When you’ve grown up to think you’re not good enough confrontation is terrifying for you. Especially, if you were a people pleaser like me and morph into whatever shape you feel will get you the most approval. It’s no wonder when a narcissist or abusive person crossed our boundaries, instead of pushing back at them and saying no, we just let them shift the goal posts that little bit further.

This is what they do when they first meet us.   Once they’ve hooked us in with their love-bombing, they test the waters.  To see how strong our boundaries are.  If they are healthy ones or not.

I didn’t even know there was such a thing as boundaries at all.  My priority was putting other peoples’ needs and wants first and denying my own.  After all, back then my sense of self-worth was gained by others approval, it didn’t come from within.

Setting boundaries, especially when you are not used to them is hard.  It’s something you’ll really have to learn and work on, like I did.  But healthy boundaries are fundamental to turning your life around.  Once you can set healthy boundaries, you’ll not only be able to say no, this isn’t good enough for me when someone crosses them.  You’ll also stop attracting those who seek out those they can manipulate.  

Setting healthy boundaries is like Kryptonite for narcissists.   Narcissists and abusers will detect your sense of self-worth is strong.  You’ll no longer have an invisible ‘victim’ sign on your forehead, it will be replaced with a ‘don’t mess with me’ one instead.   

Healthy boundaries keep you safe.  They are a way to signal to others how they may treat you.  What’s okay and what’s not okay in your relationship. They are about respect.  Only you know what your boundaries are.

You may not even be aware you have one until it is crossed and you get that churning feeling in your stomach.  Your anger starts simmering away inside. But one way to get a clearer picture is look at your relationship and write down on paper: what is okay and what is not.  Which ones do you feel most uncomfortable when they are crossed?

It takes courage to set boundaries.  Even harder is saying something when one of your boundaries has been crossed.   Especially if you lack self-esteem.

When I was much younger I feared confrontation (those who know me now can stop laughing!).  Conflict frightened me.   There were times I was bullied or suffered misogyny.  (What young woman going up the career ladder hasn’t experienced that?)

But the thought of standing up to that person, particularly if an older male, made my heart race.   More often than not, I’d let something lapse and then stew over it, my stomach churning all night.

But once I developed self-esteem and found my self-worth, I had the confidence to confront those who crossed boundaries.   I was terrified the first time I did so with a colleague who became verbally abusive towards me.

But by then I’d learnt that confrontation doesn’t have to mean aggression.  If you are confident and stick to facts.  Keep emotion out of it.   If you remain calm when you state your ground.  Maintaining boundaries doesn’t have to be confrontational at all. You just need to learn how best to address the person who has crossed them.

The three most common types of reactions people have when their boundaries are crossed are:

Passive
We allow the offensive behaviour, whilst quietly churning inside and feeling upset that we’ve been taken advantage of.

Aggressive
Verbally attacking an individual, for example, then storming out of the room.

Passive-Aggressive
This is aggressive but secretly hostile.  Behaviour that appears passive, non-threatening, and socially acceptable, such as guilt, sarcasm, heavy sighs and fake smiles.

Passive-aggressive behaviour is designed to control and attack the other person in a subtle way that protects you from any overt responsibility or blame.

The best way to handle another person’s unacceptable behaviour is by choosing our behaviour instead.    We can take responsibility – the ability to respond the way we choose – rather than just reacting emotionally.

Be assertive
This is when we have confidence to stand our ground, with compassion, not blame. You want to build, restore, or strengthen a relationship.  Your goal is to have the other person willingly change their behavior, with respect to your boundaries.

The way to do this is to directly and calmly ask for the behaviour you would like.  For example: “I’m happy to discuss this, but only when you can do so calmly”.

Make others aware of their unacceptable behaviour. People may not be aware that they are offending you.  For example: “When you are consistently late, I feel like you don’t respect me.

Tell others what you need from them. People don’t automatically know what new behaviour you’re asking for unless you tell them.  For example: “I need you to respect me by arriving on time”.

When the other person is too emotional to engage in a mature dialogue with you. If the other person is not receptive at that time, the best response is to leave and calmly explain why.

True serenity means your happiness and emotions are not dictated by others moods or behaviour.   Whatever the reason they are behaving the way they are, it has nothing to do with you.

Accept that you can’t change anyone else.  But you can control how you react to them and their behaviour.  You can choose not to internalise it.   If someone is jumping up and down and behaving in an irrational way, it’ll soon be obvious who is the emotional one and who is the crazy one!

You also don’t need back up or to have others to allow you to say: “you see, so and so agrees with me”, implying that means you are right.  You don’t need another person to validate your opinion.   If you’re wrong you can also be woman or man enough to admit it.

Setting boundaries is not about winning and losing. It’s about kindness and respect for both parties. People will treat you the way you allow them to treat you.  So, teaching others what you will accept is key to establishing good boundaries.

Will you encounter resistance? Sometimes.  But always  be respectful, keep calm and hold your ground. You are worth it. The more you learn to do this, the more it will come naturally to you and the more respect from others you will get.

Two things that really helped me here were:

Firstly, thinking: What’s the worst that can happen?

I was terrified the first time I confronted that colleague who became verbally abusive towards me.  I had to say to myself: ‘what’s the worst that can happen? He’s not going to hit me!’   Then I took a deep breath and told him his behaviour was unacceptable.  I was happy to discuss things but only on a rational level and when he had calmed down.  I was shaking like a leaf afterwards.  But you know what?

Bullies are cowards.   There’s nothing to fear.   (But make sure you take all emotion out of the discussion.  And don’t let them steer you that way).  So, I stopped being afraid to say no.

Secondly, I stopped being afraid of not being liked, or how others perceived me.  That’s not being selfish, but self-caring.  You don’t have to be liked by everyone.  This was another turning point for me.  I was exhausted trying to please everyone.  Wanting everyone’s approval.   I was done with people-pleasing.

I figured that as long as I walk a straight honest line, treat others with respect.  As long as I stay true to who I am, aligned to my core values and goals.  Then others who are aligned to me will come my way. Those who aren’t will fall away.  And that is exactly what happened.  As I said, you don’t have to be liked by everyone.  Only by those who matter to you.

Are you setting healthy boundaries?  Are you choosing the way you respond to them and doing so assertively, not aggressively when others cross them? Let me know in the comments below.

Are your relationships – past or present – good enough for you?  Do you deserve better?  Try my FREE QUIZ to find out!

Written by Vivian McGrath

Vivian McGrath is a TV Executive Producer who makes documentaries for major US, UK and Australian broadcasters.  She is also a survivor of domestic violence.  Her book ‘Unbeatable (How I Left a Violent Man)’ – her story of surviving abuse to finding success in love and life – will be published soon.  She hopes this blog will help others to become strong, fearless and successful too.  Find out more about Vivian Here.

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