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You’ve done the hard work of getting clear on the energetic, emotional, physical, and interpersonal boundaries that matter most to you, and you have even practiced rolling out your boundaries in your relationships. Congratulations! Everything’s downhill from there, right? Well, it depends.
The frustrating truth about boundary setting is that people don’t tend to like boundaries—especially if they have benefitted from your boundarylessness. Think about it, if your mother, spouse, friend, or whomever has historically gotten what they want by snowplowing you into collapse or submission, it makes sense that they may not particularly enjoy your newfound strength and empowerment inherent in your boundary setting.
This is not a valid reason for you to ditch your boundaries. It is a sign that boundaries are essential in that particular relationship, and that it may take a while for both parties to adapt to the new homeostasis of the dynamic. Some relationships may adapt and evolve in respect toward your new boundaries; others may crumble. Either way, how a person responds to your assertion of boundaries tells you a great deal about the integrity of the relationship and the degree to which the relationship serves you (or doesn’t).
In some cases, it’s easy to simply stop engaging with a person who disrespects, disregards, or even blatantly violates your boundaries. A clean relationship ending like this can feel like a lickity-split solution to a problematic relational dynamic you’ve been unsuccessfully navigating for potentially a long time. In other cases, however (such as toxic family relationships, long-term partnerships, or complex work relationships), the solution may not be quite so smooth and easy. Let’s face it, certain relationships are complicated and nuanced and not so simple to disengage from.
In the case of a relationship of this sort that violates your boundaries, you have three options:
1. Say something. Many among us get anxious about confrontation, but sometimes it’s the best way to go when it comes to handling a person who disrespects boundaries. A direct conversation about your experience of your boundaries being crossed can go a long way, and it can clarify for the other person that you are serious about the boundary you set.
Saying something directly to a person tends to eradicate their chances of claiming that they didn’t know about your boundary. Direct discussion about a boundary can be had with kindness, respect, and honesty, which provides you the peace of mind to know that you delivered and reinforced your boundary with the highest integrity possible. There’s no need to be mean about it, just kindly and respectfully let the other person know that they crossed your line by telling them so.
2. Do something. If direct confrontation isn’t your style (or maybe you tried it and it didn’t work), you can respond to a boundary violater with action (or inaction, in some cases). This may look like removing yourself from a situation where your boundaries are being disregarded, not putting yourself in a situation where you commonly feel snowplowed or sidelined, or including preparations to support you in the event of a boundary crossing.
Using your actions and behaviors to align with your boundary serves to protect, reinforce, and demonstrate your energetic/psychological/emotional/physical edges. Sometimes we don’t need to say anything if we can do something that demonstrates our boundaries nonverbally.
3. Ask for something. In a relationship that has room for collaboration, connection, and attunement, it may be effective to simply ask for the other person to respect your boundary, increase their sensitivity to your needs, or heighten their awareness of your experience. If you ask for something from a meaningful relationship with kindness, respect, and honesty, the other person may be willing to understand that you have a need they can meet by shifting their behaviors/words/actions. Collaborating in this way prioritizes the relationship itself and can reinforce the importance of a reciprocal dynamic where everyone gets their needs met.
If none of these options feel attainable or successful in a relationship, it may be time to ask yourself these following questions:
>> Why do I remain in this relationship, and how does it serve me?
>> Do I have unrealistic expectations or hopes for the quality and purpose of this relationship? Consider if it is filling a void, an obligation, or a perceived need.
>> If this person never changes, how can I make changes within the relationship so that I can feel safer and more aligned with my own needs?
Boundary setting can bring up a lot of emotional charge, so be gentle with yourself during this work. I encourage you to include some form of processing while you work with boundary setting. Some people use art, writing, external processing with a loved one, therapy, or meditation/contemplation.
Clarifying and strengthening your boundaries with others helps you build a trusting relationship with yourself because it allows you to honor your inner needs. It’s okay to continually adjust and redefine your boundaries as you move through time and different relationships, so try not to be too rigid.
Just like a muscle, the more you work on your boundaries, the stronger and more effective they will become.