What characterizes most of the steps and tips we’ve covered so far is this: a focus on you, your wants, and your limits, rather than on others and what they need and want from you. Chronic people-pleasers are not used to turning this attention and concern onto themselves, but they need to if they hope to heal broken boundaries that open them to invasion from others.
Sometimes, an attempt to set a boundary can fail. Maybe you feel guilty and backpedal, apologizing for ruffling any feathers. Maybe you allow yourself to be bullied back into line because it’s less scary than having to stand your ground. Or, maybe, you immediately follow your boundary with a promise or consolation of some kind to “make up” for the fact that you said no—landing yourself at square one again.
Proper boundaries take time to build, but as you learn, try be patient with yourself. If it didn’t work as you expected, gently ask yourself why and try again. Growth takes patience and courage. The following are the most common mistakes people looking to set healthy boundaries fall prey to, and how to avoid them.
Mistake 1: You are aggressive and not assertive
Have you ever suppressed your rage and anger to such a degree that when it did finally come out, people were completely caught off guard by your seemingly disproportionate blow-up? While understandable, this is not a responsible way to set boundaries. You never have to be mean, hurtful, unkind, or judgmental to set a boundary. In fact, if a boundary looks like it’s merely you lashing out, people are less likely to take it seriously. If you’re upset or mad, wait until you’re calm to have any discussions.
Though it is natural to be angry when someone violates your boundaries, especially if it has happened repeatedly, a good way to tone down the aggression is this. As far as you possibly can, do not assume malice on the part of the offender. Their actions likely stem from ignorance born out of their own personal history.
Granted, some with narcissistic and abusive personalities will actively hurt you out of bad intentions, but being aggressive in response ultimately won’t help you achieve your goal. Use a firm tone when needed, but never scream, insult, or demean.
Mistake 2: Centering the other person’s emotions and not your own
Repeat to yourself as often as necessary: you are not responsible for the emotions of others. When setting a boundary, keep the focus squarely on your emotions, needs, and limits. This is all you can really claim responsibility for, anyway. You don’t have to take care of someone’s disappointment, apologize, feel bad that you’ve upset them, or anything else.
You don’t have to wring your hangs and act pained and full of remorse—own your boundary and state it without drama and contrition. How the other person responds to that is strictly their business. You can, of course, say things like, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” or, “I can see that you’re not happy about that,” but stop there. You don’t need to rush in to soothe them, solve their problems, or take on a dose of blame and guilt.
Mistake 3: Poor timing
Poor timing can ruin things, even if you do everything else correctly. You can use the right tone, posture, words, and as many “I” statements as you want, but it is also imperative that you choose the right moment to convey any frustrations you have.
It comes down to planning again. While it’s certainly a good idea to defend a boundary the moment it’s crossed, it’s better to establish your limits preemptively, when you are both calm and receptive. Pick a time when you both can talk privately without being rushed, and wait till you are able to speak calmly and firmly.
It might also help to give the other person a chance to decide the time of your conversation. Simply approach them and convey that you need to talk to them and you would appreciate it if they informed you when they are free to do so. This gives them a sense of control over the situation that is lost when you don’t give them adequate notice.
Following this step will clearly indicate to them that the topic of the conversation is of a serious nature, giving them the time and space to prepare for it mentally.
Once you’ve stated your intention, it’s OK to let the other person process at their own pace. If there’s no need to have a drawn-out, angst-filled dialogue, don’t. Sometimes, people might have an immediate negative reaction to perceived criticism, but realize their mistake later. Give them the time to right any wrongs they might commit in your conversation.
Mistake 4: Ramping up the drama
All this talk of confrontation and planning a conversation can sound rather serious. In truth, it’s all about making sure that you’re in the right headspace as you navigate territory you may be uncomfortable with. In real life, most everyday conflicts and disagreements can be solved simply and directly. There’s no need for angsty, over-the-top conversations that go on for ages.
If your intention is clear, you should be able to communicate fairly effectively in very little time. Stick to the point and be concise. You may dilute your message by adding in too much detail or explanation. The other person doesn’t need to know all about your personal emotional journey on the road to self-esteem, or why you’ve arrived at this particular boundary, or the insights you’ve had about your childhood. All you need to tell them is your boundary—and a good boundary is short, sweet, and very clear.
If you are unsure of the correct way to express yourself, don’t spend too much time fretting over it. This will increase the likelihood of you not following through, or letting the issue fester for too long to appropriately object to it later. If someone wrongs you, it is advisable to not take too long to approach them about it. You can just express your boundary and an I statement about how its violation made you feel to get your message across in a timely manner.
Mistake 5: Shutting down dialogue
A boundary doesn’t have to be mean or harsh. Just because you are setting a limit, it doesn’t mean that you are closing off the conversation, terminating the relationship, or making any final conclusions about the entire relationship (unless you are, in which case, you’ll have to say so).
If your boundaries are intact and clear, it’s OK to talk things through with the other person. They might like to explain their side of the story, to apologize, to clarify, or ask you questions.
Welcome this dialogue if it’s well-meaning. While you certainly don’t owe anyone an explanation, it goes a long way to show that you are, in fact, open to dialogue. Be careful if you suspect that you may be being talked down or manipulated. But people who have unwittingly violated a boundary may well want to discuss how that happened, defend themselves, and perhaps even share some of their own concerns. Boundaries are there not to shut down relationships, but to allow for better ones.
Show good faith by talking honestly about how you’d like the dynamic to change, as appropriate. That said, if you’re dealing with a truly awful person who has no intention of seeing things from your point of view, remember that you have one more option up your sleeve: just walk away. Forever.