How do I make sure my boundaries are respected?

A thought cloud with a castle in front of a rainbow

Have you ever felt like something was just truly not okay with you? When our boundaries are crossed, we know. Even if we haven’t been aware of those boundaries up to that point. We feel it in our bodies. What’s more, if you keep ignoring your boundaries, you may find that your body will try harder and harder to get your attention (and action), up to the point where it becomes impossible to ignore.

Our boundaries are the things we’re willing to tolerate if given the choice. It’s not the things we want, just the things we’re okay with. For instance, you may find yourself annoyed by your partner’s total inability to actually put their dirty socks in the laundry, but for most of us – when this doesn’t happen, no boundary is crossed – we’re still willing to tolerate the situation.

If you want your boundaries to be respected, here’s several things you need.

  1. This is a prerequisite, really: your relationship (whether romantic, professional, or otherwise) shouldn’t be abusive. By that, we mean that you have equal power in the relationship, meaning you are free to exercise your free will.
  2. You need to be aware of your own boundaries.
  3. The person you’re with needs to be aware of your boundaries.
  4. You need to be willing to actually enforce/protect your boundaries.

Now, let’s look at #2-4 in more detail.

Do you know your boundaries?

Boundaries are not universal. What’s okay for one person, may not be okay for someone else. For instance, many monogamous people have a boundary around intimacy with people outside of their relationship: if their partner gets intimate with someone else, they decide to break up. However, this is not the case for people in open relationships, and even some monogamous people are willing to stick around if it happens. In short – your boundaries may be very different from mine. And that’s okay! After all – you only need to be happy with your life.

Since boundaries are not universal, we can never be sure of a different person’s boundaries. If we want to know what they’re okay with, they need to tell us (either on their own initiative or because we ask them). This goes the other way around, as well: we generally can’t assume others know our boundaries unless we communicate them. (There are exceptions to this rule – we tackle those in the next paragraph)

In order to tell others about our boundaries, we need to know what these boundaries are, and that isn’t always easy. Most of us discover boundaries once they are crossed. That’s not a bad thing – the more we experience, the better we get to know ourselves. Sometimes, we take for granted that something is a certain way, and only when it’s not do we realize: hey, this was a boundary.

Luckily, we don’t have to have all of our boundaries crossed before we find out about them. We can use our imagination and empathy to ask ourselves: what’s a situation I wouldn’t be okay with? One sign of a boundary is if you feel indignant about the way a friend or even a book or movie character deals with a situation. If you think “I would NEVER tolerate that” – that’s your boundary right there!

Do they know your boundaries?

Once you know your boundaries, it’s important to communicate them. Generally speaking, the more we trust someone to not violate our boundaries, the less we’re inclined to be explicit about them. We usually think our boundaries won’t be violated if we assume our boundaries are shared or at least assumed.

Unfortunately, what feels entirely logical to us may not always feel logical to others, for instance because of their culture, background, gender, or preferences. When this happens, someone might cross your boundaries without meaning to.

For instance, a person who’s naturally very flexible may end up canceling your appointments (or dates) last minute, while a person who values structure and consistency may have a boundary about making time for people who don’t show up.

Here’s a couple of rules of thumb for speaking up about your boundaries:

  1. If you think your boundary may not be shared by the other person – speak up.
  2. If a crossed boundary may lead to major stress or pain – speak up.

Keep in mind: you can uphold/enforce/protect your boundaries, whether you’ve communicated them upfront or not. All communication does is helping others avoid crossing your boundaries unintentionally.

Another thing to keep in mind: some people may act as if they weren’t aware of a boundary because you hadn’t communicated it, even if they did. Trust your gut when you think a person is willingly violating boundaries they were aware of, even if said boundaries weren’t discussed explicitly.

How do you protect your boundaries?

Protecting your boundaries is your job (assuming no unequal power dynamics are in play). It’s always about what you can do. So what can you do? Here are several options with examples.

  1. Leaving the situation.

You are at a party and run into Charlie, with whom you’re on bad terms. You don’t want to be in the same space. You didn’t know Charlie was also invited, otherwise you would have declined. You uphold your boundary by excusing yourself and leaving the party.

  1. Restricting access

Jane always sends you long, emotional texts that take up a chunk of your time and emotional bandwidth. You want to spend your energy in a different way. You decide to put Jane on mute and only check her messages when you have energy to spare.

  1. Honoring your own needs

You really want to visit a museum this afternoon. You’re meeting Luke at 14 to go together, but he’s running late. At 14:30 you decide to no longer wait and just go by yourself so you have enough time to visit all the exhibitions.

  1. Severing the relationship

Every time you see your high school friend, she criticizes your lifestyle. You no longer want to listen to her criticism. You decide you’re no longer interested in all the criticism and let her know you no longer want to be in touch.

Notice how in all of the above examples, you’re making a choice that’s right for you without needing the approval or cooperation of the people with whom you’re upholding the boundary.

Bonus: Are they crossing your boundaries or living their life?

Sometimes, you’ll find that a person does something that doesn’t align with your boundaries. For instance, you may ask your partner to do a better job cleaning, and they just… don’t. Living in a clean house (according to your standards of cleanliness) is a boundary for you. So does this mean your partner is violating your boundary?

Not quite. Sometimes, people aren’t willingly crossing our boundaries, they’re just living their lives, according to their needs and values (as they should, and as we, hopefully, do too).

When this happens, it doesn’t follow that you should stick around, just because nobody is intentionally breaking your boundaries. If you find that your boundaries don’t align with someone else’s boundaries, this is a sign of incompatibility. If the relationship is valuable to you, it may be worth exploring whether there are ways to be respectful of both your and the other’s boundaries. However, unfortunately, sometimes it’s best to just part ways.

Want to explore your boundaries?

Use our cards to get clear on your needs and talk about them with others!