I'm A Relationship Expert & This Is How To Respond When Someone Sets A Boundary
There's a whole lot of talk out there about boundaries, how to set them, and why they're so important to our mental, emotional, and relationship health. However, what about when someone sets a boundary with you?
Next time you're confronted with someone else's boundary, here's how to respond with compassion—and avoid the knee-jerk reaction of defensiveness.
Why responding to boundaries with compassion can be a challenge
By now we all understand the importance of setting boundaries, but when someone actually sets a boundary with us, there can still be an impulse to fight back or get defensive. As licensed marriage and family therapist, and founder and CEO of Ellie Mental Health, Erin Pash, LMFT tells mindbodygreen, boundaries can also be one-sided or collaborative, and it's the one-sided ones that tend to get us the most worked up.
For example, let's say your friend sets a boundary with you that if you continue to show up late to things, they're not going to invite you anymore. That's their boundary—but from your perspective, they just attacked you.
Couples therapist Linda Carroll, LMFT calls this the "red zone" of communication, in which our neurobiological reaction to perceived threats (physical or psychological) is to enter a state of fight or flight. "Our heart rate spikes, our muscles tighten, and our focus narrows," she recently wrote for mindbodygreen, adding, "Our ability to see the big picture and the details vanish when we’re in this state, as do any of those non-native communication techniques we read about on the internet that one time."
So despite how much we'd like to, it's not always easy to respond to a boundary with understanding.
3 tips for responding to boundaries
Pause before you react
In any heated conversation, including when you're getting heated about a boundary someone just placed, your best bet is to take a beat, according to Pash.
"If your response to somebody's boundary is that you can't get curious and ask questions, and it's immediately becoming defensive, you need to give your brain and body time to calm down," she says, adding, "Whatever you do at that point is going to be reactive, so the best advice is to calm your central nervous system, look at the boundary after you've taken some space, and then come back to it."
And for what it's worth, it's totally acceptable to say something along the lines of, "I'd be happy to talk about this with you more, after I've had some time to reflect on it."
Next comes reflection, and you can take as long as you need for this step, whether it's half an hour or 48. When you remove yourself from the situation and give yourself a chance to calm down, then you can look at the situation more objectively. "And when you do take some space, it's like, "Oh wait, I do do that, and I can understand why they're frustrated with me," Pash says.
Seek to understand & collaborate
When you're ready to come back to the conversation, do so with curiosity, openness, and plenty of deep breaths. As Pash tells mindbodygreen, let them know you care about your relationship, as well as how your behavior impacts them, and that you want to work to fix it.
To stick with the example of being late, you could say, "I don't want to be the person who shows up 30 minutes late to everything and then you don't invite me anymore." And of course, make sure you follow through.
However, Pash adds, "There still needs to be some onus back on the boundary setter—like what is their expected outcome of said boundary? And is it a conversation instead of a one-sided boundary?"
To that end, she adds, boundaries have to be collaborative in order for both people to feel seen and understood, so the bottom line here is finding a way to reach an agreement about the boundary in place.
What do you say when someone sets boundaries?
When someone sets a boundary, pause if you need to, get curious about where this boundary is coming from, and acknowledge your role in the boundary being set.
How do you respond when someone pushes your boundaries?
When someone pushes your boundaries, specifically explain the behavior that upset you and how it made you feel. Let the person know you will not tolerate that behavior in the future.
It can be easy to get defensive when someone sets a boundary with you and you perceive it as an attack, but boundaries can also open us up to understanding each other's needs—and how to co-exist with more harmony and understanding.
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, a registered yoga instructor, and an avid astrologer and tarot reader. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from State University of New York at Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.