What to Do If Someone Is Overstepping Boundaries

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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What should you do when someone is overstepping boundaries with you? What’s the best way to respond to boundary violations?

It can be distressing when someone oversteps your boundaries, but you shouldn’t jump to conclusions. When someone crosses your personal boundaries, it doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t respect them.

Therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab explains how to deal with boundary violations, both minor and major.

Dealing With Boundary Violations

According to Tawwab, overstepping boundaries often happens as a natural part of the boundary-setting process. Even the most respectful people will take a little time to adjust to new boundaries in a relationship, and in the meantime, they’ll likely slip up and default to old behaviors. While this adjustment period can be painful, violations that occur during this process provide you with an opportunity to reinforce your boundaries, thereby strengthening your relationships in the long run.

(Shortform note: It’s important to recognize the distinction between boundary violations that occur naturally as part of an adjustment process, and violations that occur because the other person doesn’t respect your boundaries. When someone doesn’t respect your boundaries, they’ll bring the subject up again and again, questioning and arguing about your needs. On the other hand, when someone simply slips up, they’ll tend to react more apologetically, recognizing their own mistake.)

In addition to honest mistakes, Tawwab reiterates that people may push back against your boundaries because they’re afraid that their relationship with you will change or end. Reasserting your boundaries without backing away from the relationship can help the other person feel more secure, which may lead them to push back against your boundaries less.

(Shortform note: Pushback against boundaries can often take subtle forms, such as people taking a rude or aggressive tone of voice when they don’t respect your boundaries. While it can be tempting to ignore subtle pushback, it’s best to address the situation immediately to avoid having to deal with continued pushback.)

Not all boundary violations are equal. Some violations are relatively minor, causing only slight distress, while others are more major, causing more intense harm and requiring a more drastic response. Glover provides tips for what to do when someone is overstepping boundaries, minor and major.

Minor Violations

According to Tawwab, minor violations are mild, everyday occurrences that are more annoying than they are distressing. These kinds of violations won’t ruin your day or your week, but they are noticed and felt.

(Shortform note: While major and minor boundary violations differ in severity, minor violations can still cause serious harm, and should be taken seriously. For instance, while they may be minor compared to other forms of aggression, subtle racial remarks known as microaggressions can negatively impact the mental health of their targets. When you’re repeatedly subjected to microaggressions, you may become depressed and experience diminished cognitive function and productivity. Thus, these minor violations are worth setting boundaries around.)

For example, suppose you set a boundary with a close friend, stating clearly that you can’t lend them money anymore. The next week, when you’re going to see a movie together, they ask to borrow a few dollars to buy popcorn with. While this mild boundary violation won’t put you out much, it’s still a violation and will likely still cause you some degree of annoyance.

Major Violations

On the other hand, major violations are serious breaches of trust that directly harm you and your relationship. According to Tawwab, these kinds of violations hurt deeply, and may require you to take drastic action to protect yourself.

To return to our prior example, suppose that you have the same friend over for dinner later that week. The next morning, while getting dressed, you realize that a necklace your grandmother gave you is missing. It turns out that your friend took the necklace and pawned it for cash. Given that the necklace was of significant sentimental and material value, this major violation makes you extremely upset and forces you to reconsider your friendship.

(Shortform note: Major boundary violations often involve power imbalances that make it difficult for you to safely address them. For example, a negative comment about your appearance from a stranger probably won’t seriously impact your life, no matter how you choose to respond to it. However, if a person in a position of power over you, such as a landlord, a professor, or an employer makes an inappropriate comment, it’ll likely cause a greater degree of stress, as you’ll risk more if you decide to stand up to them.)

What to Do If Someone Is Overstepping Boundaries

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  • How to transform the relationships in your life with boundaries
  • Why people struggle to reinforce their boundaries
  • A step-by-step guide for identifying and communicating your boundaries

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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