Boundary-Setting Strategy # 2: The Sandwich Technique

How to Set Effective Boundaries When You Love an Addict:

Three Excellent and Proven Strategies

** PART 2 **

Welcome back, Everyone!  Another month has flown by since I told you about the “Assertiveness Formula.” This is a wonderful way to learn how to language your healthy boundaries, especially when you are just starting to do this with the people in your life who may be treating you in abusive ways. Boundary-setting is such a vitally important skill to learn, because doing this contributes to our self-respect and self-trust. When we decide to incorporate healthy, loving boundaries into our lives, we feel much better about ourselves – even when it might feel a little awkward – and as we continue to do this, we become better at doing it. We also learn that we can begin to trust ourselves to take care of situations that we didn’t know how to handle before.

Today, as promised, I am going to give you another way to set better boundaries – and next month I’ll teach you the third way, so that you will have a trilogy of fairly easy tools to use. But before I do that, let’s have a quick review of the Assertiveness Formula from last month:

Please know that the Assertiveness Formula does not have to be complicated.  There are three simple components to it that you can practice before setting your boundary.  Here is the formula in its entirety:

“I feel… (EMOTION word), when you… (name the BEHAVIOUR), because… (give the REASON), and what I need to see is (what you feel will be best possible OUTCOME).”

For example, you might say to this to someone who doesn’t listen to you and basically dismisses you when you try to state an opinion about something:

I feel upset and resentful when you don’t listen to me when I tell you my thoughts and feelings, because my opinions matter too.  And what I need is to be heard and respected for what I think and feel, even if you disagree with me.  I need for us to discuss and have opportunities to negotiate solutions that will work for both of us.”

I would love to hear how it feels for you to think about using this Assertiveness Formula – or how it was for you when you tried putting this into practice.  You can leave a comment below – I will be sure to read them and reply to you.

Boundary-setting strategy # 2:

The Sandwich Technique

The 2nd technique for setting healthier boundaries is called The Sandwich Technique because it has three distinct parts to it.  The formula to follow here is Positive / Negative / Positive.

Sometimes when I’m explaining this to my clients, I use the analogy of an Oreo cookie – which is one of my very favourite things in the world.  But unfortunately, this can be a little misleading because the middle part of an Oreo cookie – which would correspond to the ‘negative’ in the formula – is the best part of the cookie.  So maybe it’s better to think of a sandwich where you might not like the filling so much!

The point of this formula is to learn how to give feedback in a way that it can be taken in and heard by most people.  When we start with negative comments, the person we’re wanting to hear us might become immediately upset or defensive.  So, it’s important to begin with something positive – and it needs to be something that you really feel, not just empty words that you’re trying to find in order to say something positive.  

Once we have that idea, then we can gently shift into giving the person the negative or ‘constructive’ feedback – the words that are more challenging for us to say and harder for that person to hear.  It’s important to be compassionate as we do this, remembering that no one enjoys receiving critical feedback.  But when it’s necessary to let someone know how we feel, we want to do it in a way that our thoughts and feelings will be received as well as possible.

Negative or constructive feedback is given for a couple of reasons: one might be to help the other person find their way to a better, easier way to live and get along with others.  Another reason may be that you’re finding what they’re doing to be difficult to tolerate – disrespectful, damaging, hurtful, or unacceptable to you in some way.  We want to do this with as much empathy, compassion and warmth as we can, while also continuing to be assertively speaking our truth.  It is vital to remember that we have no control over other people – just because we speak our truth and set our boundaries doesn’t mean they will respect them or do what we’re asking of them.  So we need to do this for ourselves first, in order to continue to build our all-important self-respect.  If the other person chooses to act disrespectfully even after giving them feedback, then we have other decisions we can make regarding how to proceed – such as possibly walking away from someone who is too self-absorbed to be able to care about our well-being.

An Example of the Sandwich Technique

Let’s look at an example of how to use this technique with someone we need to give some feedback to.  Perhaps you are the parents of an adult child who is living in your family home and still choosing to be in active addiction. You are now realizing that continuing to enable them is not helping the situation – and is actually hurting everyone instead, including yourselves. What would be an emotionally healthy way to speak your truth?

First, it’s good to establish a time when all parties concerned are free to be able to have a discussion – most preferably when your loved one is not high, because “talking to the addiction” usually doesn’t yield good results. It generally works better with the Sandwich Technique to have an intentional conversation rather than trying to do it ‘on the fly.’  I will give you a very general roadmap of how to proceed once you’ve arranged this time to talk.

You could start out by saying “Honey, thank you for meeting with us today.  There are a couple of things we wanted to discuss with you, and we want to tell you that we love you very much.”  (POSITIVE)

“We’re aware that there are times when you become quite angry when we set out fairly simple guidelines about living in our family home.  We want you to feel like you can stay here until you get back on your feet, but in order for that to happen a couple of things will need to change.  For example, starting next month, we will expect you to pay us some rent to cover a few additional things like groceries and utilities such as heat and hot water.  We can arrange together how much that will be.

“We also need for you to be able to curb your angry outbursts so that we don’t feel like we have to tiptoe around you emotionally.  We want you to be able to live here, as long as you can be more respectful of the way you speak to us and to your siblings.  It’s not ok for us to continually be so concerned about how you might react or respond to us.  (NEGATIVE/CONSTRUCTIVE)

“Thank you for listening to what we have to say, we appreciate that.  We love you and always want the best for you.”  (POSITIVE)

When you feel that they have heard you, then you can ask how they feel about what you’ve said.  If there is another angry outburst or if they say they can’t/won’t pay rent, then you can start the Sandwich Technique again with something positive – or – leave the conversation, saying that these boundaries stand and that you’re willing to talk about them again at another time.

Boundaries are often awkward to set (and maintain), especially if we haven’t been doing that consistently.  But this needs to happen in order for us to build respectful relationships.  If you need help knowing how to set healthy boundaries and how to navigate potentially difficult responses, please reach out for help.  At Love With Boundaries, this is a big part of what we help families learn about – and we can help you too.  We offer a free 30-minute zoom consultation where we will find out more about what’s going on for you and tell you how we work with families struggling with addiction – to see if we’re a fit to work with each other.  In order to have that consultation with us, just fill out our short Questionnaire and we will get back to you as soon as we receive it.  The link is at the bottom of this article.

Being able to set self-respecting boundaries, especially with people who are being abusive with us, is an imperative skill to learn. When we shy away from doing this out of fear or discomfort, the situation we’re in will remain the same, because – if nothing changes, nothing changes.  If what you’re doing doesn’t feel like it’s working for you, it’s very likely time for you to try something different, so that you can be ok with the person who is looking back at you in the mirror.  We are here to help!

Next month I will tell you about another way to set boundaries in uncomfortable situations.  I look forward to seeing you then!

Candace Plattor, M.A., is an Addictions Therapist specializing in working with the family of people who are struggling with addiction. As a former addict with 35 years clean and sober, Candace knows that overcoming addiction is a family condition: everyone in the family is affected by addiction and everyone needs to heal. Learn more about Candace here:

1 Response

  1. Michelle says:

    These are very helpful tips. I think for those of us who don’t set boundaries well, we often do not have the language skill set. This is a very good first step.. Thank you for all you do.

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