It can be tough to identify when you may be crossing your own boundaries because it often happens when you’ve abandoned your own self-interest, says integrative psychotherapist Rebecca Hendrix, LMFT. “We violate our own boundaries when we prioritize someone else and their desires or feelings over ourselves or our own,” she says. “This often looks like saying 'yes' when we want to say 'no.'” For instance, agreeing to help someone move when you’d have to miss your weekly yoga class or taking on a new project at work when you’re already overloaded are both classic scenarios of walking right across your own boundaries.
“We violate our own boundaries when we prioritize someone else and their desires or feelings over ourselves or our own.” —Rebecca Hendrix, LMFT, integrative therapist
In other cases, it might seem as if others are at fault for violating your boundaries, when in reality, you’re allowing it to happen. “For example, at work, you might let a colleague gossip about a coworker even though it makes you feel uncomfortable, and in your personal life, you might allow a friend to vent at you when you don’t have the emotional capacity to listen,” says integrative therapist Abby Rawlinson, MBACP, author of the forthcoming book Reclaiming You. Rather than saying something to stop the conversation and uphold your boundary, you’re letting it fall upon impact.
At first glance, these examples might strike you as just the selfless acts of a nice person. But, in actuality, they reflect an unsustainable way to go about helping others. Always playing the martyr or the people-pleaser at the expense of your own boundaries will, at best, keep you from having your needs fully met and, at worst, leave you feeling unseen, violated, or walked all over, says Rawlinson. With time, that breeds resentment—and once you’re stewing in that feeling, you can no more effectively help others than you can help yourself.
Why you might violate (or fail to uphold) your own boundaries
Your perception of yourself—and how you suspect others perceive you—may be the reason why you violate your own boundaries. In particular, feeling like your boundaries might make you appear selfish, uncaring, or mean can fuel an inability to uphold them, says Rawlinson.
These fears are often rooted in an even deeper insecurity, according to Hendrix. “If you don’t feel like you’re ‘good enough’ as you are,” she says, “then you might feel the need to be seen as nice or accommodating in order to be liked or approved of,” she says. Upholding your boundaries, then, may threaten the niceness you’re trying to portray—making it seem like the right move to let them fall.
Similarly, feeling unworthy of having your own boundaries in the first place may also be why you so easily violate them, says Rawlinson, adding that this self-conception can form in childhood if a parent ignores a child’s boundaries.
“[A parent ignoring your boundaries as a kid] sends the message that your boundaries aren’t important or that you don’t have the right to your own separateness.” —Abby Rawlinson, MBACP, integrative therapist
Perhaps your mom read your diary or text messages without your permission or forced you to hug family members out of politeness even when you were uncomfortable doing so, says Rawlinson. This overstepping “sends the message that your boundaries aren’t important or that you don’t have the right to your own separateness,” she says. “Early lessons like these become embedded in the mind and nervous system and can wreak havoc on our ability to feel and express our boundaries, which can set us up for a lifetime of people-pleasing.”
Typically, the same thing goes if your parents micromanaged your every move to the point where you weren’t ever allowed to act in accordance with how you felt, says Hendrix. Once you finally are able to act with autonomy, later in life, you might struggle to set and maintain real boundaries, since you weren’t given the chance to do so as a kid.
In this case, “you may not feel like you really know yourself, who you are, and what you want or don’t want,” says Hendrix, “but you know you want to be liked, so you might agree to things that you then resent later.” In this way, you’re essentially allowing yourself to cross your own boundaries because you’ve barely defined them for yourself.
5 tips to be a better upholder of your own boundaries
1. Reflect on the reason why you’re violating a given boundary in the moment
Getting curious about an unhelpful behavior can help you figure out why it’s happening—which is essential to putting an end to it. “If you said ‘yes’ to a baby shower on a Sunday when you meant ‘no,’ ask yourself why you made the baby shower more important than the yoga or the journaling you would’ve done otherwise,” says Hendrix.
If the reason has a “should” in it (e.g., I felt like I should go), take a minute to reflect on its origins. “If you feel like you should go to the baby shower, consider what you’re afraid would happen if you didn’t. And if that happens, then what? Keep asking until you get to the core of the fear that led you to say ‘yes,’” says Hendrix. Perhaps the root fear is that the people at the event will get mad and drop you as a friend. “Then, ask yourself if you know that to be absolutely true,” says Hendrix. Given the answer is no, “see whether you might give yourself permission to honor your needs instead and let go of how that’s perceived,” she says.
2. Be as clear to others (and to yourself) about your boundaries as possible
Those who struggle the most to uphold their boundaries may feel the need to make their boundaries particularly vague. “People often over-explain or sugarcoat their boundaries to avoid disappointing people, but this can create confusion,” says Rawlinson. And confusion makes room for boundary-crossing, whether it’s intentional or not.
For that reason, it’s helpful to be as specific and to-the-point as possible when expressing boundaries—as in, “I can’t work past 6 p.m. today,” or “I can help you move for three hours on Sunday morning, but I have plans for the afternoon.” With a boundary this clear, you’re less likely to be talked (or talk yourself) out of it, says Rawlinson.
If you’re not sure enough about a particular request to be this straightforward, Hendrix suggests buying yourself time rather than just saying “yes”—since it’s harder to enforce a boundary later that you’ve previously ignored. “Always say that you’re going to think about it, check your calendar, check in with your partner, etc., and then get back to the person,” she says. “In doing so, you give yourself more time to determine what you actually want and how you want to express it.”
3. Communicate your boundaries as statements, not questions
A boundary of yours is yours alone—which means it’s not up for debate. But when you present a boundary as a question, like many people do (as in, “Could you avoid messaging me after 6 p.m?” or “Could you stop making jokes about my appearance?”), you’re opening up the conversation for discussion, rather than stating your position, says Rawlinson.
“Instead, try to stick to the facts, and use statements like, ‘I will,’ ‘I’m not, ‘I can’t,’ or ‘I need’ when expressing boundaries,” she says. “For example, you might simply say, ‘I’m not comfortable with you making jokes about my appearance.’” Period, end of discussion.
4. Set consequences for crossed boundaries
In the same way that you might follow a rule more closely if you’d face punishment for breaking it, you’re just more likely to uphold your own boundaries if there’s a real consequence to not doing so. The key is to make that consequence known in advance by all relevant parties, so you’re actually held accountable to it, says Rawlinson. For example, you might say, “If this happens again, I will walk away from the conversation,” or “If you call me again when I’m at work, I won’t answer the phone.”
“Remember, boundaries are about communicating where your limits are, and what you will and won’t accept,” says Rawlinson. “They are ultimately about you, not other people.”
5. Understand that you can't please everyone all the time
Sure, you can walk all over your own boundaries in the name of pleasing everyone around you, and in a lot of cases, this will work—but not in all of them. And there’s the rub: Regardless of your actions, at some point in time, there will be someone who is disappointed or upset by them.
But, at least, if their disappointment is the result of you upholding your own boundaries, you can take comfort in knowing you made a self-honoring choice, says Hendrix. “Just because they are disappointed doesn’t mean you have done anything wrong,” she says. “Give them the dignity of being on their own path, while reminding yourself that it’s okay to choose yours.”
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