Get better at asserting your personal boundaries

When we don’t love ourselves, we are letting ourselves down.

And one of the side effects is that we allow other people to treat us in unacceptable ways without doing anything to put a stop to it.

The repeated thoughtless and careless behaviours we’re exposed to damages our confidence and self-esteem. It’s even worse if they’re already low to begin with.

With close relationships, we tend to be even more reluctant to deal with such behaviour because we want to ‘keep the peace’ at all costs.  The problem is that the resentment keeps building up and eventually it will gnaw away at the affection we have for each other.

We often complain about how bad-mannered, inconsiderate, thoughtless or offensive people are.

They take us for granted, they don’t listen to a word we say, they are always late, stand us up, are always criticising us, putting us down and generally treating us in ways that make us feel small, resentful and frustrated.

Yet, even though we deeply resent such behaviour, we rarely do anything about it claiming we hate conflict!

At this point, the excuses kick in with thoughts such as “They didn’t really mean it”, “They’ve got a lot on their plate”, “It doesn’t really matter” and variations thereof.  But, however much you try to deceive yourself, the truth is that you do feel angry, hurt, resentful, upset or offended; you just continue to pretend you don’t.

Personal boundaries

Most people have only a woolly idea about their personal boundaries – if they thought about it at all.  But they do know when it happens because of how they feel; they just haven’t put a name to it.

I only began to examine the whole idea of personal boundaries when my endless complaints about how people kept treating me got me nowhere.

When you begin to examine the idea, you will realise that, by setting well-defined personal boundaries, you’re making it clear to everybody that you respect yourself and that you regard yourself worthy of being treated well.

Personal boundaries are the limits we set as to how we want to be treated.

They are fundamental to our emotional health and the health of our relationships, especially the one with our life partner.

This is why, when we embark on the process of identifying our personal boundaries, emotional honesty and emotional responsibility with ourselves and others are fundamental.

There are three different types of personal boundaries:

Physical Personal Boundaries

Touch is a good example because whether or not it’s appropriate depends on the relationship and the context.  To recognise whether or not someone has crossed the line, see how you feel.  If you feel uncomfortable, then that line was crossed.

Emotional Personal Boundaries

People cross our emotional boundaries when they take us for granted, our needs and wants are ignored, we’re not being listened to, we don’t feel accepted for who we are, and so on.

Mental Personal Boundaries

These boundaries are crossed when someone tries to manipulate, control and/or make us feel guilty.

However, I have observed an almost universal reluctance to deal with those who cross the line for reasons explained in my previous article ‘Are you loving yourself enough?’  Alternatively, we handle it poorly, with anger, aggression or hostility.

If you try to ignore that behaviour or you deal with it by reacting angrily, you will experience some damaging outcomes:

  • If you don’t confront the behaviour, the person will continue to act in an unacceptable way because you don’t seem to mind.
  • If you deal with it angrily, shouting at them or being hurtful in return, the conflict will only escalate.  The old adage that two wrongs don’t make a right is applicable here.
  • If you will feel resentful yet say nothing it will, over time, eat away at your affection for them and end up damaging your relationship anyway.

When you first start looking at the whole idea of personal boundaries it also helps you become clear about what matters to you, in terms of how you treat yourself as well as how you allow others to treat you.

This is also part of Principle 1:  The value of becoming more self-aware is to get to know yourself better.

To effectively assert your personal boundaries does not require a shouting match.  This is an educational process which takes time, perseverance and patience. Start by making two lists:

  1. How you do not want to be treated
  2. How you do want to be treated

Include physical, mental and emotional behaviours in both lists, not only in terms of how others treat you but also how you treat yourself.  My two articles, ‘Are you loving yourself enough?’ and ‘Understand the Gremlin: Silence your inner critic’ can help you with this.

When it comes to affirming your personal boundaries, please remember that you need to treat others as you expect them to treat you, e.g. if you’re constantly late when meeting a friend and they get upset yet you continue being late, that is unkind and insensitive behaviour.

Respecting other people’s (often unspoken) personal boundaries is essential to expecting them to respect yours.

What sometimes happens is that, when you call the inappropriate behaviour to that person’s attention, they might act in one of three ways:

  1. As if you hadn’t spoken
  2. Say something like, “what did I say?!” with a pretend puzzled or aggrieved tone of voice
  3. Say “What? Can’t you take a joke?”

I used to find these behaviours extremely hurtful, almost as hurtful as the original one.  What worked for me, in the end, was to simply repeat my comment without smiling, in a clear and calm voice until they had to acknowledge it.

But the main thing for me was that I had to remain consistent and to persevere to make sure I didn’t send mixed messages.

When someone makes disparaging and judgemental comments, notice your defensiveness.  Keep your breathing deep and slow.

Before you rush in immediately denying whatever they said, take a step back and reflect, is there any truth in what they said?  If they had said the same thing in a kinder way, would you have been able to hear it?

Then respond honestly – the comment might not chime with you at all, parts of it may be true or all of it may be true.  Whichever the case may be, authenticity is at the heart of the engagement.

The most powerful approach in the process of educating people on how you want to be treated is called ‘making I-statements’.

This is where you express your feelings and wishes from a personal position without blaming or judging the other person – a move away from “you’re so thoughtless!” to “When you talk to me like that I feel really upset”.

The ideal, of course, is educating new acquaintances from the very beginning on how we want to be treated.  As the saying goes: “Start as you mean to go on.”

Sue Plumtree

With more than 25 years experience in personal development, human resources, training and coaching I have developed a unique model called LEP (Life Enhancing Principles) which covers core principles that enable people to achieve their goals and get the most out of life. As an FCIPD, I am an executive life coach, workshop facilitator, speaker and an established author. My second book, ‘Dancing With The Mask: Learning to Love and be Loved’ is available directly through my website . Connect with Sue on Linked In.

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