My parents were world class boundary violators so I’ve had some personal experience with this issue. My mother didn’t know where she stopped and I started. I used to joke that she was the kind who would say “I’m cold; you need to put on a sweater.”
My father could start out chatting with someone at a party and make them so mad they would end up threatening him with bodily harm.
I believe it is more difficult to handle boundary violations by people we are closer to. Here are some ways to understand and deal with them.
Types of Boundary Violations
As described by Pia Mellody, boundary violations can be either external or internal. External boundary violations have to do with physical space like standing too close, unwelcome touching or behaving in too familiar a way. When someone grabs food off your plate without asking it may be a violation of your external boundaries.
Internal boundary violations include things like taking responsibility for someone else’s thoughts, feelings or behavior. When someone assumes that they know how you think, feel or what you should do they are violating your internal boundaries. When someone tells you how to conduct your life or tries to manipulate you in covert ways they are violating your boundaries. Internal boundaries are also being violated when someone blames you for what they are feeling.
Who violates your boundaries?
Other people violate your healthy boundaries because they have poor boundaries. They have a weak sense of self and cannot maintain respect for your separate identity. This can result from a number of different causes.
- Some people are impaired in the area of social perception and reading social cues. They can be inappropriate or intrusive due to a disorder such as asperger’s, autism spectrum disorder or some brain injuries which result in a social disconnect.
- Some people are disrespectful of others’ boundaries because of a personality disorder such as borderline personality or narcissistic personality. Such people may be uncaring and thus negligent of your boundaries due to an extreme self-focus.
- Insecure people are sometimes prone to violating boundaries because they feel needy and inferior to you. They see you as so much stronger that they are blind to the fact that you have needs and vulnerabilities.
- Last but not least, sex addicts and sexually compulsive people behave in inappropriate ways toward others because it is an ingrained pattern for coping with negative emotions and fears. This compulsion often involves violating others with unwanted advances, inappropriate comments or touching and so on.
Do’s and Don’ts of responding to the violating behavior
Boundary violations can be anywhere from vaguely annoying to traumatic. Here are some important things to remember about these types of situations.
- Don’t accept it as the norm. Boundary violations are not a sign of love or intimacy. You need to deal with the violating situation in order to have good boundaries yourself. You need to give yourself the added strength that comes from a positive message that says: “Self, I’m strong and I’ll protect you.”
- Don’t avoid. Avoidance is sometimes the only way to deal with a boundary violator but it doesn’t allow you to practice sticking up for yourself and it deprives the other person of a reality check, but in some situations there is no other choice.
- Don’t respond by violating back. This means that although you may feel justifiably angry, you cannot deal effectively with the violator by lashing out or getting in their face. This may just result in an escalating conflict.
- Do confront the person assertively. This means sticking to your guns and not getting batted back with statements like “Oh, that’s just how I am; I do that with everyone.” The appropriate response to this is to say something like “I don’t want you to do it with me.” (Don’t worry if your initial attempts are ungraceful; it gets easier.)
- Do identify enmeshment. Sometimes when two people lack good boundaries the issue is confused because neither person can set good boundaries and violation becomes a way of life. Don’t feel that you need to accept this but realize that an initial attempt to set boundaries may be seen as a betrayal. Everyone needs privacy and separateness for their relationships to be sustainable.
Dealing with a boundary violator involves the ability to set good boundaries yourself. This may not always get the result you want. I am reminded of the slogan “accept it, change it, or leave it.” But whatever you do or don’t do it is important to see the violation for what it is.