Drawing a Line in the Sand...

Having your boundaries violated can be devastating, especially when it is repeatedly done by family members, friends, and especially intimate partners. For some, having your boundaries violated can become such a "normal" occurrence that you may not even realize when it is happening. So, how do you know when one of your boundaries has been violated? Answer the following questions: 

  • What does your body tell you when someone violates your boundary?
  • What do your emotions tell you when your boundaries are crossed?
  • Do you feel uneasy, like you are on the edge of getting ready to run? Do you feel your walls come up, becoming guarded with your speech and body language? Do you become angry and/or aggressive?
  • What do you DO when someone violates your boundaries?  Do you ignore it, call it out, set boundaries? Allow your boundaries to be crossed?

If you know the answers to these questions, you are in great shape. If you do not know the answers, do not worry! These questions can be hard to answer and some situations are more clear than others when boundary violations come into play. My hope is that I can give you some clarity around how to recognize your boundary has been violated and how to put boundaries in place with the people who violate them.

I will start by sharing a personal example of how I encountered a Boundary Violator.I was shopping at Home Depot and a female employee was helping me find what I was looking for. After we found the product, we struck up a casual conversation about my hair. (For those who have not met me, I have VERY naturally curly hair). The conversation went like this:

Female Employee: “Do people just come up to you and touch your hair?”

Me: “Yes! All the time!”

Female Employee: “And don’t you just hate that?”

Me: “I really do!”

Female Employee: “Well, I’m going to do it anyway”

And she proceeded to touch and grab my hair. I was in SHOCK! On the outside, I laughed it off like it was oh-so-funny, but on the inside I was so disgusted. How could this random stranger think it was okay to touch and grab my hair AFTER I just let her know how much I hated random people touching me? What kind of person does this? This is what I call a Boundary Violator- someone who violates another boundaries then shows no remorse for their violation.  

After the incident, I was furious. I was mad at myself for freezing and for just laughing it off. I thought of a million different responses I wish I had said instead. I wish I had yelled at her and told her how disrespectful that was. I wish I had demanded to speak to her manager to let the manager know their employee was touching and grabbing customers without their permission. I wish I had slapped her (granted I wouldn't have, but I sure felt like it!). AND, underneath all of the anger, I wanted to cry. I felt unseen, unheard, and like I did not matter, like I had to let people do whatever they wanted to me.

Looking back at this situation, I realized I had bought into an old story of having to be nice to strangers. The story goes like this: If I am not nice to strangers, then I was a mean/bad person.I know now that it is okay to put boundaries in place with strangers and I do not have to “let” people touch me if I do not want them to. They don't get to have access. I know now it would have been perfectly acceptable to let the employee know it was not okay to touch me without my permission.

When our boundaries are violated, we sometimes feel a lot of shame that we “let that happen” and now feel as if it is our “fault” for them violating our boundary. Remember, it is not your fault someone else does not control their actions.

The first step in setting boundaries is to recognize when your boundary is being violated and by whom. For example, your partner yells at you every time they get drunk or look at porn and you feel unsafe being around them but stuck. 

The next step is deciding what the consequences are going to be if your boundary is violated. For example, your boundary with your partner would be to not control their anger regardless of what their choices are and the consequence would be you will leave the environment until they have sobered up. It is also good to consider the consequences if they continueto violate your boundary. If your partner continues to yell at you when they are drunk, a more severe consequence would be you will leave the relationship if it continues or they get to move out.**

**Make sure you are okay with the consequences you have put in place if someone breaks your boundary. If you are not okay with the consequences, the more you are likely to notfollow through with implementing the consequence and letting someone continue to violate your boundary. Be gentle on yourself if you struggle with holding a boundary especially if you are not used to doing so (and get support and help from safe, trustworthy people to help you set the boundary!). 

The next step is to put your boundary in place and let them know of the consequences if they continue to violate your boundary. Setting boundaries can be difficult especially when you are dealing with difficult people. Some people (many) will not react very well when you put a boundary in place, especially if they have gotten away with violating your boundary in the past. They may treat you like it is a punishment, blame or guilt you, or try to manipulate you in order to break your boundary. One of the biggest things to remember when you are setting boundaries is that it is not about punishing at all but rather, it is about feeling safe and creating safety and trust. Gently remind them (and yourself!) this boundary is not to punish them, but to help you feel safe and be able to trust the other person.

Always remember to reach out for support from friends, family, spiritual communities, your therapy group and your therapist. Setting boundaries can be scary and intimidating and you deserve support through that process. We are here for you!

To recap...

  1. Recognize how your boundary is being violated
  2. Who is violating your boundary?
  3. Decide consequences and make sure to ask yourself if you feel comfortable following through with the consequences (get support in picking a consequence that you can stick to).
    1. Remember, you are setting boundaries out of love for yourself and to feel safe and trust again! 

4. Put the boundary in place and let them know the consequences if they continue to violate your boundary: “I am no longer going to put up with yelling and/or name calling when we are having an argument. If you continue to do this, then I will walk away from the situation until you are able to talk to me calmly.”

    - Some boundaries may escalate to stronger consequences: “If you continue to call me names I will end our relationship.”

5. Gently remind yourself setting boundaries is not about punishing someone else, it is about feeling safe in your relationship and environment.

6. Reach out for support! We are here for you! You deserve it!


Annie Jacobs, LACMHC
Partner, Trauma, and Addictions Specialist