People cross our boundaries in all sorts of ways. For instance, they might keep pushing you to change your “no” into a “yes” to meet their needs, said Julie de Azevedo Hanks, Ph.D, LCSW, founder and executive director of Wasatch Family Therapy.
They might borrow something and never return it, said psychotherapist Liz Morrison, LCSW. They might invade your personal space — like touching your pregnant belly without permission. They might instruct your child on how to behave.
They might make an inappropriate comment. For instance, while shopping, a saleswoman told Morrison’s friend: “you are so lucky that you’re more petite because if you were taller, that shirt would not look as good on you.” Her friend is insecure about being petite, so she got very upset.
Often people don’t intentionally cross our boundaries. As Morrison said, “Since no one has the ability to read someone else’s mind, it cannot always be assumed that a person will know if they are triggering something in them.” As in the above example, the saleswoman could never know that she was bringing up a tough topic.
But whether someone means to break a boundary or not, the result is the same.
What can you do when this happens? Here are five tips to try.
Handle it internally.
When someone crosses your boundary, one option is to handle it internally, said Morrison, who specializes in children and families in New York City. First, you might find the positive in the situation. For instance, your mom asks you where your relationship is going. You feel like she’s crossed the line with this personal question. But you appreciate her caring about you and wanting what’s best for you, she said.
Secondly, question the situation. For instance, you’re late for work, and your boss starts yelling at you because “you’re never on time!!” You try to find evidence that supports your boss’s statement, Morrison said. But you realize that you’re actually typically on time. “[Y]our boss is overreacting to this uncommon occurrence.”
Restate your boundary.
Another option is to confront the person. Maybe they misunderstood you initially. Maybe your boundary was vague or indirect. That’s why Hanks suggested restating your boundary.
She shared these examples of clear-cut boundaries:
- “Maybe I wasn’t clear. I am not interested in hearing you complain about our mutual friend John. I want to feel free to be friends with both of you.”
- “I hear that you really need help; however, I’m not available to meet your request.”
- “I’ve asked you the last few nights but maybe I wasn’t clear. If you have friends over past 10:30 p.m., you’ll need to take the party downstairs so I can go to bed. I have to get up early in the morning for work.”
State your boundary in a positive way.
That is, state what you want, instead of what you don’t want, said Hanks, author of The Burnout Cure: An Emotional Survival Guide for Overwhelmed Women. “Instead of ‘don’t talk to me like that!’ say, “I want you to speak to me in a respectful and calm way.” Another example is: “If you have a problem with the quality of my work, please come directly to me to address the problem.”
In the above example with the overreacting boss, according to Morrison, you might say: “I hear what you are saying, but I would appreciate it if you would talk to me in a respectful tone.”
When your mom asks you about your relationship, she said, you might reply: “I know you are worried about my relationship and my future, but I want you to trust that I can make healthy decisions on my own.”
Offer a way to move forward.
Let’s say you found your girlfriend reading your texts. According to Morrison, you assert yourself, explain your feelings and offer her a way to move forward:
“When I found out that you read my text messages, it made me feel like you do not trust me. If you wanted to know what is happening in my life, you could have asked and I would have shown you. In order for us to have a successful relationship, we need to respect each other’s privacy.”
Reconsider the relationship.
If you’ve been clear about your boundaries, and the person still keeps crossing them, consider if you want to remain in a relationship with someone who disrespects your limits, Hanks said. She suggested reflecting on why you’re staying in the relationship. “What’s the payoff? Do you need to feel needed? Do you thrive on drama? Is it replaying a pattern in a previous relationship?”
Confronting someone when they’ve crossed your boundary is not easy. It can be intimidating and trigger our insecurities. But as Morrison tells her clients: “if [you don’t] speak up about something that is bothering [you], [you] cannot expect change to occur.”
Plus, speaking up strengthens relationships in the long run, Hanks said. “By being authentic, and expressing your boundaries compassionately, relationships often continue to grow deeper.”
And for relationships that end because of serial boundary breaking, you’ll be better off in the long run, too.
Boundary photo available from Shutterstock