Communicating Boundaries: Common Mistakes to Avoid

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Set Boundaries, Find Peace" by Nedra Glover Tawwab. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How do you communicate your personal boundaries? Is there a right and a wrong way to communicate your boundaries?

Communicating boundaries in interpersonal relationships is tricky, especially for those who grew up in a family where there was no concept of personal boundaries. As a result, many people resort to toxic methods to communicate where their boundaries lie.

Therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab highlights several communication patterns to avoid when setting your boundaries.

How Not to Set Boundaries

Many people use passive aggression, aggression, and manipulation when communicating boundaries. Whether or not they realize it, everyone exhibits these behaviors at times—even you. This isn’t because we’re bad, selfish people, but rather because boundary-setting is difficult, especially if you’ve never been taught to do it. However, these common tendencies don’t help us maintain healthy relationships. Because of this, Tawwab recommends that you look out for these patterns and avoid them.

Avoid Passive Communication

In addition to the three negative communication patterns Tawwab outlines, some authors list a fourth negative pattern: passive communication. Passive communicators usually don’t see their own needs as important. Because of this, passive communicators almost never share their needs with others. Instead, they prefer to focus on meeting the needs of others in their relationships. 

In the long run, passive communication isn’t an effective strategy for building fulfilling relationships. Without knowing how you feel and what you need, the people in your life won’t have the information they need to be good to you, and you deny them the chance to get to know you more intimately.

As Tawwab describes, passive aggression involves doling out consequences for violations without first taking time to communicate your boundaries. It can be easy to fall into this pattern—when someone does something you don’t like, many people find it natural to sulk or retaliate. However, behaving passive-aggressively usually doesn’t help you get your needs met because the other person won’t know what they’ve done wrong or how to do better until you tell them.

(Shortform note: If you’re struggling to avoid passive-aggression, it may be worth talking to a therapist about it. Mental health professionals note that passive-aggression sometimes presents as a symptom of untreated mental illness. If your passive-aggression is related to mental illness, seeking treatment may make it easier for you to cut down on communicating this way.)

Aggression is exactly what it sounds like—getting upset and raising your voice, shaming people, and picking fights in response to unwanted behaviors. While aggressive communication can help you get your point across, it will also make others afraid of you and may even make them retreat from the relationship entirely. Because of these damaging effects, Tawwab argues that aggression isn’t an effective tool for maintaining relationships. 

(Shortform note: While Tawwab argues that aggression isn’t generally a good communication tool, other authors argue that aggressive communication can be helpful in certain situations. If you’re in a situation that you’re worried might become dangerous, taking aggressive action may help you to exit the situation quickly.)

Finally, manipulation involves using indirect methods to try to get what you want without directly communicating boundaries. Often, Tawwab argues, manipulators try to use guilt to get other people to do what they want. Just like aggression, manipulation makes other people feel fearful and uncomfortable, and it may cause people to resent you or leave relationships with you. Because of this, manipulation ultimately isn’t a very useful communication tool.

(Shortform note: Because manipulators try to control situations subtly and indirectly, it can be difficult to recognize manipulation in your relationships. For instance, in addition to overt behaviors such as bullying and insults, manipulation can include subtle methods, such as a refusal to engage in conflict, as well as “love bombing.” In Why Does He Do That?, Lundy Bancroft explains that “love bombing” is a pattern of behavior in which a manipulative person offers excessive affection at the beginning of a relationship to win you over. Then, they withhold their affection in an attempt to gain leverage over you. If one of your relationships falls into this pattern, it may be a sign that you’re being manipulated.)

As an example, suppose you’re feeling overburdened at work, and one of your coworkers approaches you to ask if you can handle a challenging project for them. The healthiest option would be to immediately and explicitly state your boundaries, saying something like “I appreciate that you’re having a difficult time, but I can’t help you with this project.” On the other hand, if you choose to manipulate your coworker instead of directly expressing your boundaries, you might lie and say that you heard management was disappointed in your coworker’s lack of initiative. While this behavior might convince your coworker to finish the project on their own, you’d probably also make your coworker upset, especially if they found out you lied to them.

Communicating Boundaries: Common Mistakes to Avoid

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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