When someone is overstepping boundaries, how do you react?
Personally, I used to stew in anger and resentment… but never actually speak up.
Annoyingly, the problem would continue.
My boss would keep making sexist comments in the office. My friend would keep expecting me to fix her problems for her. My colleague would keep speaking to me like shit (and I’d just take it).
I hated it. But I didn’t do anything to CHANGE it.
The final straw came when a client was treating me horribly and I was making myself ill with the stress of it. I realised people wouldn’t change unless I:
- Asked them to
- Stopped making it okay for them to cross my boundaries
- No longer tolerated their behaviour
So I started using this simple 3-step process to speak my truth and get my needs met whenever someone’s overstepping boundaries.
1. Breathe, pause, wait.
The first step is to let the initial emotion pass (whether it’s anger, sadness, or despair).
I’ve learned the hard way that thinking clearly and having a civil conversation is IMPOSSIBLEwhen you’re hopped up on adrenaline and your stress response is engaged. It’s also hard for people to hear us in this state.
So first, pause.
Step away if you have to. Take a deep breath in and out through the nose. Inhale for a count of 3, exhale for a count of 6.
Let yourself feel the emotion but give yourself time to calm down before moving on to step #2.
2. Notice your stories.
When someone’s overstepping boundaries, our mind goes crazy with judgments about the other person and how [inconsiderate/rude/awful] they are.
But take a moment to consider what’s *actually* going on:
- What stories are you telling yourself about this situation?
- Are you mind-reading? Do you actually know what the other person is thinking, or not?
- What labels are you putting on the other person?
- If a stranger observed what just happened, not knowing anything about either of you, what would they say?
- Is there any seed of truth here? What’s underneath all of this?
Your job is to translate this stuff.
Hidden underneath the judgment are our true feelings, needs, and desires.
To reveal these, it can help to meditate, journal, or speak to someone who’s willing to listen and reflect (a therapist is always a good option but an empathic friend will do, too).
3. Have an awkward conversation.
I won’t lie to you—these conversations are never comfortable.
If you’ve spent a lifetime letting people walk all over you (as I did), it’s not easy to stand up for yourself and say, “hey, this isn’t okay and I’m not going to take it anymore”.
This conversation will go way more smoothly if you stay away from blame and instead use mostly “I” statements, e.g. “I feel…”, “I want…”, “I need…”.
Plus, bear in mind that:
- Your assumptions about what the other person did and why might be wrong—don’t assuming you know what their intentions were.
- They’ll want to share their side of the story so be willing to hear them out while still being clear about yours.
- It’s always okay to set boundaries without needing to give a reason or explain yourself. Your feelings and needs are important.
Before having this conversation, get clear on what you want.
If your boss is making sexist comments and you want them to stop, can you ask to only stick to work-related topics of conversation? If your friend only ever talks about herself, can you ask her if she’s willing to listen to your problems for a change?
It’s always better to ask for what you DO want (“I’d prefer this”) rather than what you DON’T want (“stop doing this”).
So take time to reflect on the actions you’d like the other person to take.
Maintaining your boundaries
Once you start setting boundaries and being clear about what you will or won’t tolerate, you see how freeing it is to ask for—and get—what you want in life.
The key is to maintain boundaries once you’ve set them. That means if someone crosses them again, you call them out on it. You have another awkward convo. You don’t let it go or put up with stuff anymore.
Yes, boundaries are hard. But keeping ’em in place is essential for our wellbeing!