You need to set a boundary. You know this. You also know, at least cognitively, that you cannot change another person. But that doesn’t mean that you have to accept their disrespectful or inappropriate behavior. Instead, you can teach them how they are and are not allowed to treat you.
So you prepare yourself for this. You say:
- “My mom has to stop making comments about my weight.”
- “My coworker at the next cubicle has to stop playing loud music while I’m trying to work.”
- “My friend has to call before coming over.”
- “My spouse has to put their dirty socks in the hamper.”
- “My brother has to stop telling embarrassing stories about me.”
And you take a deep breath, and you express your need. You’re proud of yourself, because you’ve been trying to muster the courage to do this for a very long time.
But then something unexpected happens: It blows up in your face. It completely backfires. And you’re sitting there, blindsided, wishing you’d never opened the can of worms, wishing you’d just swallowed your need, feeling like you’ve created another mess you need to clean up.
I think this happens to people a lot because they carry the unrealistic expectation that as soon as they decide to be courageous enough to confront someone, that person will be ready to hear what they have to say. But setting boundaries challenges existing dynamics, and people are resistant to a change in the status quo. So there are some considerations to take into account.
Here are 5 things to expect and understand when setting a boundary:
1. Effective boundary setting requires you to be generous in your assumptions.
When setting boundaries, it’s easy to think that the behavior that’s upsetting you is intended to do so. If you maintain that mindset, though, you’re bound to get angry.
Conversely, it’s best to assume everyone is doing the best they can. In other words, what is the most generous assumption you can make about the other person’s motives? Let’s look at the examples from earlier:
- “My mom has to stop making comments about my weight.” – Maybe your mother wants to help you avoid the diabetes that runs in your family and thinks that if she badgers you about your decision to have dessert, you’ll be healthier.
- “My coworker at the next cubicle has to stop playing loud music while I’m trying to work.” – Maybe your coworker thinks music livens up the office and isn’t distracted by it.
- “My friend has to call before coming over.” – Maybe your friend thinks spontaneity is the spice of life and that they’re giving you joy by surprising you.
- “My spouse has to put their dirty socks in the hamper.” – Maybe your spouse is being absent-minded rather than deliberately disrespectful.
- “My brother has to stop telling embarrassing stories about me.” – Maybe your brother thinks that, like him, you view the stories as funny anecdotes rather than mortifying tales.
Even if these things are true, that doesn’t invalidate your feelings. You’re still allowed to set the boundary, and your emotions are still valid. But if you consider another person to be misguided, you will approach them differently than if you assume they are being malicious.
Taking this into consideration, own your feelings, maintain your integrity, and assert your need while maintaining compassion.
If you need some more help about how to do this, here are two other articles I’ve written that speak to this:
- “The Story I’m Telling Myself”: A Phrase to Improve Your Relationships
- What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate
2. When you set a boundary, expect some pushback and maybe some anger.
If you go to the same restaurant for lunch every Thursday and order a Cobb salad, you probably do this because you like that particular restaurant’s Cobb salad. It tastes good, it’s dependable, and it’s part of your routine. How would you feel if you showed up one week and, after years of this routine, the server told you they were no longer making the Cobb salad?
You might feel angry, or at very least a bit discombobulated. You might ask if the kitchen can make the salad even though it’s no longer on the menu. When told they’re not able to do that, you’d probably browse the menu for something else to order, and begrudgingly choose a substitute. You might wonder why no one warned you that your salad was being removed from the menu. When your new meal came, you might feel that it didn’t live up to your expectations. You might ask to speak to a manager. You might consider going to a completely different restaurant on future Thursdays.
Life changes are a grief process. They involve a period of adjustment, and a lot of emotions in the interim. While most people wouldn’t grieve the loss of a salad for very long, boundaries – which involve a change in a relationship dynamic – elicit feelings. Often the first feeling is anger.
“Mom, I know you mean well, but I really need you to stop commenting on my weight. It makes me feel terrible and judged.”
“What? Me? I’m just worried about you. Honestly, you’re so sensitive and unappreciative. I carried you in my womb for 9 months, and this is how you thank me – by being ungrateful and critical?!”
While a person is less likely to react to a boundary with anger when you approach them in an assertive and compassionate way, it doesn’t eliminate the possibility. This is a normal part of the boundary setting process, and it’s something that’s good to be prepared for.
3. You will probably need to reassert your boundaries, maybe repeatedly.
A lot of people think that once they’ve set a boundary, they can check the item off their to do list and move forward, but that’s not always how it works. Sometimes after you’ve set a boundary, a person does exactly the opposite of what you’ve asked.
It’s hard to remain compassionate, assertive, and generous when you’ve asked someone to do something and they have seemingly ignored you. Our gut sends us a lot of angry messages when this happens:
“Maybe before he didn’t know this was important, but now he definitely does. He doesn’t care about my feelings. He’s not even trying. Maybe I was too calm. Maybe if I yell at him, he’ll be more respectful.”
But here are some other reasons a person might not be respecting the boundary you’ve tried to set:
You had a miscommunication. You thought you were very clear in what you asked when you set the boundary, but the other person heard you ask for something much more narrow. I once asked someone to give me some space and not contact me, but they thought I asked them not to post things to my Facebook wall.
They forgot. Old habits die hard. Maybe that conversation left an indelible imprint in your mind, but for whatever reason, it didn’t stick in their brain long enough to lead to significant behavioral change.
They didn’t realize how serious you were. And this could be related to your feeling of not wanting to be pushy. Perhaps you tried to add some levity while you were setting the boundary, or maybe you led with “it’s not a big deal, but…” And these things can be a good tactic for gently broaching a difficult topic, but if the person you’re confronting doesn’t take you seriously because of them, you might need to double down with a little bit more serious when you reassert yourself.
They didn’t generalize what you asked them for to other situations. You say, “honey, can you please make sure you pick up your socks instead of leaving them on the floor?” What you mean is, “honey, can you please make sure you pick up your dirty laundry instead of leaving it on the floor?” But your partner may start to pick up their socks, but not think twice about their dirty t-shirt.
They thought your request was time-limited. It’s possible they think that you were setting a boundary to make a point, but now that it’s been a few days or weeks or months, maybe you’ve stopped caring. And the person thinks, “well, let me just test the waters and see if this is still important.”
When you consider these possibilities (and others – this list isn’t comprehensive), it’s easier to ask for the same thing a second or third time without feeling angry that you have to do so. But it’s still frustrating. You might consider letting it go and not reasserting the boundary at all.
But it’s an important thing to do. It’s important for all the same reasons that it’s important to be assertive and set boundaries in the first place. If you let it go, it will fester resentment, and the person you’ve tried to set boundaries with will likely not realize that anything is wrong. You may need to reassert a boundary two or three times before you’re truly heard.
4. There is a difference between setting boundaries and erecting walls.
A boundary, in short, is a clear directive that separates the kind of behavior you’ll tolerate and the kind of behavior you won’t. If you draw a line in the sand and say, “don’t cross this line,” you have created a clear (and very literal) boundary. Someone can still physically walk across the line, but you have expressed your needs and set a limit.
A wall is when you close yourself off completely. It’s shutting down and not letting a person in. It’s something we do for self-protection because we’ve been burned, but it’s ultimately a barrier to connection.
In short, the difference between a boundary and a wall is the same as the difference between communicating passive-aggressively and communicating assertively. When you build a wall, you think you’re sending a message, but you’re just shutting yourself off. When you set a boundary, the message you send is “I value our relationship too much to let my anger about this continue to build past the point of no return.”
5. There’s a fine but important line between a boundary and an ultimatum.
Sometimes boundaries involve escalating consequences. Here’s what that might look like:
The first time: “Hey coworker, can you please not play music? It makes it really hard for me to focus on my work.”
The second time: “Hey coworker, remember last week when I asked you not to play music? I really appreciated that you didn’t do that for a few days because it made it easier for me to be more productive… but today you’re playing it again and it’s hard for me to get stuff done. Do you mind turning the music off?”
The third time: “Hey coworker, we’ve talked a few times about the music being distracting, and I really need you to turn it off so I can focus on my work. I don’t want to be a jerk, but if this isn’t something you can do for me on your own, I might need to involve management. I don’t want to do that… can you please help me out by using some headphones so that we can keep this between us?”
The fourth time: “Hey coworker, we’ve talked about this a lot, and you’re still playing the music. If this happens again, I think I’m going to have to talk to our supervisor.”
The fifth time: You speak to your supervisor rather than trying to reassert the boundary.
In that boundary-setting context, you might have noticed that there is, eventually, an ultimatum. When you set boundaries and they’re repeatedly ignored, the other person is telling you that they want to engage you in a power struggle. And how do you extricate yourself from a power struggle? You provide choices: “you can do this, or you can do this.” (In this example, you can turn off the music, or you can deal with the consequences of my involving a manager.)
When you set a boundary, you don’t jump right to an ultimatum. You generally start by gently but firmly asking for what you need. The implicit message is, “this isn’t about who has the power; it’s about my telling you that I need you to make a change in order to improve the quality of our relationship.”
When you’re setting healthy boundaries, you’re not looking for a power struggle or a fight. Conversely, you’re looking to get your needs met and maintain your integrity while also acknowledging that the other person has needs. When someone responds by turning the boundary setting attempt into a power game, you may choose to set an ultimatum (see “the fourth time”) in order to get your needs met. But the intention isn’t a power play.
Hopefully these often-ignored ideas about boundary-setting can help you have realistic expectations the next time you need to set a boundary with someone in your life.