I didn’t learn until I was well into my thirties about the importance of boundaries. I had always enjoyed mutually respectful relationships where that really wasn’t that important. Then I learned what it was like to be in a relationship where someone saw your emotional boundaries as challenges to be overcome, not things to be respected. It took leaving that person’s physical space to be able to even begin to establish boundaries, and I still have to deal with them constantly trying to blow through like the Kool-Aid man. So how do you establish boundaries?
Recognize your right to establish boundaries: Because I was so bad at this, for a while as I was getting separated, I had this quote at my desk: “You’re human, and you have the right to say, “That was shitty of you.” You have a right to protest your own mistreatment and set boundaries for respectful interactions. The rest of the world doesn’t realize you have this right, and they will act offended and appalled when you exercise it, but it is yours.” This was very true for me during that time - everyone from my ex-husband to my mother was shocked and offended when I started standing up for myself, but you know what? They got over it, and while our relationships are different now, they are much healthier.
Recognize the issue: Unless you have a clear idea of what someone is doing that causes you distress or resentment, you won’t be able to talk to them in a way that makes your boundary clear.
Explore your feelings: Where is this coming from? Do they have to do with the person involved, or are they more related to things in your past you haven’t dealt with? This will both help you understand yourself and what is fair to ask of someone else and will help you better express the “why” of your boundary.
Communicate clearly, but not combatively: If it is the other person’s fault, you want to make sure you express yourself in a way that allows them to feel safe as you are expressing your needs. If it is something that you need from them because of emotions that don’t come from them, (i.e. this behavior makes me feel triggered because of something my mother did growing up) they need to hear that. Your best bet for success is to express yourself calmly and positively. If it devolves into a fight, take a breather and come back later.
Be ready to stand up for yourself: If the person is the type to disregard your feelings, prepare for that. They don’t have to agree with you or understand that it is important. But they do have to respect that it is important to you. You may not be able to get them to empathize, but that doesn’t mean your feelings are any less valid, and they need to respect your request, even if they discount you.
For example, I recently told my family I didn’t enjoy jokes they told that related to my son’s safety (i.e., putting him in a catapult - obviously not serious). I explained that even though I knew they were joking I found the jokes stressful because I have a tendency to visualize graphic, violent situations - it’s part of my anxiety disorder. They told me “consider the source, it’s just a joke.” I let them know that their right to make a joke did not supersede my right to be free from the emotional distress their joke caused. They think I’m crazy, but I don’t care.
Be consistent about enforcement: It may take a while for behavior to change. A few gentle reminders of your boundary should come before you make it a serious topic again.
Have a contingency plan when you know they won’t honor your boundaries: The less emotionally mature people in your life may see your boundaries as a wall and themselves as the Kool-Aid man. It is extremely important for these people that you have a backup plan to make sure their disrespect doesn’t interfere with your emotional well being.
For example, I have requested that my ex-husband not text me after 11 pm; he has a tendency to send long rants at 2 in the morning. I know there is no way he is ever going to honor that. So I keep my phone on silent so when he does blow up my phone, it doesn’t disturb me.
If possible, get out of the space of those who don’t respect you: If you have someone in your life who continually disrespects your emotional well-being, especially after you have calmly discussed your needs and they continue to walk over you, it may be necessary for you to take larger action and remove them from your life. It can be extremely difficult emotionally to extract yourself, but take it from someone on the other side - life is much better without them.