We all have them…those hurtful, frustrating, offensive, manipulative people in our lives. No matter how hard we try to surround ourselves with positive and kind people, there will always be those who will disrespect, insult, berate, and misuse you if we allow them to. We may, for a variety of reasons, not be able to avoid them, but we can determine how we interact with them and how we allow them to interact with us. Learning to set clear firm boundaries with the people in our lives at work and in our personal lives is the best way to protect ourselves from the negative effects of this kind of behavior.

What boundaries are…and what they’re not

  • Boundaries are limits. They are not threats or ultimatums.
  • Boundaries inform or teach. They are not a form of punishment.
  • Boundaries are firm lines – determined by you – which cannot be crossed by those around you. They are guidelines for how you will allow others to treat you and what kind of behaviors you will expect. Healthy personal boundaries help protect you from physical, or emotional pain. You may also need to set firm boundaries at work to ensure you and your time are not disrespected. Don’t allow others to take advantage of your kindness and generosity.
  • Clear boundaries communicate to others that you demand respect and consideration, that you are willing to stand up for yourself and that you will not be a doormat for anyone. They are a no trespassing sign that makes it very clear when a line has been crossed and that there will be consequences for doing so.
  • Boundaries are not set with the intention of changing other people. They may change how people interact with you, but they are more about enforcing your needs than attempting to change the general behavior and attitude of others.

How to establish boundaries

Self-awareness comes first. Before you can establish boundaries with others you first need to understand what your needs are. You are entitled to respect. You have the right to protect yourself and to from inappropriate or offensive behavior. Setting boundaries is a way of honoring your needs.

In order to set appropriate boundaries you need to be clear about what healthy behavior looks like, what healthy relationships look like. You first have to become more aware of your feelings and honest with yourself about your expectations and what you feel is appropriate behavior.

  • Where do you need to establish better boundaries?
  • When do you feel disrespected?
  • When do you feel violated, frustrated, or angered by the behavior of others?
  • In what situations do you feel you are being mistreated or taken advantage of?
  • When do you want to be alone?
  • How much space do you need?

You need to honor your own needs and boundaries before you can expect others to honor them.

Clear communication is essential. Inform others in a clear and direct manner what your expectations are. Explain in an honest and respectful tone what you find offensive or unacceptable. Many people simply aren’t aware that they are behaving in an inappropriate way. They may never have been taught proper manners or consideration for others.

Be specific, but don’t blame. Taking a blaming or punishing attitude automatically puts people on the defensive. People will not listen when they feel attacked. It’s part of human nature. That said, you do not need to over explain or defend yourself. Boundaries are not open to compromise.

Sample language:

  • “You may not…yell or raise your voice to me…”
  • “I need…to be treated with respect…”
  • “It’s not okay when…you take things from my desk without asking…”
  • “I won’t…do your work…cover for you anymore…”
  • “It’s not acceptable when…you ridicule or insult me…”
  • “I am uncomfortable when…you use offensive language”
  • “I will no longer be able to…lend you money…”

Consequences are often necessary. Determine what the appropriate consequences will be when boundaries are crossed. If it’s appropriate, be clear about those consequences upfront when communicating those boundaries to others. Follow through. People won’t respect your boundaries if you don’t enforce them.

Standing our ground and forcing consequences doesn’t come easily to us. We want to be nice. We want people to like us. But, we shouldn’t have to trade our self-respect to gain friends or to achieve success. We may be tempted to let minor disrespect slide in order to avoid conflict, but as the familiar saying goes, “if you give people an inch, they’ll take a mile.” It’s much easier to address offensive or inappropriate behavior now than to wait until that behavior has gotten completely out of hand.

It’s also important to remember that positive reinforcement is even more powerful than negative consequences. When people do alter the way they treat you, acknowledge it. Let people know that you notice and appreciate their efforts.

Some final tips

  • Respect is always a valid reason for setting a boundary. Don’t defend yourself or your needs.
  • Boundaries are often necessary to protect your time, your space, and your feelings.
  • Start with the easiest boundaries first. Setting boundaries is a skill that needs to be practiced.
  • Enlist support from others if necessary.
  • Inform people immediately when they have crossed the line. Don’t wait.
  • Communicate in a polite and direct manner.
  • Be clear about consequences.
  • Follow through with consequences.
  • The better you become at setting your own boundaries, the better you become at recognizing and respecting the boundaries of others.

Remember that establishing boundaries is your right. You are entitled to respect. You can’t control how other people behave, but you do have control over the way you allow people to treat you. Learning to set boundaries is not always easy, but with time, it will become more comfortable. You may eventually find that boundaries become automatic and you no longer need to consciously set them. They will simply become a natural extension of your self-respect.

Featured photo credit:  Woman holding a pot with imprisoned man in it via Shutterstock

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