How To Set Boundaries Without Fearing the Looming Backlash

woman with boundaries

Finally! Some solitude!’

Some much needed “me time”, away from the ever-present demands of work and family!

You look forward to the blessed hour with a rush of anticipation akin to the wait before the arrival of a lover.

But the phone rings.

With mounting dread, you silently mouth a prayer and look at who’s calling. It’s Jeanie – your “friend”,  who always treats you as an on-call emotional garbage dump.

As she riles on about her kids, her work, her husband, you keep an eye on the minutes slipping by – your despair mounting. The kids will be home soon.

When she finally lets off, it’s only 10 minutes until your kids arrive. The cozy time that you had planned reading that book has been brutally snatched away from you.

You want to scream in frustration.

But you calm yourself down. You berate yourself for being so “selfish”. At least you brightened up Jeanie’s day (yeah, well, until she calls again).

And what kind of mother dreads the arrival of her own children back home? Something must be wrong with yourself, right?

“Toughen up”, you say to yourself as you gear up for the grind ahead – preparing food, homework, calming their tantrums.

And the pattern continues everywhere in your life. You are browbeaten into picking up more than fair share at work. You are guilt-tripped to volunteer at social events or charities.

You constantly feel powerless. There is so much pressure to say “yes” to everyone and everything – even to requests or people that suck the life out of you. You feel you give and give until you were tapped out, but get nothing in return.

Others have started to dictate your life. You have given them so much power over yourself that you don’t know where you end and others begin.

So many times you have thought to stand up for yourself, to push back, to set some boundaries. But saying no to others scares the pants off of you. You worry about their reaction, and fear the inevitable backlash that will come.

And then there is good ol’ guilt. The guilt of being too selfish

So you stay depleted and trudge ahead – one step away from turning into a mindless zombie. Is there any way out of this mess? 

Fortunately, there is a way to set boundaries without dreading the backlash.

What can a Netflix Horror Series Teach you about Boundaries?

zombie
Image by Kevin Phillips from Pixabay

Let’s take a step back and consider a scenario. Imagine that you are Rick Grimes from “The Walking Dead” (the famed post-apocalyptic horror series). You and a group of survivors find yourself in a zombie-infested open area and you have to survive the night. You know you have to secure the perimeter by setting up a boundary.

Do you allow yourself to feel guilt? I hope not, or else the mindless zombies will devour each and every one of you.

Similarly, you have to protect your emotional space and your sanity by setting up boundaries. They will keep the mindless zombies, like unwelcome advances, intrusions of time and mental space, at bay.

They will push back, devoid of the fresh meat, but you have to hold fast.

So how do you go about setting boundaries around your emotional space? Do what Rick Grimes would do :

(also featuring Wade, who probably turned up to take notes on a real zombie-apocalypse survival )

Scope Out the Terrain and Set the Perimeter

As Joaquín Selva, Bc.S. says, a boundary is a space between you and the other person; a demarcation where you begin and the other person ends. It exists to take good care of you.

So how do you know where to place this boundary?

“No Wade, not in your backyard, but good try nonetheless.”

You gain access to your inner world and get to know your beliefs, emotions, feelings, and ideas. Find out what you can tolerate and accept. What makes you feel uncomfortable or stressed?

Figure out what you want from your various relationships, and set boundaries based on those wants. 

Put up Some Flashing Signs

sign board
Photo by Jadon Kelly on Unsplash

Once you’ve set those boundaries, you have to follow through and let other people (and yourself) know about them. Put some flashing signs you know. 

“Yes, Wade, I know you’re proud of your NXG1100 series solar-powered floodlight, but we are talking about stuff like emotions here – remember?”

Don’t expect others to be mind readers – they are not. State to them clearly what’s acceptable and what is not.

When they have crossed a boundary, let them know. Have an honest conversation. Use assertive language.

Scary, right? Easier said than done?

I know. It churns up tons of insecurities and uncomfortable feelings (especially if you are used to being without boundaries).

But take heart. The process only gets easier as you do this more often.

“Trespassers Will be Shot”

As Sara Stillman Berger notes, a boundary, by itself, has no use if you don’t set the consequences. Set up your own version of the “Trespassers will be Prosecuted” sign.

“Wow Wade, that’s a scary looking sign for sure! Actually, do you mind if I keep it?”

Start by making a request – what’s acceptable and what’s unacceptable to you.

Then state the consequence. Let them know how you are going to handle the situation if they are unable to keep your request.

Ensure that your boundary doesn’t change into a tripwire. You don’t want to blow up innocent people to smithereens when they unknowingly cross your personal boundary.

Expect Pushbacks

pushing back
Photo by Drew Hays on Unsplash

Now that the boundaries and the consequences have been placed, you should be okay, right?

Well, there’s just one problem…

Even though you’ve communicated your boundaries, I guarantee that you’ll feel pushbacks from others. More so, if you have let them have their way with you forever.

Resist and hold fast, even if it feels uncomfortable or scary. Remember what’s at stake here; nothing less than your sanity and your right to exist.

Resist the urge to over-explain. You, like everyone else, have a right to determine what you want to do and what you don’t.

Then take this up to the next level. Identify those who don’t respect your boundaries and think nothing of invading your space – even after learning the consequences. Watch them as they grow more obvious, desperate and shrill as they try to up the ante to further their agenda.

Resist them. And if possible, stay away from them.

Place Sensors Along the Boundary

Often, you are not even conscious of some of your boundaries. But your body has excellent sensors to detect when one of them is being crossed.

“Yes Wade, I’m impressed by your motion sensors, CCTVs, and surveillance setup. Wait, what’s that screen showing? Is that even legal?”

Maybe you clench your fists when your roommate borrowed your cologne without asking? Maybe your/ jaws tighten when your relatives ask about your family planning?

As Jennifer Chesak notes, your body also communicates to you in other ways like:

  • changes in heart rate
  • sweating
  • tightness in chest stomach or throat.

Pay close attention to them. It’s a surefire sign that these boundaries need to be fortified

Decode the Warning Message

decode message
Image by Fauxels from Pexels

Ok, so you are conscious of the signs now. What do you do next?

You try to decode what’s exactly going on.

As Abigail Brenner M.D. says, boundary violations can occur in many ways. Think about what’s making you stressed or resentful. Is it something you are doing? Or is it being done by someone else?

What exactly are they doing?  Is it something verbal (screaming at you, insulting you, gossiping about you)?

Is it something emotional or psychological? Perhaps they are lying to you, guilt-tripping you, bullying you, judging, demeaning or embarrassing you?

Or is it something more physical or visceral? It can be an intrusion on your personal space, touching without permission, violating your privacy, being sexually inappropriate with gestures and references or even threatening with physical harm.

Mull over your options. What can you do about that? What can you still control?

Shoot that First Intruder

Now the fun begins. Go shoot that first offender.

“GODDAMNIT Wade– put that gun back in the closet. It was a metaphor, for Chrissake, you trigger-happy sumofavitch. What’s wrong with you?”

As Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S notes, setting boundaries and communicating them assertively is a skill. And like any other skill, it needs practice before it comes to you easily.

Start the process with a trivial boundary first – one that doesn’t scare you. Set it, state the consequences, and follow through. See how good it feels. Then graduate up to a new, more difficult one.

Learn to say no. It’s ok to say it without an explanation and without providing any emotional labor to the recipient.

Adjust the Boundary

And finally, keep in mind that boundaries are a fluid, dynamic thing. As you grow, your mental terrain and their needs change and so will your needs for boundaries.

Get rid of the ones that are not serving you. Set some new ones if you feel the need. Remember that you are in charge of your choices. You don’t owe anyone anything more than you want to give with your free will.

Be Bold and Set Those Boundaries Up

be bold
Photo by Úrsula Madariaga from Pexels

Setting up boundaries can be hard. The anxiety and the fear of backlash from people, upset due to a change in the status quo, can be debilitating.

But setting boundaries is essential for your emotional health. Even if other people may not like or agree with them.

Carving out a breathing space for yourself doesn’t make you a rotten, selfish person. Even if others, and your own judgmental conscience, try to convince you of that.

Follow the steps above, understand your mental perimeter and firmly plant some boundaries.

And when you start to feel the inevitable pushback, take heart that you have started to take care of your own needs. Setting up boundaries wouldn’t alienate you from everyone – only the mindless zombies will turn away, unable to get their supply.

It’s like a muscle that will strengthen with work out. Slowly you’ll get good at this and the discomfort will melt away. You’ll feel refreshed and emotionally charged.

Imagine that someone makes a request of you – a request that you know will suck the life out of you. And in response, you take your time, weight in your options, and answer with a resounding NO.

How powerful and in-control will it make you feel?

Featured Image by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

5 thoughts on “How To Set Boundaries Without Fearing the Looming Backlash”

  1. Great article. I really get what you’re saying, as I had a recent experience along those lines not all that long ago. When I ‘set the boundaries’, the other person cut off all contact with me. But I’m the better for it as now I no longer have to worry about it. It can be a difficult path to follow though.

    1. I can completely understand where you’re coming from Rosemary. “Ghosting” can be really painful for the person at the receiving end – I can say so from first-hand experience. Glad to know you’ve moved on though.

  2. I love the “trespassers will be shot” idea. (A sign I’ve actually seen a couple of times in the real world having grown up in Texas.)

    Your article was timely. I keep thinking about what boundaries I will need to put in place to keep from sliding back into a manic schedule post-quarantine. This was great.

    1. Haha..thanks a lot Cathy!
      And you’re correct, with the world as well as our daily routines thrown into disorder, it’s more important than ever to place firm boundaries.
      Wish you all the best with that!

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