*Cue terrible ringtone circa 2006(ish).*
My heart started racing and massive anxiety set in.
I did NOT want to take this call…
The requisite small talk – I disdain small talk – took place. And then, mic drop #1: “You can’t stay with me anymore when you’re in town.”
As predicted, the raging, gaslighting, and belittling ensued.
I was told that my memory of the incidents leading to my decision was wrong, accused of trying to interfere with another’s relationship, and threatened with consequences for being 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 freaking hard AF. I HATED IT.
“I’m done tolerating your raging. If you won’t talk to me respectfully, I’m going to hang up on you.”
Called back, went to voicemail. Rinse and repeat.
I was victorious but shaken and drained. I was also aware that I’d have to repeat this process countless times moving forward. I called my mentor, who helped me to regain my center. She was proud of the progress I’d made.
Why boundaries are so important
If you want to live life on your 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 going to be exceptionally hard. At least at first.
Boundaries are guidelines
Boundaries are guidelines for how others engage with you. Because each of us has our own unique lens through which we experience the world, our boundaries are going to differ.
In the past, my response to this person’s raging was to engage. Defend my position. Cry. Yell back. I remember him saying after another raging incident: “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 energized him and brought him resolution – but being belittled doesn’t work for me.
Mic drop #2: I’m no longer okay with being verbally or emotionally abused. IT ENDS HERE.
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(ish) relationships
What boundaries in healthy relationships can look like
In healthy(ish) relationships, individuality is respected. When boundaries are imposed, they’re generally accepted without too many consequences.
For example, if my live-in boyfriend and I visit my parents and they want 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.
Or here’s a real-life example. My boyfriend loves taking his kids to hotels for staycations while I don’t. Early in our relationship I’d go when invited but as I got more comfortable, I started declining his invites. While he’d have preferred me to go, he respected my boundaries and never gave me shit about it.
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 insisting that we’re going to be sharing a bedroom (we feel entitled to make our own rules in their home). 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 (they feel entitled to force their conservative beliefs on us even when we’ve identified reasonable alternative accommodations). Either way, there is a lack of mutual respect.
Here’s another example. If my (former) mother-in-law comes over for Thanksgiving dinner and goes into a 45-minute diatribe filled with crocodile tears and accusations of us being selfish because we won’t pull my daughter out of her school district to move to the town that my MIL prefers to live in (which she is free to 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 process* for setting boundaries in toxic relationships:
- Recognize the issue or problem.
- Identify my needs and the potential for us to reach common ground.
- Decide in advance what my “rock bottom best offer” is (if applicable).
- Anticipate their response and whether I’ll choose to engage.
- Center myself and have a snack if it’s been more than two hours or so since I’ve last eaten (gotta keep my blood sugar stable when I’m going into a stressful environment).
- Visualize confidently delivering the news from a place of compassion.
- Deliver the news without apology and “stick to the script.”
- Refuse to “take the bait,” go down rabbit holes, or agree to anything that isn’t in “the script.”
- Be okay with not reaching mutual agreement and/or them being pissed at me.
- Refuse to re-explain the same thing over a bazillion times so that they can “better understand” where I’m coming from (they probably never will and are most likely just trying to find holes in my reasoning).
- End the discussion if I’m unable to remain calm and collected.
- Remind myself that I don’t need their approval, understanding, or acceptance.
*So the reality is that I don’t actually check things off a list when setting boundaries. But, in evaluating what’s worked for me, I’ve identified the above.
From my experience, setting boundaries tends to invoke hostile responses mostly from those who are controlling, manipulative, or feel entitled. I’ve come to feel compassion towards them because it’s very distressing to have your world turned upside down (no matter how justified I may be in setting boundaries with them).
Approaching boundary-setting from a place of compassion means that I’m not doing this 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.
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.
You will have to make some hard decisions. When it came to my boss, I swallowed my pride and adopted a growth mindset. I also logged off completely after my eight hours were up and refused to check my email or work messaging app until the next morning. Only you can know what will work in your situation. In my case, had my boss expected me to work 60-hr weeks, I would have been job-hunting STAT! Luckily, there was no expectation of this.
In the case of an ex who took me to court, I set the critical boundary of requiring every communication (aside from court dates or mediation or the like) to occur via email or text. Having documentation of a discussion rather than relying on a “he said, she said” thing kept me sane when my recollection was challenged.
Unfortunately, I do not have a one-size-fits-all approach to setting boundaries when power imbalances apply. This doesn’t mean that you should tolerate BS, but it does mean that you’ll need to decide whether raising hell is worth it.
How to deal with objections
You’ve decided what boundaries to set and have summoned the nerve to articulate them.
YOU ARE A ROCKSTAR!!! It takes 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 victim and it’s you who’s the real problem).
- 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 understand. 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 book on this (maybe I will!). Please, always go back to your “why.”
You’re not naiïve – you know that there’ll be consequences when you set and enforce boundaries. Here is how I’ve handled the following scenarios:
- When they rage or become verbally abusive…I 100% disengage (if my safety was threatened, I’d do whatever’s 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 when someone violates 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 as though she wasn’t there (if doing so doesn’t put you out).
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 and share it with someone who needs to read it (we ALL know someone like this, right?!), and (2) download my simple AF 3-step process for changing your state ASAP (because setting boundaries is unpleasant). I’ll probably revise this post again and again based on your comments or questions because it’s that important.