*Cue terrible ringtone*
My heart started racing and some serious anxiety set in.
I did NOT want to take this call…
The requisite small talk – I disdain small talk – took place. And then, my first mic drop: “You can’t stay with me anymore when you’re in town.”
As I had predicted, he started raging at, gaslighting, and belittling me.
He told me that my memory of the incidents leading to my decision was wrong, accused me of trying to interfere with his relationship with his daughter, and threatened me with consequences (namely that our highly toxic, platonic relationship would further denigrate) for my being so selfish.
I knew that the accusations weren’t true, but I was still shaking like I do when my blood sugar tanks. I was done being a doormat, but standing my ground was hard AF. I dreaded every moment of it.
And then came mic drop #2: “I’m done tolerating your raging. If you won’t talk to me respectfully, I’m going to hang up on you.”
He called back, and I let it go to voicemail. Rinse and repeat.
In a way, I felt victorious – it was one of the first times I’d set such a strong boundary with him – but I was also shaken and drained. And, I knew that I’d have to repeat this process countless times moving forward.
I called my mentor both to share what had happened. She held space for me and helped me regain my center.
Why boundaries are so important
If you want to live life on your own terms, you are going to have to set and enforce boundaries. And, if you are a compassionate person who wants to uplift others, doing this is probably going to be exceptionally hard. At least at first.
Boundaries are guidelines
Boundaries are guidelines for how we allow others to engage with us. Because we each have our own unique lens through which we experience the world, our boundaries will differ.
In the past, my response to my daughter’s father’s raging was to engage. Defend my position. Cry. Yell back. I remember him saying after an incident involving my decision to buy organic groceries: “it’s important to have a good fight sometimes.” His worldview and boundaries were clearly very different from mine – conflict coupled with raging and manipulation appeared to energize him and bring about resolution – but being on the receiving end of these tactics so didn’t work for me.
On that day, I decided that I was no longer okay with being verbally or emotionally abused.
Setting boundaries is a self-esteeming action
When I said “no” to him, I said “yes” to me. At that moment, I took up space and honored myself by deciding that I would no longer tolerate abusive behavior.
We show up for ourselves when we set boundaries, and we acknowledge our right to determine how others treat us. This is a self-esteeming action. Being a doormat is the opposite of a self-esteeming action.
Boundaries in healthy relationships
What boundaries in healthy relationships can look like
In healthy relationships, individuality is respected. When boundaries are imposed, they’re generally accepted without too many consequences.
For (a made-up) example, if my live-in boyfriend and I visit my parents and they expect us to stay in separate bedrooms, we can respect their boundaries in one of two ways: stay in separate bedrooms or get a hotel. They, in turn, can respect our boundaries by accepting whichever choice we make even if they aren’t thrilled by it.
Here’s another (this time, real-life) example. When my wonderful boyfriend and I first moved in together, he once volunteered me to play a game that I didn’t feel like playing with his kids…without asking me first. I can’t recall if I obliged in that moment, but I do recall telling him very firmly that evening to never volunteer me for anything again without first getting my consent. He handled it very well, and we haven’t had a repeat.
Or here’s another (again, a real-life) example. With rare exception, I log out of my (remote) 9-5 job after working 8 hours even though many of my coworkers pull 50+ hour work weeks. And, when I go offline, that includes email and Skype (our instant messaging platform). I report directly to someone in C-Suite and have asked her to text me in the event of very urgent matters. For the record, she’s only text me once in over 1.5 years.
Boundaries in toxic relationships
What boundaries in toxic relationships can look like
In unhealthy relationships, individuality is not respected when it conflicts with another’s (often entitled) position.
Let’s revisit a previous example. If my live-in boyfriend and I visit my parents and they want us to stay in separate bedrooms, we can disrespect their boundaries by refusing to abide by their house rules. Or, if we do respect their boundaries and choose to stay in a hotel, my parents can disrespect ours by responding with anger and manipulation. Either way, there is a lack of mutual respect.
Here’s another example. If my now-former mother-in-law comes over for Thanksgiving dinner and goes into a 45-minute diatribe filled with tears and accusations of us being selfish because we won’t pull my teenage daughter out of her school district to move to the location that my MIL prefers to live in (and can easily move to on her own), she is acting entitled AF. Co-dependent relationships – especially when narcissism is present – are usually oozing with boundary violations like this.
So, what do you do when you need to set boundaries in a toxic relationship?
Here’s my framework for setting boundaries in toxic relationships:
- The boundary that needs to be set
- The reason the boundary needs to be set (note: this is your “why”)
- Your needs
- The degree you’re willing to compromise, if any
- Their response
- How you’ll respond
- Center or ground yourself
- Have a snack (now’s NOT the time to get shaky!)
- Visualize a confident and compassionate delivery
- Stay focused
- Refuse to “take the bait” or go down rabbit holes
- Don’t apologize
- Stick to your “script”
- END THE DISCUSSION WHEN:
- You’re being disrespected, bullied, or gaslighted
- You’re unable to stay calm and collected
- They keep “trying to understand” (but aren’t)
- They act manipulative
- You’re ready to
- Honor your commitment to yourself for claiming space
- Do something to combat the adrenaline or cortisol surge that you’re likely to feel
From my experience, setting boundaries tends to invoke hostile responses from those who are controlling, manipulative, or otherwise feel entitled – regardless of how carefully I’ve constructed my argument. So, I no longer worry about gaining the recipient’s approval.
Instead, when I set boundaries these days, I do so from a place of compassion.
Approaching boundary-setting from a place of compassion means that I’m not doing it to spite them. I never set boundaries in retaliation – I set them because I love and respect myself. And while I’d love it if they’d be okay with my decisions, I’m okay if they aren’t.
For a beautiful, brief synopsis, download My Roadmap To Becoming A Boundary-Setting Goddess.
Boundaries when there is a power imbalance
Power imbalances make boundary-setting all the harder. If it’s your boss, your MIL who’s helping you financially, or your kid’s dad who threatens to take you to court, I feel for you. And, know that I’ve been there.
The simple fact is that you’re going to have to make some tough decisions. When it came to my boss (who, for the record, is a wonderful human), I was fortunate in that she respected my logging-off-at-five boundary without question. But had she expected me to be on call until 10pm or regularly work a lot of overtime, I wouldn’t have made it there long. It was a little nerve-wracking at first, especially when everyone around seemed to always be working late, since I needed the job and didn’t know how things were going to play out. But, I’m grateful that I took the risk that I did!
In the case of my daughter’s father who took me to court, I set the critical boundary of requiring every communication (aside from our time in the courtroom or mediation) to occur via email or text. Having documentation of our discussions made it easier to counter his gaslighting and reduced the whole he-said-she-said dynamic.
When it came to my former mother-in-law who had given us financial support, I was always careful to ensure that there weren’t any strings attached to the support she offered. When she inevitably wasn’t happy with the decisions my then-husband and I jointly made, she’d adopt a martyr’s persona. Usually, my then-husband would try to get her to see how manipulative she was being while I’d just leave the room. Manipulation and other narcissistic responses to someone not getting their way do not require any further engagement from you. You can leave without being unkind or uncompassionate – just do it without anger or spite and in the spirit of honoring your boundaries.
Again, it can be tricky setting boundaries when power imbalances apply. Unfortunately, I don’t have a one-size-fits-all approach in these cases. And, while I’m not suggesting that you tolerate unacceptable behavior, I do recognize that there may be some situations where you’re best choice is to go along for the ride short-term while you develop your plan B. But please be careful if you’re tempted by the thinking that you can always retract a loose boundary later. Of course you can, but the fallout may be greater than if you’d just set the boundary from the beginning.
How to deal with objections
So, you’ve decided what boundaries to set and have summoned the nerve to communicate them.
YOU ARE A FREAKING ROCKSTAR!!! It can take a shit ton of courage to do this.
But, now come the objections. Maybe you
- Feel guilty.
- Get gaslighted (your version of reality is questioned so as to make you wrong).
- Are manipulated (they’re the “real” victim here).
- Get accused of being selfish.
My secret for dealing with objections is….*DRUMROLL*…I don’t.
I mean, I used to. I’d try to explain my rationale over and over and over again, thinking that if I only explained my perspective better they’d come to appreciate or at least understand it. Guess what? They never did.
Some people are master manipulators and will do everything in their power to wear you down. They’ll “try to understand” but that’s code for them looking for an opportunity to shred your argument.
Here’s the thing – you’ve gotta remember WHY you are setting boundaries with this person in the first place. There’s been a violation of some kind that needs to be addressed. DO NOT LET ANYONE TURN THE TABLES ON YOU. I could write a whole book on this (maybe I will!). Please, always go back to your “why.”
You’re not naive – you know that there’ll be consequences when you set boundaries. Here’s how I’ve handled these common scenarios:
- When they rage or become verbally abusive…I 100% disengage (if my safety was threatened, I’d do whatever was necessary to protect it).
- When they give me the silent treatment…I let them.
- When they unfriend me or turn others against me…maybe I address the latter, or maybe I’m grateful for being released from so much drama.
- When they otherwise don’t handle it well…I disengage, but from a place of compassion.
- When they lack integrity…I limit our interactions to the virtual realm or eliminate them altogether.
How to get others to respect your boundaries
Here’s the deal. You can’t force anyone to do anything. Any sense of control that you may feel over another person is truly just an illusion.
What you can do (in case I haven’t been clear!) is to refuse to engage with and even set consequences for those who violate your boundaries.
For example, if your MIL comes over without warning after being told that she needs to stop doing that, try:
- Not letting her in and reminding her what your rules for visits are.
- Changing your locks (if she has a key).
- Letting her in but then going about your business.
I can’t begin to anticipate the specific scenarios you’ll be contending with, but that’s okay. Setting boundaries is super challenging, although it can be gratifying. At the end of the day, you’ll need to summon the courage to do what is necessary.
Please don’t half-ass this! You owe it to yourself to truly own your life. And, if you’re compromising that which is most important to you in an effort to keep the peace, you are doing yourself (and quite possibly the world) a terrible disservice.
If this post hit a nerve with you or inspired you to take action, please (1) comment below, (2) share it with someone who needs to read it (we all know someone like this, right?!), and (3) download My Roadmap To Becoming A Boundary-Setting Goddess. It’s brief. It’s beautiful. And, it’s free!