Boundary pushers: why they do it and how to stop them

Well, you did it.

You dug deep and identified boundaries that need to be set. You communicated those boundaries to the people that matter.

You’re all set.

Or so you think.

Inevitably, someone in your life will object to a boundary and will push back.

They refuse to acknowledge it. Or they disregard it. Or they try to shame or ridicule or guilt you into abandoning it because it makes them uncomfortable, or it isn’t fair, or they feel offended.

This happens all the time…but that doesn’t make it right.

Why do people push back on boundaries?

If we could all go back to the beginning of every one of our relationships and set boundaries, knowing which ones we’d need to set with which people, life would be a helluva lot easier. But the truth is, we can’t, and the challenge is not always know which boundaries need setting until they’ve already been violated. It’s part of the experience of life.

True you’ll meet the odd person who is up front about boundaries (ie: I won’t work weekends, or I won’t answer my emails after hours, or I won’t go out after 8pm because my kids’ bedtimes are sacred to me), but it’s usually because they’ve learned the importance of those boundaries the hard way.

Often we allow people to behave a certain way and we accommodate it because it doesn’t seem like such a big deal in the beginning, so we’ll explain or excuse it away. Sometimes it’s because we want their approval or don’t want to upset them. For example, allowing a friend to continually show up late because that’s “just who they are” or “it was only 20 mins”. Or maybe answering those work emails after hours because “it’s just this once”.

Those “no big deals”, once allowed to happen, will often continue and snowball into bigger deals. When you then set a boundary around that behaviour, trying to stop the encroachment on your time and your energy, you’ll experience push-back.

If you read last week’s post, you’ll know why boundaries are important and you’ll have the steps to set them. But why do people push back on boundaries and how can you deal with it?

The reasons people push back on boundaries

There are a lot of reasons why people will refuse to acknowledge boundaries, but the more common reasons tend to be one of the following:

  1. They feel your boundary is unreasonable.
  2. Your boundary makes them uncomfortable.
  3. They’ve never been held accountable for that behaviour before.
  4. Your boundary requires them to be honest with themselves about their own behaviour.

All 4 of these reasons force the other person to examine themselves. Not everyone is comfortable doing that. Self-examination often requires a level of awareness that many people do not have.

If you’ve clearly communicated the value of your boundary to the person it applies to, and they still find it unreasonable, then it’s usually because they see their own time and energy as more valuable than yours. They don’t like it because it inconveniences them.

If your boundary makes them uncomfortable it’s usually because it’s forcing them to examine a truth about their behaviour that is making them uncomfortable. It likely has little to do with your actual boundary; they’ve just been made to see they’re probably being a little bit of a jerk or being unreasonable themselves.

If they’ve never been held accountable for a particular behaviour before they may feel angry or offended that you have an issue with it. They may respond with anger, or bullying, or ridicule, but again, it’s about them and not you. It’s a direct push back against a power move they’ve grow accustomed to, a behaviour they probably use to get what they want when they want it.

The point is, it’s very rarely your boundary that is the issue. It’s the requirement for them to change their behaviour to continue being around you that’s causing issues.

Standing your ground with boundary pushers

Regardless of how a person responds, and no matter what kind of push back you get, remember that your needs are just as important as anyone else’s. When you doubt your own importance, you allow the manipulations of others into your life. Your boundaries are not a democracy.

Be firm but kind with boundary pushers. Don’t allow them to bully you into changing your mind or relenting simply because they don’t like it. Your boundary may be forcing them to view themselves in a less than flattering light and if that’s the case, they probably needed it.

It’s also important to have realistic expectations of people. Some people simply will not relent because they resent that you’ve decided to draw a line. If that’s the case, try to limit your interactions with that person rather than trying to get them to acknowledge or accept your boundary.

And if you’ve decided on a consequence for boundary violations, make sure you follow through. That’s really important. If you’re unwilling to hold a boundary firm, you have to ask yourself why that is? What’s holding you back from enforcing a line you clearly feel the need to draw?

It’s important to remember that boundaries are critical for your mental and emotional well-being. When you are unwilling to uphold a boundary, you are willingly allowing people to violate them. People WILL push back, expect it. But remember that it’s very often about them, and less about you and your lines.

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