Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively

Response Options to
 Boundary Violations

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Expert's Council

The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/cx/apps/boundaries.htm

Updated  01-14-2015

      Clicking underlined links here will open a new window. Other links will open  an informational popup, so please turn off your browser's popup blocker or allow popups from this nonprofit Web site. If your playback device doesn't support Javascript, the popups may not display. Follow underlined links after finishing this article to avoid getting lost.

      This YouTube video provides perspective on what you'll read in this article. It mentions eight self-improvement lessons in this site - I've simplified that to seven:

      This is one of a series of brief articles on how to respond effectively to annoying social behavior. An effective response occurs when you get your primary needs met well enough, and both people feel respected enough.

      This article offers useful responses someone who violates your personal boundaries. It assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this nonprofit Web site and the premises underlying it

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 and 2

  • requisites and basic options for all responses

  • how to give effective feedback to someone

  • overviews of effective assertion and empathic listening skills.

  • perspective on asserting boundaries


      A universal animal need is to defend personal space - i.e. to set and enforce psychological and physical boundaries. You've evolved a complex set of unconscious boundaries across your years from life experience. Like most people, you probably don't consciously think about your boundaries until they're violated "significantly."

      Psychological boundaries or limits have to do with (a) not facing uncomfortable personal realities, and (b) not revealing personal information to other people that could cause embarrassment, harm, or rejection. As we get to know and dis/trust other people, our psychological boundaries may shrink or expand. They also shift with age, increasing self-confidence, and self-growth.

      Physical (sensory) boundaries vary with sexual mores and situational context. Example - I'd welcome a backrub from my best friend, but not a stranger. I'll kiss my own child goodnight, but not a friend's teenaged daughter. I'll hug you (with your permission) unless you're contagious. If you stand too close to me, I'll step back. If you caress me and I don't know or trust your intentions, I'll feel uncomfortable. We each have boundaries with sights, sounds, odors, tastes, and touching, which start in infancy and become mostly unconscious.

      Behavioral boundaries define what actions we will and won't tolerate with various other people in various situations. For example, I won't tolerate your talking lewdly, or too loudly, or exposing your body to me (unless I want that). 

      Cultural experience teaches us to assume some limits with each other (e.g. bad breath, body odor, and men kissing men are no-nos), and we intentionally assert and defend other unique personal limits. (I need you not to crack your gum or smoke around me).

       A major task in forming every relationship is learning each others' boundaries, and evolving a mutually-acceptable way of regulating and enforcing them when they're violated. Do you have an effective way of doing this with key adults and kids in your life?

      Can you describe your habitual response when someone violates an important personal boundary? Do you repress? Get angry? Feel annoyed and irritated? Criticize? Threaten? Plead? Hint? Joke? Whine? Attack? Insult? Growl? Rant? Lecture? Generalize? Leave? Avoid? Pretend? If you violate someone else's boundaries, how would you like them to respond?

      Two universal challenges are responding to people who (a) don't know your boundaries, and who (b) know and ignore (disrespect) them. The first merits respectful assertion (teaching). The second merits firm enforcement - i.e. enacting some behavioral consequence ("If you call me after using drugs, I'm going to hang up.")

      The rest of this article focuses on responses to the second challenge - boundary intrusions or violations. The fundamental issue here is preserving your integrity (self respect) in the face of aggression (disrespect). Are you aware of how you do that now? Is it effective? Typical survivors of low-nurturance  childhoods often have trouble asserting and enforcing boundaries effectively.

      Now think of an adult or child who violates your boundaries "too often." Keep them in mind as you review your...

Response Options

  • Use awareness to (a) be clear on your boundaries, and (b) notice when they've been violated "too much."

  • Mentally recall these response-basics until they become a habit.

  • Identify how you feel about the boundary violation and the violator. Your feelings point toward  unfilled needs.

  • Decide if you need to respond now or later. If so, decide what you need to do: Vent? Offer feed-back Assert a consequence? Protect your self respect?  Forgive? Warn? Remind? Set a new limit or consequence? Protect your relationship? Something else? Based on your need/s, try one or more responses like these:

"(Name), I feel violated and disrespected by you, because ____________."

"You just exceeded / ignored / discounted / my limit."

"When you agree to respect my limit (about _____ ) and then you ignore it, I feel disrespected, and I lose trust in you."

"Stop. I don't need an explanation or excuse. I need you to know how I feel and what I need."

"If you choose to ignore my boundary (again), I'm going to (take some specific action)."

"I've asked you not to just drop in. Please leave me alone now."

"(Name), I'm really hurt, frustrated, and angry at (your specific boundary violation)!"

"From now on, I'm going to (make a specific relationship change) because I no longer trust you (about ________ )."

"No, I will not back off / change my mind / soften my consequence."

"Who's needs do \you feel are more important here - yours or mine?" The best answer is "Both of ours.")

"You're focused only on your needs. My needs (and values) are just as important as yours."

"That's none of your business, (Name)."

"(Please) take your hands off me."

"I feel you're intruding in my life / space / business. Back off!"

"No, I won't discuss that with you."

"Do you know what a personal boundary is?"

"When people ignore or violate your boundaries, what do you feel?"

      Note the theme of these examples - brief, honest, direct, and respectful. No hinting, apologies, or long explanations. Can you imagine yourself calmly responding like them without anxiety, guilt, or shame? If not, review your personal rights and decide if a false self is causing your unease.

Responses to Avoid

      Most people react to intrusions and boundary violations without awareness - specially if they're ruled by a false self. Protective subselves are apt to use lose-lose responses like these:

"You are unbelievably nosy!" (a provocative "You" statement)

"I wish you wouldn't do that." (A timid 1-down assertion)

"(Name), d'you mind?" (a vague protest, not an assertion)

"Some people are really insensitive, don't you think?" (an indirect complaint)

"How would it feel if I did that to you?" (a fruitless attempt to get compliance, not problem-solve)

"You can be such a jerk!" (a generalized, combative put-down)

"OK, that's IT! I'm telling Monica about your affair!" (1-up revenge)

"(Name), you have the sensitivity of a goldfish." (a sarcastic insult)

"Why can't you be as empathic as _______ ?" (a shaming comparison)

Can you think of other ineffective examples of reacting to boundary violations?

Bottom line - you have a wide range of possible effective responses to people who ignore your boundaries and intrude on you. See these options for responding to arrogant, egotistical, and over-aggressive people for more choices. 


      This is one of a series of brief articles suggesting effective ways to respond to common social behaviors. This article offers (a) perspective on interpersonal boundaries and boundary violations, and (b) ways to respond effectively to an overly-intrusive person. The ways are based on...

  • keeping your true Self in charge,

  • maintaining a mutual-respect attitude,

  • clarity on your limits, feelings, needs, and personal rights, and...

  • fluency in the relationship skills of awareness, assertion, and empathic listening.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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