You can’t make people respect your boundaries.
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.
You options generally boil down to:
- Limiting contact
- Avoiding being alone with the person
- Emotionally detaching
- Asking someone else to help you
- Ending the relationship
There isn’t a one-size fits all answer to the question. First, let’s consider a few of the variables:
- 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 you’re a child, you must ask an adult for help. Reach out to an adult at school or church, a friend’s 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 overestimate the strength of their boundaries. It’s understandable that sometimes you back down, feel tired, overwhelmed, or scared and don’t follow through with your boundaries. Just like setting rules with children, boundaries don’t work when they are only enforced some of the time. Boundaries need to be especially clear and consistent when you’re dealing with someone who doesn’t respect you. Such a person is looking for holes in your boundaries and using them against you. So, be sure you’re 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 your feel ashamed or in any way badly 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 you’re slipping up, you can offer yourself both self-compassion and accountability.
Now, onto the original question of what to do when someone continues to violate your boundaries.
- Continue to set strong, consistent boundaries. I know this is obvious and redundant. However, this is the part that you control. You don’t control how people respond and you can’t 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 aren’t 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 you’ll accept and what you won’t. 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 wouldn’t 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 he’d slapped her once. This is far beyond what she thought she’d 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 we’d like to be able to force people to respect our boundaries. I know it’s 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 doesn’t respect your boundaries. But you can’t change someone else’s 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. Don’t 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 doesn’t 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. Let’s imagine that you’re living with Great Uncle Johnny while you go to school in San Francisco and there’s 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 what’s 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 person’s 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 you’ve 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. It’s not healthy to stay in contact with someone who causes you harm in order to make someone else happy. Don’t continue living at Great Uncle Johnny’s because your Dad says you’re over-reacting and “that’s just how Johnny is”. Maybe your Dad has a perfectly respectful and pleasant relationship with Uncle Johnny. Or maybe he’s oblivious to how Uncle Johnny treats you. There are infinite reasons for your Dad to say this. The point is, it doesn’t 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, it’s much easier to detach or walk away from someone you don’t love deeply. It’s 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 don’t love and respect yourself, others won’t 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 don’t follow through, they’re telling you they don’t intend on changing. You are once again faced with needing to decide if it’s 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 couldn’t 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 day care 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.
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