Personal boundaries: how to change the way people treat you

The most significant way we often let ourselves down is by allowing ourselves to be treated in unacceptable ways without doing anything to put a stop to it.

stop roadsign at road junction UKThe repeated thoughtless and careless behaviours we’re sometimes exposed to can damage our confidence and self-esteem. It’s even worse if our self-esteem is low to begin with.

The main reason we tend to be reluctant to deal with such behaviour is because we want to keep the peace at all costs. The problem is that the resentment keeps building up and eventually it will gnaw away at the affection we have for each other.

I often hear complaints about how bad-mannered, inconsiderate, thoughtless or offensive people are. (Take this question a t4w member asked me, for example.) People take us for granted, they don’t listen to a word we say, they are always late, stand us up, are critical, put us down and generally treat us in ways that make us feel small, resentful and frustrated.

When I ask my clients why they don’t put a stop to hurtful behaviour they insist that they hate conflict.

At this point, our mild-sounding inner monster kicks in with thoughts such as they didn’t really mean it, they’ve got a lot on their plate, it doesn’t really matter and variations thereof – all in an effort to maintain the status quo.

However much we try to deceive ourselves, the truth is that we do feel angry, hurt, resentful, upset or offended; we just continue to pretend we don’t.

Personal boundaries

Most people have only a woolly idea about their personal boundaries. Everyone knows what it feels like when these boundaries are crossed, they just haven’t put a name to it yet.

By setting well-defined personal boundaries, you make it clear to everybody that you respect yourself and that you regard yourself worthy of being treated well.

Personal boundaries are the limits people set as to how they want to be treated. These boundaries are fundamental to our emotional health and the health of our relationships, especially the one with our life partner. Emotional honesty and emotional responsibility with ourselves and others are key when setting personal boundaries.

There are three different types of personal boundaries:

Physical Personal Boundaries

Touch is a good example, because whether or not it’s appropriate depends on the relationship and the context. To recognise whether or not someone has crossed the line, see how you feel. If you feel uncomfortable, then that line was crossed.

Emotional Personal Boundaries

People cross our emotional boundaries when they take us for granted, our needs and wants are ignored, we’re not being listened to, we don’t feel accepted for who we are, and so on.

Mental Personal Boundaries

These boundaries are crossed when someone tries to manipulate, control and/or make us feel guilty.

Crossing the line

I have observed an almost universal reluctance to deal with people who cross the line, for reasons explained in my previous article Secrets about self-confidence.

Alternatively, we handle it poorly, with anger, aggression or hostility.

If you try to ignore that behaviour or you deal with it by reacting angrily, you will experience some damaging outcomes:

  • If you don’t confront the behaviour, the person will continue to act in an unacceptable way because you don’t seem to mind.
  • If you deal with it angrily, shouting at them or being hurtful in return, the conflict will only escalate. The old adage that two wrongs don’t make a right is applicable here.
  • If you feel resentful yet say nothing it will, over time, eat away at your affection for this person and end up damaging your relationship.

Considering your personal boundaries also helps you become clear about what matters to you, in terms of how you treat yourself as well as how you allow others to treat you. The value of becoming more self-aware is eventually getting to understand yourself better.

To effectively assert your personal boundaries does not require a shouting match. This is an educational process which takes time, perseverance and patience.

Start by making two lists:

  1. How you do not want to be treated
  2. How you do want to be treated

Include physical, mental and emotional behaviours in both lists, not only in terms of how others treat you but also how you treat yourself. My previous articles on self-confidence and personal gremlins  can help you with this.

It works both ways

When it comes to affirming your personal boundaries, please remember that you need to treat others as you expect them to treat you, e.g. if you’re constantly late when meeting a friend and they get upset yet you continue being late, that is unkind and insensitive behaviour. Respecting other people’s (often unspoken) personal boundaries is essential to expecting them to respect yours.

When someone makes disparaging and judgemental comments, notice your defensiveness. Keep your breathing deep and slow. Before you rush in, immediately denying whatever they said, take a step back and reflect: is there any truth in what they said? If they had said the same thing in a kinder way, would you have been able to take it?

Then respond honestly – the comment might not chime with you at all, parts of it may be true or all of it may be true. Whichever the case may be, authenticity is at the heart of the engagement.

The most powerful approach in the process of educating people on how you want to be treated is called ‘making I-statements’. This is where you express your feelings and wishes from a personal position without blaming or judging the other person – a move away from you’re so thoughtless! to when you talk to me like that I feel really upset.

The ideal, of course, is educating new acquaintances from the very beginning on how we want to be treated. As the saying goes, start as you mean to go on.

About Sue Plumtree

Today, at 72 I am totally fulfilled and purposeful. I call myself The Life Enhancing Coach, working with people over 50 who are ready to create a meaningful and rewarding future – regardless of their present circumstances. You can read more about me on my website.