Unfortunately, people who are manipulative, narcissistic, and have a poor sense of self tend to repeatedly violate personal boundaries. One of the biggest challenges that people have with boundaries is figuring out what to do when someone repeatedly violates them. There isnt a one-size fits all answer to the question.
- Who is violating your boundaries? The nature, power differential, and closeness of the relationship make a difference. Your response to your mother will be different than your response to your boss, which will be different yet from your response to your neighbor.
- Is the boundary violator willing to change? Is s/he willing to work with you to improve the relationship? Is s/he willing to go to counseling? Is s/he sensitive to your needs or feelings?
- How long has this been going on? Longer behavior patterns are harder to change (but certainly possible when someone is motivated).
- Has the boundary violator been physically aggressive? Safety is paramount. If the person violating your boundaries has been violent or threatened violence, you need to proceed with caution. I highly recommend getting help from supportive people, professionals, and/or law enforcement.
- Are you a minor? If youre a child, you must ask an adult for help. Reach out to an adult at school or church, a friends parent, or a hotline. You do not need to figure this out alone!
- Are you truly setting clear, consistent boundaries? In my experience, people tend to over-estimate the strength of their boundaries. Its understandable that sometimes you back down, feel tired, overwhelmed, or scared and dont follow through with your boundaries. Just like setting rules with children, boundaries dont work when they are only enforced some of the time. Boundaries need to be especially clear and consistent when youre dealing with someone who doesnt respect you. Such a person is looking for holes in your boundaries and using them against you. So, be sure youre assertively and clearly telling him/her that this behavior is not OK and follow through with consequences. See this article for more information.
I say these things not to make you feel ashamed or bad about yourself if your boundaries are inconsistent. These are common trouble spots in setting boundaries. My hope is to help you gain more awareness of the things that you can control (namely yourself). Self-awareness is empowering. When you recognize where youre slipping up, you can offer yourself both self-compassion and accountability.
- Continue to set strong, consistent boundaries. I know this is obvious and redundant. However, this is the part that you control. You dont control how people respond and you cant force people to respect your boundaries.
- Write it down. Record the boundary violations and your responses. This will help you check for weak spots in your boundaries. If you notice that you arent consistently setting healthy boundaries, make adjustments. And if you are being very consistent, writing it down will help you decide if you can accept these violations.
- Be clear with yourself about what treatment youll accept and what you wont. People also have a tendency to set a boundary in their mind and then allow it to be pushed back and pushed back. For example, I knew a woman who years prior had told herself that she wouldnt tolerate her husband coming home drunk and cursing at her anymore. By the time I met her, her husband was coming home drunk several times per week, regularly cursing at her in front of their children, and hed slapped her once. This is far beyond what she thought shed put up with. It helps to write down your boundary and/or say it out loud to a supportive person who will help you stay true to it.
- Accept that some people will not respect your boundaries no matter what you do. This is a difficult truth to accept because wed like to be able to force people to respect our boundaries. I know its disappointing to realize that you may have to make a hard decision about whether you want to continue to have a relationship with a person who doesnt respect your boundaries. But you cant change someone elses behavior. You can choose to accept it or you can choose to disengage.
- Detach from the outcome. One way to detach from a narcissistic person is to stop responding in the same old ways. Some people intentionally violate boundaries to hurt you, get a reaction out of you, and to exert control. Dont engage in the same old arguments with these people. You can choose to ignore or laugh off their comments and not show them that it hurts you. This shifts the power. (This doesnt apply to someone physically harming you.)
- Decide to limit or cut off all contact. If Great Uncle Johnny makes you feel uncomfortable by standing too close and making sexually charged comments, you can decide to not attend family gatherings at his house, or to attend but not be alone with him, or avoid seeing him ever again. You have choices.
- You live with the boundary violator. Lets imagine that youre living with Great Uncle Johnny while you go to school in San Francisco and theres no possible way that you can afford to move out. You might identify these choices: Quit school and move back home. Stay out of the house as much as possible (study at the library and coffee shop, come home late and leave early). Ask various friends if you can spend the weekends with them. Get a second job and save money so you can move out. None of these choices seem ideal, but you trust your instincts and do whats best for you.
- The boundary violator is in a position of authority. This is perhaps the hardest situation of all. It can be scary and dangerous when a parent, teacher, boss, law enforcement officer or anyone in authority is violating your boundaries. Please consider whether it would help to get someone else involved (perhaps this persons superior). I realize that life is complicated and sometimes doing so can make things worse particularly in the short-term. You, again, need to make some difficult decisions about whether you can stay away from this person, limit contact, or avoid being alone with him/her.
- Others pressure you to stay or minimize your feelings or the harm youve experienced. When you decide that you need to make changes to a relationship due to boundary violations, not everyone will be supportive. This is not the time to be a people-pleaser. Its not healthy to stay in contact with someone who causes you harm in order to make someone else happy. Dont continue living at Great Uncle Johnnys because your Dad says youre over-reacting and thats just how Johnny is. Maybe your Dad has a perfectly respectful and pleasant relationship with Uncle Johnny. Or maybe hes oblivious to how Uncle Johnny treats you. There are infinite reasons for your Dad to say this. The point is, it doesnt matter. You are uncomfortable and you need to honor that.
- You love and care about the boundary violator. Often the boundary violator is a parent or spouse or someone else you care about. Obviously, its much easier to detach or walk away from someone you dont love deeply. Its actually not healthy to love anyone else more than you love yourself. Setting boundaries is a form of self-love and self-respect. If you dont love and respect yourself, others wont either. You can ask your loved one to engage in a process of change with you such as family counseling, going to a support group, or reading a book about boundaries. If they refuse or dont follow through, theyre telling you they dont intend on changing. You are once again faced with needing to decide if its healthy for you to continue the relationship as is or with modifications. I had a client who loved his aging mother, but she was verbally abusive and intrusive with her questions. She criticized everything her son did to help her. He couldnt bear to cut her out of his life, but he was miserable before, during, and after each visit. His way of dealing was to hire someone to help with her day to daycare and limit his visits to once a week. Whenever his mother began to criticize, he told her she was being critical and hurtful and cut the visit short. This was the best solution he could come up with.
Dealing with someone who repeatedly violates your boundaries is about identifying your choices, choosing the best option (none may be ideal), respecting yourself, and trusting your instincts. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer. Setting boundaries sometimes means others will be angry or offended by your choices and sometimes you cannot continue to have them in your life.
Image: Jeffreyat Flickrr 2016 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.