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What to Do When Someone Pushes Your Boundaries

When faced with someone that resists your boundaries, these strategies may help.

Key points

  • Good mental health requires boundaries—setting limits on what we do for others, and how much we’ll allow them to disrespect us.
  • “Boundary-pushing” can involve ignoring or testing our boundaries, and trying to manipulate us into relaxing our boundaries.
  • There are ways to uphold a boundary with little drama, even when facing a tenacious boundary pusher.
Vitezslav Vylicil/Shutterstock
Source: Vitezslav Vylicil/Shutterstock

Setting boundaries with others is an important life skill. Sometimes we need to set limits on what we’re willing to do for someone else, or how much we’re willing to let someone takes advantage of us or mistreat us. A lack of healthy boundaries can harm our emotional, psychological, physical, or financial health and negatively impact our other relationships. Without good boundaries, we can enable unacceptable behavior by rewarding it.

Despite healthy boundary benefits, some of us have a troubled relationship with personal boundary-setting because we:

  • Feel guilty about how our boundaries will affect others.
  • Fear others’ anger, emotion, abandonment, or rejection.
  • Feel selfish because we believe “good” people should sacrifice for others.
  • Are empathic and want to relieve other peoples’ suffering.
  • Are “people-pleasers” that want everyone to like us.
  • Have low self-esteem and don’t think that what we want or need is as important as what others want or need.
  • Don’t know how to effectively advocate for ourselves.

If you’re like me, having healthy boundaries took emotional work and practice, motivated by experiencing some of the costs I outlined earlier. I’m happy to report that I’m better at having healthy boundaries and most people accept my boundaries without conflict. But that’s not to say it’s easy, especially when I encounter the dreaded “boundary pusher.”

Boundary Pushers and the Things They Do

Boundary pushers come in a variety of forms and may be narcissistic, immature, entitled, selfish, privileged, desperate, clueless, or some combination. They want what they want, our boundaries be damned. They do things like:

  • Flat out ignore our boundary.
  • Test us to see if we mean it.
  • Argue with our reasons for the boundary.
  • Repeatedly request or expect unjustified rule-bending that’s unfair to others.
  • Try to manipulate us into relaxing our boundary. They act like we’re unreasonable or mean and exaggerate their plight. They say things like, “It’s just this one time, I’ll never ask again.” If it’s unfair to others, they promise not to tell. They try to wear us down by asking repeatedly even after we’ve said “no.”

Countering Boundary Pushers

There’s a difference between boundary-pushing and legitimate requests for relaxing our boundaries. Sometimes there are extenuating circumstances. Compassionate people consider whether the situation calls for bending their boundaries. Likewise, wise people consider whether the benefits of asserting their boundaries are worth the potential costs. Some boundaries are more important than others.

If you conclude your boundary is worth standing up for, remind the “offender” of the boundary using a confident, well-modulated, matter-of-fact tone of voice. You might, very briefly, restate why you’re committed to the boundary if you think it will help, but keep it simple. Don’t over-explain. Then, change the subject or leave the situation. If your resolve is tested by a tenacious boundary pusher:

  • Fortify yourself by revisiting the reasons for your boundary and the costs of giving in. Talk to a trusted confidante for reinforcement.
  • Remember you have a right to your boundary. It’s your time, money, effort, body, honor, dignity, self-esteem, job, etc. on the line.
  • Don't compromise yourself just to avoid their displeasure and your discomfort with their displeasure. Although they might be unhappy with you for asserting yourself, it’s usually temporary.
  • Avoid arguing with a boundary pusher since it’s a slippery slope to giving in. If they start to argue or persist, shut it down by saying something like, “I know this isn’t what you wanted to hear, but my mind is made up,” or, “I’m sorry if my decision makes things harder for you but I’m confident you’ll manage.” Then, gently terminate the discussion by changing the topic or leaving the situation.
  • Boundary pushers can be aggravating and upsetting (How dare they push my boundaries!) but stay as calm and emotionally “even” as you can to prevent defensiveness and drama.
  • Keep in mind it may take a while for some boundary pushers to take your boundary seriously. Be prepared to assertively restate your boundary while refusing to participate in unproductive dialogue.
  • Understand it’s risky to give in to a boundary pusher. It reinforces their behavior and makes them likely to try it again, and even up the ante. Hang in there with your boundaries, they’ll back off when they figure out it’s fruitless.

See my book Unhealthy Helping: A Psychological Guide for Understanding and Overcoming Codependence, Enabling and Other Dysfunctional Giving for more detail.

References

Burn, S.M. (2017). Unhealthy Helping: A Psychological Guide for Understanding and Overcoming Codependence, Enabling, and Other Dysfunctional Giving. Amazon Create Space.

Emmons, M., & Alberti, M. (2008). Your Perfect Right: Assertiveness and Equality in Your Life and Relationships. Atascadero, CA: Impact Publishing.

Lerner, H. (1989). The Dance of Intimacy, New York: Harper Collins.

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