According to experts, a good offense is the best defense. With that in mind, the first step to protecting your boundaries from others, especially people who don’t necessarily respect or understand them, is committing to them yourself, according to psychotherapist Tracy Livecchi, LSCW. That can look like setting an actionable, realistic goal and making a plan for how you’ll achieve the goal. “If you don’t really understand why you’re doing it and what the benefits could be of making this change, it’s going to be even harder to explain it to other people,” she says. Once you’ve committed yourself, you can make plans to clue in the appropriate people and then lay down the law about your boundary.
“People respect when others set boundaries, and people feel good about it if it’s explained in a way that doesn’t make the person feel like they’re doing something wrong.” —Elissa Epel, PhD, psychiatrist
After you’ve shared your goal or new habit with stakeholders in your life, you can let them know how they can support you. The function of this exercise is to help your circle best understand how to help you and also helps them prepare for expectations you will have of them.
For example, if you’re doing Dry January, you might clue in your friends with whom you typically go to brunch and happy hour. Maybe you simply want to let them know ahead of time that you’re committing to an alcohol-free month and don’t want them to ask why at every hangout. Or maybe you’re more comfortable sitting out certain gatherings where others will be drinking, and you want them to understand so they don’t try to persuade you to join, despite your goal. Or, let’s say your goal is to eat more nutrient-rich meals at home. In this, case you might let the others in your household know that the grocery list might change, or that you will be dialing back your takeout habit.
Whatever your goal may be, in order to protect the boundaries you’ve set to achieve it, make sure to “communicate clearly and with compassion to everyone in your social network who needs to know in order to support you and help you,” says Elissa Epel, PhD, professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco and author of The Stress Prescription. Boundaries can be big or small, and you can share yours however you’d like.
How to respond when someone violates your boundaries
People will make mistakes and violate your boundaries, sometimes repeatedly. It’s frustrating in practice, but it’s also important to remember that most people aren’t trying to be disrespectful, Dr. Epel says. “Usually, this is from lack of awareness and is coming from a place of their own need,” she says. The best way to respond is with “frequent reminders, spoken in a supportive way,” she adds. “We all need second chances, and we all need reminders of behaviors that we want to change.”
Sometimes, though, boundary violators aren’t people with whom you feel comfortable being vulnerable and frank about your needs. For instance, take a manager at work. In cases like these, Dr. Epel suggests you be specific about what you want going forward without blaming them for past behavior: “People respect when others set boundaries, and people feel good about it if it’s explained in a way that doesn’t make the person feel like they’re doing something wrong.” So, let’s say you’re working to strike a healthy relationship with your work email, but your manager likes to send messages on the weekends and in the middle of the night. Perhaps you could communicate that you plan to not answer emails during certain windows of time, and you’d like to make sure you are on the same page about that so there are no miscommunications, and all expectations are spoken.
But what if there are people in your life who either don’t understand or seem to care about your new boundaries? Your next step to protect your boundaries might include one more try by having a clear and assertive conversation outlining exactly what you need going forward. And if that doesn’t work, you might reconsider the scope of your relationship with that person until they come around. “If somebody in your life isn’t accepting of your [boundaries], maybe you take a step back and create some space for yourself to find some other people who might be more accepting and supportive,” Livecchi says.
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