This leads nicely to the obvious question: What are you for then, if not to fulfill the selfish needs of someone who doesn’t care about you? You cannot answer this question without understanding your own identity, needs, rights, values, and desires. An enormous part of the problem in abusive or unhealthy relationships is the “victim’s” hidden agreement to continue to allow themselves to be used in that way. Focused on the abuser’s needs and wants, their own needs and wants are invisible, and they never have the chance to step up and experience themselves and their unique agency.
Enmeshed, damaged, or confused boundaries are those in which it is not at all clear what belongs to whom—a person feels as though they are to blame for the other’s actions, another feels that their partner is responsible for making them happy, and nobody knows quite where one ends and the other begins. To start to unpick this mess, it’s necessary to slow down and start looking carefully at the individuals in a dynamic.
What are everyone else’s needs?
And what are your needs?
What is your partner entitled to?
And what are your rights?
People with poor boundaries will often forget to include themselves in the equation. They may spend their entire lives wondering why their partner does this or that, what their partner is thinking, what they want, what they mean, what they need, how to fix them, how to make them happy. They become their partner’s cheerleader, or therapist, or ATM, or parent, or police officer... it can start to feel like the relationship is just one person, with a less important helper who is merely there to facilitate! When you include your own needs and desires into the equation, however, you can start balancing things and moving your relationship towards a healthy, mature, and respectful equilibrium.
What happens after you assert your boundaries? This is important. Some people will respect and honor them. If you’ve identified, clarified, and communicated your boundaries loudly and clearly, you may feel better, but still find yourself faced with a person who simply does not agree with your new idea of being just as valuable as they are! Now what?
The scary truth is this: we cannot make a person respect our boundaries because we cannot make a person do anything. This is what many boundary-pushers don’t ever understand: people are not meant to be controlled. We cannot make someone respect, or love, or value us. But we can always respect and love and value ourselves, and we can always choose what we do.
Sometimes, in relationships, a frustrated partner will issue a harsh ultimatum, but go back on it when the other half refuses to capitulate. The misunderstanding is that an ultimatum is a way to control what another person does. But it isn’t—it’s a way to clarify and state what you will do.
So, to answer the question of what to do when people violate your boundaries: it’s up to you.
It’s your decision to make, but the following questions can help you narrow down to the best course of action.
Question 1: Is there some wiggle room on this boundary, and could you compromise, sacrifice, or let it go?
Healthy relationships require some level of compromise. Nobody gets what they want 100% of the time, at least not in a world shared by others. Is the boundary that’s been crossed a nonnegotiable one, or are you happy to bend it a little to accommodate the other person for the sake of the relationship?
Importantly, the question is, are you happy to compromise? Not, do you feel guilty and coerced into compromising? You might be willing to make an exception if the benefits are greater than the losses of letting it slide. But be careful—it has to be something you’re truly willing to do. Being a martyr who unconsciously expects that relinquishing their own needs entitles them to extra care later down the line is simply another form of manipulation.
Question 2: Can you identify a pattern of behavior?
A person pressing at a boundary could be doing so innocently, and may immediately stop if you let them know the boundary is there and why it exists. Someone may even make the same mistake another time in error. But do you find yourself repeatedly setting the same boundary? It may be a sign that you haven’t actually followed through.
It’s uncomfortable to admit, but oftentimes when people frequently dismiss our boundaries, it’s because we ourselves don’t take them all that seriously. It might be helpful to write down any boundary violations and keep a record of them. This is to keep clear and focused, and also to identify patterns. If you constantly tell people that they aren’t allowed to do XYZ but there are no real consequences for them doing XYZ, they will only continue to do XYZ. A one-off occurrence can be forgiven; a pattern more strongly suggests that you need to follow through and respect your own boundary before expecting others to.
Keep in mind that not all boundary violations deserve the same reaction. Some boundaries are essential to our well-being, while others are more flexible. Reacting too strongly to some violations might not be appropriate and can sour important relationships in your life. At the same time, be firm about boundaries that have been violated repeatedly in communicating them, as well as enforcing any remedial measures.
Question 3: Is this person actually capable of respecting your boundaries?
It doesn’t matter how legitimate your boundaries are, how well you communicate them, or how many second chances you give. Some people simply do not want to respect you, and probably never will. This can be extremely hard to swallow, especially if you’re a kind and loving person yourself. But it’s a little like repeatedly trying to have a civilized conversation with a ravenous lion, hoping time after time that it will stop trying to eat you.
Unfortunately, you might discover that the people you value most fit into this category. However, someone's importance in your life does not make their bad behavior less or more justifiable. If a friend, partner, parent, or relative has consistently shown an unwillingness to respect your boundaries, it is time to distance yourself from them physically and emotionally.
Question 4: How would you feel if you were to limit contact with this person or situation?
If you’re not willing to compromise, if there is a repeated pattern of disrespect, and if the person can’t or won’t change, then you can start thinking of ways to minimize your exposure. Choosing to remain in a denigrating situation is, in a way, an act of self-abuse. It’s true that we can’t always run away from harmful people (for example, if they’re our bosses or our parents), but we always have the choice to moderate our interactions.
We can look for another job, move out, or manage our time and personal space in such a way as to minimize contact. It may be a long and somewhat uncomfortable process to untangle ourselves from dynamics that have taken years to set up, but it can be done, and it starts with you remembering that you have a right to say “no.”
Limiting contact is something that people see as harsh and unjustifiable. This is especially true when it comes to family, who might criticize you for your decision. Alternatively, singling out that one friend in your group for violating your boundaries might result in you being pressured to patch up the friendship. Regardless of the incentive to work things out, not all relationships or friendships can be fixed, and a clean break could be the best option for your mental health. You don’t have to explain your decision to anyone. Consciously removing yourself from a damaging situation is not a punishment, an act of revenge, or a way to manipulate the other person into treating you better. When you walk away or limit contact, make sure you’re doing it for you, and really mean it, understanding exactly why you need to do it.
If you feel bogged down by guilt, try to frame cutting down contact as a positive gesture. You are not shutting down, closing off, or running away from others, but rather opening up to them, listening to yourself, and respecting yourself and your own needs. Many people will frame minimizing contact as a zero-sum thing—that if you are kind to yourself it means that you must necessarily be mean to someone else. This is a lie. It’s not always easy to practice self-care and to show ourselves the love we deserve, but we can do it, even if others don’t like it.
The important thing to remember as you ask yourself these questions is that you always, always have choices. Sometimes, there may not be many of them, and sometimes, we may not like the choices we have. But as adults who are responsible for our own well-being, we can choose. The truth is that enforcing boundaries is easy. It’s not hard to know that we don’t like being mistreated. Then, why is it so difficult to manage boundaries? This brings us to a final, perhaps most difficult question:
Question 5: In what ways are you enabling the violation of your boundaries?
You are never to blame for someone mistreating you. However, if most of us are honest, sometimes the biggest impediment to us leaving a consistently toxic situation is not the other person—it’s us. We quietly agree to their assessment that our boundaries are really not worth respecting. By staying, we unconsciously communicate that we agree with their low assessment of our value.
Maybe we are afraid of causing offense, or we are afraid of losing the relationship, even if it is a terrible one. Maybe we are afraid that poor treatment is all that we deserve and all that we’ll ever find. Maybe we can’t stand the thought of conflict or of another person disliking us. This is where the distinction between blaming ourselves and being responsible for how others treat us becomes important. Ultimately, nobody can mistreat us without our implicit permission. While the lack of an objection does not imply consent, this is a somewhat convenient way to escape responsibility for our lives.
This does not mean that we should beat ourselves up and wallow in guilt, but it does demand that we hold ourselves accountable for what happens to us. Once we assume this responsibility, it empowers us to recognize our agency and exercise control over our relations with others.
Rather than allowing our fears to control our behavior, though, we need to bring them out into the open, examine them, and dismantle them. What are the underlying beliefs? “I’m not worth good treatment;” “People will only love me if I sacrifice myself entirely;” “It’s impossible for me to be alone;” “My job is to please people all the time, or else I’m worthless,” and so on. Do you really want these (frankly incorrect) assumptions to sit at your core, driving all of your decisions? Or, would you rather be your own friend and ally and act in your best interests, knowing that you are and have always been worth happiness and love?
The Boundary Habit
Checking in on the state of your own identity and self-esteem and the state of your relationships is not something that you do once and never again. Healthy boundaries arise naturally as a consequence of how we feel about ourselves. The work we’ve been speaking about in this book concerns boundaries, but at its core it’s not about how others do or do not treat us. It’s about our attitudes to ourselves; how much we love and respect ourselves; how much we are willing to care for ourselves, to give ourselves what we need, to protect ourselves from what is damaging, to honor our own voice when we hear it.
Difficult boundaries with others point to a deeper relationship problem: the one we have with ourselves. If you truly and deeply know in your bones that you are a human being with inviolable value and rights, you will conduct yourself in the world in a way that inspires others to mirror the same back to you.
When we work on boundary issues, we can work at different levels. We can look at the individual situations or people involved in everyday life and work to manage them on a superficial level. We can also sink deeper and ask ourselves with more focus what our boundaries are and how we can have better ones. But we can sink even deeper and work at the level of our own self-esteem. This is the work that we do when we release those harmful negative beliefs that tell us we are worthless and unlovable.
As you read through this book, you may have noticed invitations to tackle your own boundary issues at different levels. You could have a heartfelt discussion with an intrusive friend, or simply avoid her, or you could start a boundaries journal and work on literal phrasing to use when politely saying “no.” You could start every morning with an affirmation or prayer to re-affirm your self-love and right to respect and dignity. You could wake up every morning and tell yourself, “What I want and who I am matters.”
All of these approaches will work, and they will mutually support one another. The more you can practically assert your boundaries in the real world, the more confident you’ll feel, and the easier it will become to set those boundaries. You can set up healthy feedback loops, welcoming into your life those people who agree to treat you with love and respect and gradually saying goodbye to those who don’t. It’s work that cannot be rushed or faked, and it often comes in fits and starts. It’s work that no one else can do for you, but it may be the most important work that you ever do!