The good people in your life will happily respect and work with your boundaries. They may even celebrate them, glad that you’re taking care of yourself. The bad people? Not so much. It’s a skill to set up boundaries in the ordinary world of demands and intrusions, but it’s an art to set up boundaries when you’ve had the misfortune of dealing with someone who refuses to take your agency and well-being into consideration.
We know we need to “stand our ground” and “be assertive,” but it’s not always clear what that looks like in the moment, especially since some exploitative people don’t magically disappear just because we’ve started to love ourselves more!
Ordinary people may inadvertently step over our boundaries (as we might do), but will generally respond well when we assert them. This section is for those people who don’t respond well to and respect a boundary. Sadly, there are no magical incantations or special tricks that will banish such people from your life. Rather, you protect yourself using all of the same principles and techniques already explored so far—except, for truly toxic people, firm boundaries matter more than ever. Thank life in its infinite wisdom for sending you challenging people who force you to really dig deep and set up rock-solid boundaries!
Realize that everything that happens before and after the boundary is set almost matter more—are you regularly practicing self-care? Are you working towards a healthy self-love, recognizing and taking care of your own needs? Eating well, sleeping enough, and exercising strengthen the physical body against attack, and self-care strengthens the emotional and spiritual immune system from attack in the same way. So, keep in tip-top condition. Regularly journal, ask for help, and rethink your boundaries, needs, and values. Say “no” and don’t feel guilty. Finally, anticipate that you will get resistance from some people. Understand what this resistance is and you ensure that you’re not thrown by it.
When anyone resists your boundary, understand that it is essentially them telling you, “I don’t agree that you are worth better treatment than what I’m willing to give you.” Think about that. Though they may use all kinds of manipulation tactics that may distract and confuse you, the underlying message is always the same. You have requested to be respected and honored, and the other person has clearly told you “no.”
Exactly how you respond to every boundary violator in every circumstance will vary. But whatever you do, it needs to be an affirmation of your right to have a boundary, and your following through according to your own belief in your self-worth. People can resist your boundaries in a thousand different ways, but there’s no need to get bogged down in understanding the details of their resistance—only notice its existence.
People may not really listen or take the time to actually hear what you are saying to them. They may go into defense mode and assume that you’re attacking them, starting a fight, or placing blame (usually, this is because they feel somewhat guilty and know unconsciously that they are in the wrong!). They may turn things around and try to paint you as the difficult, fussy, or overly sensitive one for holding people accountable. They may try to make you feel bad for being mean to them (i.e. withholding something that they feel entitled to) or try to insinuate that you are being selfish, unrealistic, or unfair.
They may make a big show of how sad, uncomfortable, or inconvenienced they are by your boundary, playing up their victim status or acting mortally offended (you would see how quickly this act would vanish the moment you capitulated, however!). They may deny that what they’ve done is wrong at all, implying that your assessment of the situation is wrong or irrelevant. They may claim that the event or situation never even happened. They may turn passive aggressive and say “fine,” leaving you to wonder what underhanded revenge they’re cooking up for you later.
They may make you promise something else to them since you’ve so clearly failed to do what they want in this instance. They may even threaten to invoke a higher power—call the police, tell the boss on you, tattle to your mother, or even call into question your faith, your intelligence, your commitment, your sanity, your worth as a human being…
Here’s the secret: none of this matters. The above forms of resistance will take any shape they need to in order to try and get you to do what they want. That’s their only function, and it’s got nothing to do with you. You do not need to engage with manipulation. You do not need to understand it. By setting a boundary, you are not instantly making yourself responsible for that person’s life. Try to listen well below the resistance, and you will hear the same old message again and again: “I don’t agree that you are worth better treatment than what I’m willing to give you.” Respond to that hidden message and none of the manipulation tactics will work.
Tips for Nonnegotiable Boundaries with Toxic People
Realize that you may have to say “no” more than once. Know that this doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong—rather, it proves how necessary the boundary is. You may need to constantly maintain and defend your boundaries with certain people. However, if you feel exhausted by having to enforce boundaries with someone and repeated reminders don’t work, it might be better to simply walk away from the relationship.
Prepare for and anticipate resistance. If you know beforehand how you will respond, you’ll go into any interaction feeling focused and empowered.
It’s always OK to physically leave a situation you feel threatened in. Don’t worry about appearing polite—just leave.
Decline invitations, refuse to answer calls, or simply walk away if you’re facing someone who repeatedly tries to push your buttons. If a third person is pressuring you to do these things, you might want to consider distancing yourself from them, too.
Keep contact very minimal or cut it completely, if possible. Change phone numbers, travel a different route to avoid meeting them, or block them on social media.
You don’t need to gain any “closure” or to explain why you’re taking a step back—just do it. Guard against secretly hoping that flouncing off will have the other person rushing towards you again. They are not likely to suddenly care about your needs, and if they were the kind of person who needed the threat of you leaving to consider treating you well, this tells you everything you need to know.
If it’s an abusive or dangerous situation, make sure that others are aware of what’s happening, document what you can, and seek help, advice, and support from others willing to help you.
If the person is a family member, colleague, or someone you can’t reasonably avoid, try the “grey rock” technique: you can be present but disengage, disconnect, and be, emotionally, like a grey rock (i.e. someone who can’t be manipulated!). Give boring answers, don’t rise to the bait of drama, avoid eye contact, and keep interactions as short as possible. Don’t feed into manipulation. Simply say “uh-huh” and shift your attention. Keep things polite, neutral, boring, and impersonal. The less interesting and remarkable your engagement, the less there is for a narcissist, abuser, or boundary-crosser to work with!
When people repeatedly break your boundaries and communicate loudly and clearly that they have no intention of respecting them, believe them. There hasn’t been a miscommunication—they simply don’t care. You don’t have to “make nice.” Rather, treat a person with a known propensity to disregard your boundaries as you would anyone else who insulted you: ignore it and remove yourself as quickly as possible.
For situations that move beyond the realm of boundaries and into the realm of outright abuse, you need to dig your heels in deeper. Your boundaries will step in to protect you, but you will also need other kinds of barriers around you, be they legal or financial. Seek help from women’s shelters, a mental health professional, a social worker, a spiritual teacher, trusted family members, or friends. Don’t be afraid to speak out and say what is happening.
Serious abuse can, in a strange way, force some people to take a long hard look at themselves and what they absolutely aren’t willing to tolerate, ever, from anyone. Though painful, this can be an empowering and clarifying moment. If you’re trying to extricate yourself from an abusive situation, use any anger and pain you feel to protect yourself. However difficult it may seem in the moment, you can and will come out the other end!