5 Reasons your boundaries aren't working

5 Boundary Mistakes

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Are you struggling to set boundaries?

Do you feel like you’re giving it your all, but your boundaries still aren’t working?

In this article, I’ll review 5 common boundary-setting mistakes and offer some suggestions for setting better boundaries.

First, a quick overview of what boundaries are and why we all need them.

Boundaries are essential in every relationship

Boundaries communicate how you want to be treated. They make expectations clear so both parties know what to expect from each other and how they should behave. Without boundaries, people may take advantage of you because you haven’t set limits or communicated what behavior is okay and what isn’t.

Boundaries take many forms. (For more information, read my article about 7 types of boundaries.) Your boundaries are based on what you need or what matters to you. When you recognize what you need or what matters most to you, you can take steps to prioritize those things by setting boundaries. For example, if you need eight hours of sleep, you can set boundaries to ensure that you get it. Or, if you need time alone, boundaries can keep you from committing to social activities that don’t align with your needs.

Next, I’ll identify and troubleshoot some common boundary problems.

5 Reasons your boundaries aren't working

5 Common Boundary Mistakes (and How to Fix Them)

1) You’re focused on getting other people to change their behavior. Boundaries can include a request for someone else to change, but boundaries are intended to help you get your needs met, not change or control other people. It’s also generally easier to change yourself than to get others to change. So, your effort is better spent identifying what changes you can make to meet your needs. For example, instead of repeatedly asking your mother to stop texting you when you’re sleeping, you can let her know that you’ll be turning your phone off when you’re asleep and will get back to her when you’re available.

2) You’re setting boundaries when you’re angry.  Often, when we set boundaries in the heat of the moment we overreact and say things that we don’t mean or don’t really want to follow through on.

For example, many say they’re going to file for divorce or end the relationship in the middle of an argument, but they don’t really want or intend to follow through. Or they threaten to keep the children from seeing their other parent because they’re angry about something the parent said or did.

These are ultimatums or punishments, not boundaries. They are meant to punish or control someone and are usually said in a harsh tone of voice in the heat of the moment. Ultimatums and punishments aren’t effective boundaries; they escalate conflicts and don’t encourage others to change their behavior.

Unless you’re in immediate danger, wait until you’re calm to set boundaries. Take time to think about what boundaries you need and how best to set them. This can help you avoid ultimatums and punishments that are unwarranted, unrealistic, or harmful to your relationships.

3) You give in when there’s pushback. Sometimes, people may respond to your boundaries with anger; they will let you know directly or indirectly that they don’t like your boundaries and don’t respect them. However, just because others don’t like your boundaries, that doesn’t mean your boundaries are wrong or that you should change them.

Most people will adjust to your new boundaries if you continue to set them consistently. If you give in or only set boundaries when it’s easy, people will realize that they can get their way by arguing or disregarding your boundaries. Hold firm. Your needs matter!

Read more about dealing with repeat boundary violators in this article.

4) Your boundaries are overly rigid. Although consistency is generally important when setting boundaries, keep in mind that sometimes boundary-setting involves compromise and flexibility. Many of our boundaries can be flexible depending on the situation. The exceptions are “deal breaker” boundaries. These are boundaries that protect our health or safety, and we will not compromise on these needs. Examples of deal breaker boundaries include not tolerating physical abuse or infidelity. These boundaries need to be rigid. But many of your other boundaries can be flexible.

Flexible boundaries consider who is involved, what you need in that particular situation, and what your loved ones need. For example, you might make an exception to your child’s bedtime for a special occasion. Or you might negotiate with your partner about how much time you’ll spend at his mother’s rather than deciding on your own.

The key is to know when it makes sense to compromise or be flexible and when you need to be unwavering with your boundaries. This definitely takes practice and you want to be careful that you aren’t giving in instead of compromising. For more help with this aspect of boundary-setting, get a copy of my book, The Better Boundaries Workbook. I cover this topic in detail in Chapter 5.

5) You’re overexplaining your boundaries. When it comes to explaining your boundaries, less is often better, especially when dealing with someone who tends to resist or violate your boundaries. People who want to argue about or disrespect your boundaries (see #3), will pick apart your explanations to prove they are invalid, or they may offer solutions to get you to change your boundaries (i.e., I’ll pay for the gas so you can pick me up from the airport at midnight). Instead, keep it simple and resist the need to explain your limits. You can simply say, “that doesn’t work for me” or something similar.

Some boundaries don’t need to be communicated in words at all. Sometimes, the best approach is to change your behavior. For example, if someone is yelling at you, you can leave the room or hang up the phone if explaining your boundaries would escalate the situation further.

As you can see, boundaries are complex and full of nuance. Sometimes they involve asking others to change and sometimes they involve changing yourself. Sometimes your boundaries need to be firm and other times they need to be flexible. And sometimes you need to state or explain your boundaries and sometimes you don’t.

If you’re struggling with any of these common boundary mistakes, get a copy of The Better Boundaries Workbook. It’s a fantastic tool to help you troubleshoot your boundary-setting challenges and learn to set boundaries that work for you!

©2022 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved. Photos courtesy of Canva.com.

boundary quiz

Sharon Martin, DSW, LCSW is a psychotherapist and author specializing in codependency recovery. For the past 25 years, she’s been helping people-pleasers, perfectionists, and adult children overcome self-doubt and shame, embrace their imperfections, and set boundaries. Dr. Martin writes the popular blog Conquering Codependency for Psychology Today and is the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism and The Better Boundaries Workbook.

4 thoughts on “5 Boundary Mistakes”

  1. I love my exceptional sister but I explored what disorder she had for decades. Explosive Anger? Narcissism? Border? I finally told her last November that I wouldn’t take one more irritable/ enraged outburst again. (She never apologizes) I wish I had changed myself instead of trying to change her. We only email happy notes and photos now. No calls. It feels better in some ways but I am grieving. There’s no depth. I can’t share my unhappy feelings. I’ve tried to recapture a fuller relationship but to no avail. So, I wish I had handled my issues differently.

  2. I was married for 44 years. I didn’t even know what a boundary was, because during my childhood I was never taught about boundaries. During my marriage if asked for something my then husband would ignore my request and then give me the silent treatment as the way of punishing me so I would know not to ask, just like in my childhood. This type of punishment felt like death to me, so I always ignored my needs.
    At that time in my life I didn’t know the part I played in teaching the people in my life how I should be treated.

    Since leaving my marriage 11 years ago it has been very difficult setting boundaries, but with hard work and healing I have learned to take care of myself first and setting boundaries as been a big part of my recovery.
    I have lost family members as I recovered, as I discovered my own needs to create healthy relationships in my life. I identify myself as a recovering codependent.
    I am now 70 years old, I work everyday with my recovery program. Reading Sharon’s blogs have been a part of my ongoing recovery. It has at times been a painful, lonely journey, but one that has brought so much more peace in my life.

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