There are many articles on how to create and maintain personal boundaries. But there isn’t as much guidance on how we can respect other people’s limits, because this, too, can be as difficult as setting our own.
Boundary violations typically fall into three categories, according to Chester McNaughton, a registered professional counselor who specializes in boundaries, anger management and dysfunctional relationships in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: aggressive, passive-aggressive or accidental.
Aggressive violations include shoving and hitting; damaging property; exerting control over someone’s time or money; making threats; taunting and hurling insults, he said.
Passive-aggressive violations include interrupting; gossiping; giving the silent treatment; or assuming you know what someone thinks, needs or wants, he said.
This also includes discounting a person’s beliefs, preferences and feelings. For instance, we might make these comments: “you don’t really believe that, you’re too sensitive, why are you making such a big deal?” said Susan Orenstein, Ph.D, a licensed psychologist and relationship expert in Cary, N.C.
Accidental violations include bumping into someone or stating an opinion respectfully, but finding out that the other person finds it offensive, McNaughton said.
There are many reasons why we don’t respect someone else’s boundaries. We might’ve been raised with different boundary expectations, said Julie de Azevedo Hanks, LCSW, founder and executive director of Wasatch Family Therapy. For instance, families use physical touch in different ways. Some families hug, kiss and sit next to each other, she said. Other families only shake hands, she said.
We may assume that “others think, act and behave the same as we do,” said McNaughton. Similarly we may cling to irrational beliefs, which also make it harder to appreciate boundary differences. He shared these examples: “Mistakes are never acceptable (perfectionism),” or “when someone disagrees they are attacking me (defensiveness).”
The other person might be sending mixed messages. For instance, a spouse may request more intimate conversations but then gets offended and overly reactive during these talks, said Hanks, author of The Burnout Cure: An Emotional Survival Guide for Overwhelmed Women.
We also might not respect others’ boundaries because we want to be in control or protect the person (and think we know better), Orenstein said.
And, of course, it might be unintentional, she said. “We’re unaware of what we’re doing — we haven’t been paying attention to the impact of our behavior on the other person.”
Here are several suggestions for respecting other people’s boundaries.
- Focus on respect. McNaughton stressed the importance of seeing others as “simply human.” Remember that everyone has thoughts, feelings, plans, dreams and hopes, he said. Remember that everyone wants to be heard and accepted as they are, he said.
- Listen fully. Listen to another person with the goal of truly understanding them, Orenstein said. “[L]isten to care about them,” McNaughton said. Don’t interrupt, “resist what’s being said or think of what you’re going to say next,” Orenstein said. She also suggested practicing the silent pause: “Completely wait until the other person is finished speaking, take a breath, pause and then respond … You’ll be making space for the other person to express him or herself and get out of the habit of reactivity.”
- Listen for verbal cues. Some verbal cues may be obvious, such as another person saying “I’m uncomfortable sitting so close to you,” or “I’ve asked you before to knock before you come in my house,” Hanks said. Others may be subtle, such as “changing the subject in the midst of a conversation to something less emotionally vulnerable.”
- Pay attention to body language. “[B]ody language often speaks louder than words,” Hanks said. She shared these examples: If someone has their arms folded while they’re talking to you, they might not be open to what you’re saying. If someone is stepping back every few minutes, you might be standing too close and invading their personal space.
“The key to boundaries is respect for self and respect for others,” McNaugton said. This translates to: “I am important enough that I look after and advocate for myself, but you are important enough that while I look after myself while I also advocate for you.”
According to Hanks, an example of respecting boundaries is “when your daughter-in-law requests that you not give unsolicited parenting advice, and you listen to her without resentment, and refrain from giving advice.”
Other examples include not bringing up a sensitive topic in front of others because your friend asks you, or willingly moving on after the person you’re dating says they’re not interested in having a relationship, she said.
McNaughton shared these examples: listening to his wife and validating whatever emotions she’s experiencing without trying to fix the situation; respecting his wife’s time and energy — “limited valuable resources that require boundaries” — by washing the dishes and picking up his socks; accepting a colleague’s “no” instead of trying to convince them to say “yes”; and acknowledging someone and inviting them into his conversation with another person, which respects “their desire to be included, involved and connected.”
Remember that each person is different, so they will have different boundaries, he said. You can respect these different boundaries by listening fully and paying attention to verbal and nonverbal cues.