherently devalue other people, their words can feel like an assault on your most deeply held truths. This is when the compassionate piece of mindfulness becomes most important.
The mindful attributes of non-judgment and acceptance, when contemplated deeply, inevitably lead us to compassion. As we objectively observe ourselves and the world, we come to understand the common plight of suffering we share as humans on this planet. There are so many different kinds of suffering we face, directly or indirectly. As we sit with the reality of the experience of suffering, we also sit with the natural desire for it to end. We see how this connects us to all beings, because we all suffer. And we all want our suffering to end. Compassion arises from this. It’s a wish for the suffering of all beings to end.
To not see the inherent value in other beings reveals suffering – the suffering that must have led to one holding such a view, as well as the suffering of isolation that arises with such a view. When we see this suffering, we can hold the other person in compassion, hoping they will find the healing they need to put an end to it. It becomes easier then to respect their boundaries. Instead of increasing their hurt by lashing out, we open our heart enough to feel compassion for it.
And the truth is, whatever we say from this place of compassion will have far better chance of reaching them in a truly meaningful way than anything we say from a place of anger or disgust.
What To Do After A Disagreement
However the disagreement closes, be sure to take some time to sit with yourself in mindfulness. Observe what’s happening internally for you with the spirit of loving-kindness. If the emotional charge lingers, give it space to express itself as you watch mindfully. Let it run its full course until it dissolves. Offering yourself this gentle, loving attention preserves not only your inner peace, but also your boundary around your own psychic space.
The more you do this, the more you develop a sense that your inner terrain is safe, even in the midst of disagreements. When you nurture your personal psychic space, other people’s perspectives don’t feel like such a threat. And the more you take care of the boundary around your own psychic space, the more you come to naturally respect that boundary for others as well.
Respecting boundaries and mindful disagreement are skills that have to be cultivated. It’s a process that requires introspection, self-love, and a tolerance for uncomfortable experiences, psychologically as well as physically. But it’s well worth the effort. An incredible freedom comes with allowing others to hold ideas and beliefs that differ from our own. It means we don’t have to feel responsible for something we cannot control. But more importantly, it means we can really own the fact our ideas and beliefs don’t have to conform to other people’s expectations either.
Mindful communication opens space for us all to feel safe and valued. It never loses sight of the divine essence that dwells within us all, or the suffering that lies beneath the surface when harsh speech and actions emerge. I’ll leave you with these wise words from Thich Nhat Hanh:
“When we say something that nourishes us and uplifts the people around us, we are feeding love and compassion. When we speak and act in a way that causes tension and anger, we are nourishing violence and suffering.”Thich Nhat Hanh, The Art Of Communicating