Personal boundaries are limits you set for yourself that define what you will or will not be a part of. You cannot meet everyone’s needs, so boundaries identify your limits to yourself and others. They protect you physically, emotionally, and mentally and allow you to be yourself.
So what do you do when your boundaries are violated?
How do you know when a boundary is violated?
Personal boundaries can evolve over time, and sometimes you may not be aware yet that a violation is happening. Here are some clues that someone may be violating your boundaries:
- You feel unsafe in a certain situation or around a particular person.
- You feel resentment about things you do for the person, even if you offered to do them.
- A certain behavior makes you uncomfortable, or angry or evokes other negative emotions.
- The relationship feels like an obligation, or you feel drained after interacting with the person.
- You think your needs don’t matter as much as the other person’s needs.
Define your boundaries
If you suspect a boundary is being violated but don’t know how, take some time to think about what specific behavior is causing you discomfort. If you have a hard time pinpointing the problem, here are a few things to try that might help:
- Listen to your feelings without judging them.
- Give yourself permission to set boundaries. It’s not selfish to communicate your limits.
- Start with something small, then work your way toward larger boundaries.
- Discuss the issue with someone you trust, like a friend, family member, or therapist.
Communicate your boundaries
If you’re in physical danger, you should do everything possible to protect yourself – remove yourself from the situation and get to safety.
For boundary violations that don’t immediately put your physical safety at risk, but you don’t feel safe talking to the person for fear of physical or verbal retaliation, talk to someone you trust and ask them for help.
If it is safe to talk to the boundary violator, you can use the 7-step “DEARMAN” approach to communicating your boundary:
- DESCRIBE just the facts of the specific situation that you are reacting to.
- EXPRESS your feelings about the situation. Don’t assume that they already know.
- ASSERT yourself by clearly stating what you don’t want or asking for what you do want. It may seem obvious to you, but remember that others cannot read your mind.
- REINFORCE (or reward) the boundary by explaining the positive effects of getting what you want or need. If you need to, also clarify the negative consequences of not getting it.
- Be MINDFUL of your goal during the conversation. Don’t get pulled off-topic, and don’t back down, even if they tell you to “calm down” or “lighten up.” Ignore verbal threats, negative comments, or attempts to change the subject. Speak like a broken record and keep asking for what you want, or say “no” and continue to state your opinion over and over again.
- APPEAR confident and competent. Sit or stand up straight, speak clearly, and make eye contact.
- NEGOTIATE an outcome that works for both of you. Say no, but ask for other possible solutions to the problem that meet both your needs and the needs of the other person.
Some boundaries should be nonnegotiable, which means they’re not open for discussion or compromise. Examples of these include boundaries against physical violence, emotional abuse, and forced or pressured sexual intimacy. It’s very important to enforce these boundaries if someone is not respecting them.
If you’ve communicated a boundary and the person violates it again, remind them what you agreed on. If they continue to violate the boundary, set and enforce consequences for the behavior. When choosing consequences, remember that your goal is to protect yourself, not retaliate against or punish the other person, so some examples might be removing yourself from a situation, making yourself less available, or not responding to certain things.
Boundary violations are bound to happen in most kinds of relationships, but some people will not respect your boundaries no matter what you say or do. In these instances, it may be best to end the relationship or restrict your contact as much as you can. It may be difficult or painful to do, but honoring your needs and limitations will be much healthier for both you and the other person in the long run.