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Help! How do I deal with a boundary bust?

I find that the biggest issues surrounding boundaries are either not knowing what they are or, knowing but not knowing what to do when they're crossed, or thinking that talking and talking about the boundary bust will resolve it.

Code red issues are not really a discussion point especially if it's a new relationship or they're issues that have always existed, but you've downplayed the severity. If it's a new situation, asking them to change and entering into a discussion about habits and behaviour they already have is like saying "I'm unhappy with who you are - please change."

But sometimes it's not that you're asking them to change per se - you're asking them to recognise inappropriate, upsetting, or even abusive behaviour. There's nothing wrong with flagging up this stuff but you also have to ask yourself if there's something wrong with a picture that has a person in it that you might actually think has no clue at all that something is an issue.

Sometimes perspective on boundaries comes from knowing the age of a person and asking yourself "Do I really believe that they don't know how outrageous this was?" or asking yourself "Do I truly believe that this is the very first time that this person has done this or has had anyone point it out?" To suggest that this is the case, is to make out like you have the power to change a person into being shady due to 'something' that's wrong with you. Don't get things twisted!

If it's been going on for a while and the issue has been unfolding, it's OK to walk. You can ask them about the issue but you know, there aren't many, for instance, addicts, who will say "Yeah I'm an alcoholic and you know what? It took you who I've known for a hot minute to point this out to me and help me realise this."

Ignoring your boundaries is betting on potential. It's saying "I don't like what I see but other aspects of you I find attractive, so you need to get these bigger issues out of the way." Not.Gonna.Happen. You cannot cherry pick a person. Asking someone to change early in a relationship is a recipe for disaster, not least because it communicates a lack of acceptance.


So what can you do when your boundaries have been busted?

Stop, look, listen and evaluate the situation. Do not proceed until you have resolved the queries that the boundary crossing has raised and more importantly, you've taken action or agreed a response with yourself for if and when the situation occurs again.

Not all boundary issues require you to 'take on' the other party.

Boundaries are yours and sometimes, as I explained in the class on working out your boundaries and knowing your deal breakers, you don't know that something is a boundary with you or what your response will be until after it happens.

If you're not in a position to say or do anything immediately (or the situation doesn't call for it), much of your power and peace lies in learning lessons from the insight gained and having a 'next action' for next time. Don't victimise yourself by being "Oh woe is me! My boundary has been crossed. What's wrong with me?" That will just leave you feeling rubbish and helpless.

Decide your 'Next Time Response'. Respond with preemptive action that prepares you should you experience it again.

Keep having to lend money on a night out to the same person? Don't bring out extra cash.

Keep getting calls at funny times of the night? Don't answer.

Keep getting inappropriate texts? Don't respond.

Keep having someone offload their problems on you like a dumping ground? Politely, calmly but firmly say (if you're on the phone), that you've actually got to be somewhere and finish up within 10-15 minutes. If they tend to call up to offload, call them back at a time that's convenient to you and say how long you've got before getting into a conversation. If it's face-to-face, nip off to the bathroom for a break and change the conversation when you get back, or say that you've got to be somewhere. Do not feel guilty - they certainly don't and if you persist in being drained, it's like making yourself a hostage when you really don't need to.

My mother used to call up day after day pouring out on me - limiting the calls and choosing when I wanted to have these intense conversations helped my emotional health. It set boundaries and taught her to value my time, to ask me how I am occasionally, and to share the load around. If she crosses the line with something she says, I do make a fast exit off the phone or wherever I am. I could tell her till I'm blue in the face why certain things are annoying, but actually, over the last few years, my actions have communicated that I'm no longer a willing ear nor do I allow these comments to have power over me, so they occur much less.

Got someone saying something passive aggressively but feel it's too late to say something? Respond immediately on the next incident with "Er, what did you mean by …………?"

Distance yourself - this is recognising that you need to take protective measures or at least 'downgrade' the level of importance and presence you assign to someone.

It doesn't have to be in some grand, dramatic gesture - you just might not hang out as often or be very busy for the next while. It may mean that you'll still spend time with them - you just know the length and breadth of your relationship and won't be sharing certain info from your life or including or trusting them to the degree that you used to.

Boundary issues don't always mean or have to mean "sever ties with everyone that pisses you off".

A friend from way back when used to love chatting out everyone's business in a "Oops! I can't believe I let that secret slip." Once, twice even I can just about swallow, but after that, I distanced myself by not telling her anything that I'm not prepared to hear back or have her go "Oops!" She lost a lot of friends but just couldn't see what the "big deal" was and proclaimed hurt at not being trusted. Until some people did the same thing to her. Now she understands. Some people are like that - it's like they only see fit to feel bad about a previous act and apologise, after it's done to them.

Opt out. This is what you do with what is clearly absolutely unacceptable, abusive, and/or disrespectful behaviour that clearly indicates the character or difference in values with a person and cannot be chalked up to a 'mistake' or 'sensitivity'. This is code red territory.

I once went on a date with a man who it turned out was high as a kite and was very explicit when he dropped me off and tried to invite himself unsuccessfully into my place. That was a boundary bust but the next day when he called, I explained that I was unhappy with his behaviour, which he then proceeded to deny and act like a lunatic. That was the last time we spoke and I blanked all of his calls and text messages.

My actions conveyed the message "I'm not that woman."

I shouldn't have given him the time of day - one date just wasn't worth the effort. Remember those relationships, romantic or otherwise where in hindsight after giving them chances and discussing the crap out of the situation, you wish you'd honoured your boundaries? If it's a MAJOR NO-NO (code red), you GO-GO. End of.

What else can you do?

State your position - I would go with this option if it's something that's flat out disrespectful and upsetting but you still feel that you want to say something and for whatever reason believe that there is a relationship, romantic or otherwise, beyond this incident. This is likely to be used with family, friends, colleagues.

Very simply, tell them what the issue is or what you don't do. Don't be aggressive, don't go into a long-winded explanation (it looks like justifying if you do this), don't try to guilt them into changing, and definitely don't say "You did X which made me feel Y" because it puts people on the defensive and they're likely to argue that they didn't make you feel Y and then it ends up distracting from the real issue. Remember - your boundaries are yours. You don't need to gain agreement or validation from the person. They either respect the boundary or move on.

Remember: Having or asserting your boundary and the other person actions / response demonstrates whether you can trust them and whether you share similar values!

Discuss the issue (which may lead to an argument) - Ideal when you feel that there is a misunderstanding or that you have both contributed to the situation (but don't blame yourself for their actions). Also likely to happen with someone that you've known for a long time or are in a relationship (beyond dating).

Depending on the nature of the issue or the temperaments, it's possible it may turn into an argument. If it's getting very heated, step away and let the dust settle. It's important to remember that once you've stated your point or participated in a discussion around it, that's it. Job done. To persist in discussing it when you're not getting anywhere and you've been clear on what the issue is and they've been clear on their differing view, is to keep rehashing and convincing. If someone cannot empathise with your position even if they don't fully agree with it, but at least see things from your side, you can't have a relationship, romantic or otherwise. Also when people are angry, they don't see clearly plus you end up arguing about how you're arguing as opposed to the actual issue. Your job isn't to 'make' the other person see your side. They're a grownup - say your piece and let them make up their own mind. Don't hang around - go about your business and let them decide their response.

I had a friend say something about me to a work acquaintance that was inappropriate and over-familiar. I didn't make a big deal but when we were alone I reminded her that this was someone I knew through work and that while what she said would be funny amongst friends, that it wasn't with someone I knew professionally. I didn't character assassinate - I just stuck to the facts of the situation and expressed my discomfort. She could deduce the rest. I doubt she was thrilled with me pointing this out but she respected my position. If she had continued to do it after I'd said something, then I would have known that there was an issue.

Get clarification on what happened - Ideal when it feels like it's come out of leftfield or when after a period of saying and doing one thing, there is a change.

"What did you mean when you said [insert as close as possible to what they said and when]?

"Why did you [insert a brief description of their actions]? I'm asking because when it happened, it gave me the impression that you are not into this relationship / angry with me / or whatever."

This gives them the opportunity to clarify what their actions meant, view their actions from someone else's perspective and empathise (if they have this skill), and if appropriate or they want to, to rectify the situation.


Remember, if what you've already expressed concern about is repeated, you can step away.


It's tempting to reexplain your position but this is like saying "I know I told you that I don't like this and why, but you're either hard of hearing or not very bright, so let me tell you again stupido." It also communicates "I know what I should do in this situation but I'm giving you another chance because I don't like that option", even though you don't like the option of them repeating the same boundary bust again either.

Ask yourself: If a friend or family member experienced the same boundary crossing, what would I think of it and what would I do if I were them?

Sometimes a boundary issue and the possibility of raising your concerns can appear to have the potential to have you stepping into a hornets nest. There is a tendency for people to either ignore and feel victimised, or to go into a discussion where they feel victimised and it all blowing up into conflict. You don't always have to verbally state something - you can and if possible should assert your boundaries with an action led response.

Never feel guilty for having or asserting your boundaries - they're your right! You'll also find that some of the people you're afraid of asserting with, have no problem clamping down with their own boundaries - you'll know you're around someone like this if everything is on their terms.

Boundaries are another self-esteem ingredient that's like a muscle - the more you embrace them positively and see them as the necessary communicator of your limits, values, and discomfort, is the stronger your confidence will get in having and asserting them when required. As someone who had little or no boundaries, having them now is second nature and like breathing - vital.

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