Having boundaries is an important part of emotional intelligence. Boundaries are how you keep toxic people out of your life. At the same time, however, it can be hard to enforce those boundaries. Humans are social animals; we have an instinctive desire to cooperate and to get along. But there are people who exploit those desires for their own ends. Users and abusers, parasites and emotional vampires, bullies and all-around assholes are all people who will take advantage of people who don’t have or maintain strong boundaries. They will take advantage of people’s unwillingness to stand up for themselves in order to force them into compliance. Sometimes it’s overt, sometimes it’s subtle, but the end result is the same: they get what they want out of you and you end up feeling worse than ever before.
Having boundaries is pointless if you don’t maintain and apply them. So let’s talk a little about just how to build up those boundaries and make them stick.
Your Boundaries Are Not A Democracy
One of the first things you need to realize: you and you alone decide where you set your boundaries. This can actually be a difficult step for a lot of people. Setting boundaries can be scary. If you’re not a naturally assertive person, there’s a tendency to not want to rock the boat or make people needlessly upset. You get used to the idea of “going along to get along”, because you’d really rather not cause a fuss or trigger a confrontation. Even if you are more self-assured, you may not want to pick a fight with those particular people for a multitude of reasons.
Thing is? People who trade on pushing other people’s boundaries recognize this and will cheerfully exploit that tendency. Even people who aren’t actively evil or assholish will push against the idea that you’re wrong for deciding where to draw the line.
What you need to keep in mind is that people who trade on your weak boundaries – both the toxic and the merely selfish – aren’t going to come across like cartoon villains. They’re not going to be twirling their mustaches at you and cackling madly as they tell you that you’re not allowed to say what you are or aren’t willing to do or be comfortable with. The obvious challenges to your boundaries are fairly self-evident – the ever classic threat of “if you don’t do X, I’ll do Y.” A girlfriend or boyfriend implying that they’d cheat on you, a co-worker threatening to talk to your supervisor… these are all clear cut signs of someone trying to push your boundaries.
The insidious ones are the ones that don’t feel like challenges… they’re the times when people will pull you aside and say “Come, let us REASON together.” They will try to make you feel bad about having boundaries and not acceeding to their wishes. They’re the ones who will try to trade on your guilt (“It’s not fair…”, “You know how lonely/jealous I get!”) or to implore you to be “reasonable” or a “team player” or be incredulous or hurt that you’re “being unreasonable” or “making such a big deal out of this.” They’ll try to leverage social pressure – the classic “everybody else is doing it!” – or complain about how you “used to be cool/fun/not like this” when trying to get you to let them walk all over you or assign you responsibilities that aren’t yours.
But at the end of the day, their opinions don’t matter. Your choices aren’t up for a public vote. Other people don’t get to approve or veto your decisions. People can think what they want, but they don’t get a say unless you choose to give them one. You have the exclusive right to decide what you will and won’t put up with and where you will set your boundaries. If you decide that you, say, have a hard line against any sort of sexual activity before marriage, that’s your choice. It’s a choice that other people may disagree with or think is a poor choice… but it’s still your choice and your right to decide that this is what you want. Similarly, if you decide to relax your boundaries for one person or one group – for whatever reason you may have – that’s your choice as well; you’re not obligated to be “fair” or give other people “the same chance”. You can be as arbitrary as you please, if that’s what you really want. And if you decide that it’s not what you want… then you’re welcome to move them wherever you please, whenever you please.
But only if it’s your choice.
That’s not to say that throwing the word “boundaries” is a get-out-of-jail-free card. You’re still going to have to deal with the consequences of enforcing those boundaries. But that’s part and parcel of the deal: you accept those consequences as the price for having them because they’re that important to you.
And while we’re talking about people trying to change your mind:
“No” Is A Full Sentence
When you’re dealing with someone trying to push against your boundaries – whether they’re trying to pressure you into buying things you don’t need or volunteer you for things that you don’t want to do – there’s an almost inevitable temptation to justify your reasons for refusal. You may want to explain why you can’t in ways that don’t seem as blunt as “I don’t want to.” You may feel the need to come up with an excuse as to why you won’t (not can’t, won’t) do something.
This is actually a mistake. As soon as you’re explaining why you can’t, you’ve opened up a chink in your defenses. When you justify or explain your refusal, what you’re telling people is that you don’t believe that you have the right to refuse in the first place. Instead, you’re trying to bolster it with evidence, as though you were proving a case in a court of law. By trying to excuse or justify your refusal, you’re tacitly admitting that you could be wrong, and people will pounce on this.
You see this all the time in high-pressure sales tactics; when someone goes from flat-out refusing to explaining why they possibly couldn’t, they’ve all but conceded the fight. See, once you’ve started to offer reasons and excuses and justifications, you’ve lowered your shields and made yourself vulnerable to counter-arguments. Now it’s not a refusal, it’s a debate. Those excuses or reasons you offer will be met by counter-offers or suggestions about how you could do the thing and whatever is keeping you from doing the thing. That, in turn means that you’re going to either have to elaborate – at which point, you’re justifying yourself to someone and losing emotional ground – or offer rebuttals to something that probably wasn’t even true in the first place. And unless you’re a very capable liar (or someone who just plain doesn’t care) odds are that they know you’re just making things up. Then you’re going to feel embarrassed and ashamed for lying in the first place and they’re going to leverage that against you.
The way you avoid letting someone through your defenses is to not give them that opportunity in the first place. “No,” is all you need to say. You don’t need to be rude about it – “I’m sorry but I can’t,” “I’m sorry, no”, “No, thank you” and “I appreciate the thought but, no” are all valid ways of politely refusing – but you do need to be firm. Just as other people don’t get a say in where you draw your lines, they also don’t need to approve of your reasons for refusing. If they ask, then you repeat yourself: “No, I said I can’t.” Repeat it over and over again if you have to. To the point of absurdity if necessary.
“No” is your brick wall, your force field, your Thibault against their Capa Ferro. “No” is all that needs to be said.
Now to be sure: this can be difficult to do. You’ll feel uneasy. You’ll have to fight against an entirely natural and understandable impulse to soften things and explain. You have to apply your willpower and stick to your guns. “No,” is a complete sentence, and it’s all you need to say.
Be Willing To Be Break The Social Contract
Part of being willing to maintain your boundaries means being willing to ignore or break the social contract.
The social contract, put simply, is the unwritten rules that govern our social interactions. For example, just getting up and leaving a conversation without a word is against the social contract; it’s rude and moreover, weird. So is just walking up and putting your hand on a total stranger. Breaking the social contract marks you as someone who’s poorly socially calibrated or who has low emotional intelligence and thus someone to be avoided in polite society.
It’s also how people will try to push you into moving your boundaries for them.
There are a number of ways that the social contract gives people influence over one another – various ways that we are obligated to others. One of the most obvious ways – and a way that is frequently abused by toxic people – is the rule of reciprocation. If someone does us a favor – or is seen as doing us a favor – then we feel a sense of obligation to repay them with a favor of our own. One of the most obvious examples of this comes from high-pressure sales tactics; by pretending to do somebody a favor, such as offering them a “discount”, a salesman creates a sense of obligation to return the favor, even if it’s just by continuing to give them the opportunity to pitch to you.
A toxic person intent on pushing your boundaries may do something for you unasked and then use that to push you into agreeing to do something you don’t want to do. Sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes it’s overt. They may even throw the fact that they did something in your face as proof that you’re being “unreasonable”. Other times, it will take the form of weaponized guilt. Anyone with a toxic parent will recognize the “classic” guilt lines – “all these things I’ve done for you and you can’t do this one thing for me?”
Other times, they may try to drag you into their drama. They’ll insist that you have some sort of responsibility to shoulder their burdens because of your pre-existing relationship, no matter how tenuous. Emotionally abusive partners will use your relationship to them in order to coerce you into agreeing to things that you don’t want to do, are uncomfortable with or that aren’t your responsibility to handle in the first place. Similarly, toxic friends will coerce you into taking part in something you disapprove of or bailing them out of a situation of their own making because “that’s what friends do“, using their relationship with you as a form of obligation rather than asking for help.
Still other times they’ll simply make you feel bad for refusing. People who’ve had extra responsibilities dumped on them at work will be familiar with this tactic – they’re making such a minor request and it’s totally unfair of you to say no. Or they may leverage your fear of being rude as a way to get the metaphorical foot in the door; you don’t want to be mean, so you’re obligated to let them make their pitch or request.
Being willing to maintain your boundaries frequently means that you have to consciously choose to break the contract. You have to ignore the rule of reciprocity or the dictums against rudeness. It’s difficult to do; even if you’re not conscious of the social contract, it’s still been ingrained in you from birth. You’re going to naturally fear some sort of nebulous consequence for doing so, whether it’s the other person’s disappointment or societal judgement for ignoring the unwritten rules. Just as with saying “no” and sticking to it, you have to learn to get comfortable with breaking the social contract when necessary. Remember, it’s not rudeness, it’s self-defense.
The Difference Between Enforcing Boundaries and Being A Selfish Asshole
It’s important to note that there are times when you’re not enforcing boundaries so much as being a dick. Sometimes refusing to do something or to accept responsibility for something is being unreasonable and you’re just being an asshole by refusing.
So how do you tell the difference? Ultimately, it’s about responsibility, to yourself and to the people in your life. Are you being asked to do things or endure things that you would not otherwise do, or having duties or expectations put to you that are outside of your role?
One example I see distressingly frequently is people who allow their “friends” undue liberties. This often takes the form of letting their friends run roughshod over them in ways that leave them feeling hurt or embarrassed or humiliated. Sometimes it’s verbal – negging, left-handed compliments and put-downs, even flat out insults and humiliating jokes. Other times it’s physical – unwanted groping, cruel pranks, taking your things or roughhousing you never agreed to take part in. At the same time however, they feel like they can’t speak up for themselves because “it’s just a joke” or “they don’t mean it,” or “it’s just how X is”. This is a case where enforcing your boundaries is not just justified but necessary; you don’t have a responsibility to let people hurt you, insult you or make you feel uncomfortable, no matter what your relationship is with them. Even if they’re “just trying to help” or “toughen you up”, it’s unwanted and it’s unacceptable.
Another example is if you’re being asked to handle responsibilities that otherwise belong to someone else. Is your partner expecting you to constantly be managing their mood – to make sure that they don’t get jealous or lonely or bored or otherwise needing your constant input or presence? Are you being pressured to let things slide that would otherwise be unacceptable? Are you finding yourself having to do other people’s work for them while they go continue to take the credit, even as they slack off? Are you being asked to sacrifice something, especially something important, for somebody else when it’s not something that’s part of your everyday duties? Are you being asked to cover for somebody else’s mistakes that you had no hand in?
Those are all prime examples of when you should be enforcing your boundaries.
On the other hand, if you are neglecting your partner to do your own thing or if you are the one blaming others for things that are otherwise your responsibility? Then you’re being selfish. Are you steadfastly refusing to compromise in areas that are within your realm of control or participate in something where the responsibilities are shared equally? That’s not enforcing your boundaries, that’s just being a dick.
Be Prepared To Lose “Friends”. This Is A Good Thing
One of the reasons why people are often hesitant to enforce their boundaries is because they’re worried about causing conflicts with their peers. If they were to quit just “going along with it”, their friends, girlfriends, partners, coworkers or what-have-you might abandon them.
Good. That’s exactly what enforcing your boundaries is supposed to do.
It’s almost disturbing how easy it is for a toxic relationship to become your status quo. It’s even more disturbing how we’ll often want to preserve that status quo, even when we know it’s a bad scene. Humans are adaptable creatures; we can get used to almost anything. And once you’re used to something, it’s hard to imagine life without it, even when it’s bad for you. Giving it up means venturing into the unknown. Toxic and abusive people know this and they rely on it. They hold you hostage to your fear of change in order to get you to lower your guard and ease your boundaries. They suck away your energy, time and soul. They prey upon your fears and damage you. Having strong boundaries and enforcing them drives them out of your life and keeps them from getting a hold on you in the first place.
There will be times when it’s hard to stand up for yourself. There will be times when you’ll hurt people’s feelings. There will be times when you will end up pushing people away from you by having boundaries. But at the same time, you’ll be taking responsibility for your own life and choices, not letting other people make you endure theirs as well. And you’ll be making sure that the people who are in your life are right for you.