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Why Setting Boundaries Upsets People: A Guide to Maintaining Your Limits

Photo Credit: Andrej Lisakov

Spoiler alert! People usually get offended when you set boundaries with them because they don't have healthy boundaries themselves!! That means if you're getting offended when other people set limits with you, you probably don't have healthy boundaries. ☹️

It could also be the case that they get offended because you’ve decided to no longer accommodate them and make their lives easier while making yours more difficult.

Here’s an example of someone getting offended by my boundary. 

In this particular case, I chose to explain my boundary, but I don’t always do that. You don’t have to do that either unless you CHOOSE to.

When we start to set boundaries with people we’ve never set them with before, some will get upset by it. That could be because it’s new behavior, and difficult when someone suddenly changes. But often people get upset when we set boundaries because they don't have healthy boundaries. 

When we set a boundary with someone we have a relationship with, we’re differentiating ourselves from them as opposed to being enmeshed with them. Now, you’re distinct from them, and they’re distinct from you. Your pattern of interaction is now distinct from what it used to be. That can sometimes be painful to us and others when we build new boundaries because it’s so unfamiliar. This is especially true if we’ve felt like we don’t know who we are, or at least we don’t know who we are in comparison to others.

When we don’t know where we end and others begin, and we start building boundaries to figure that out, it can be scary to be in the world in an unfamiliar way. This is especially true if you've always been enmeshed with others, so it can feel like you’re putting up a wall between you and the other person. Or that they’re being rude or bitchy when you set a boundary.

Those are fears I hear from clients regularly – they don’t want to be seen as cold and bitchy or to build walls between them and others. The truth is that boundaries bring us closer to others. That’s because we’re being honest and authentic about who we really are - what’s okay and not okay, what we want, like, need, and prefer.

There’s a caveat to that though – if someone is abusive to you or takes extreme advantage of you, your new boundaries might actually be walls. And that’s as it should be. If someone is abusive or violent, then you need a wall between you and them. But it’s infrequent when that happens.

You can be kind and loving and have boundaries. Kind-loving people have healthy boundaries. That makes them safe because we know who we’re getting - we know when they say no, they mean no, and when they say yes, they mean yes. 

Here’s a story about someone who got offended when I set a boundary. She’s a fellow in recovery and I’ve known her for years, but only peripherally. She texted me in the morning to ask if I had a minute to talk. I responded by saying I'm booked today and tomorrow, but I have some time on the weekend. She responded with a very long text message that essentially said, “Who the f*ck do you think you are that people have to make appointments with you for outreach calls?” She went on about how I don’t respond to voice messages but send emails and text messages. She said this because she’d previously wanted me to call her, and I responded via email.

I was absolutely flabbergasted when I got this message from her. Instead of reacting immediately from my state of shock, I paused, said a prayer, and responded “Do you want to talk on the weekend?’

She responded with a couple more very lengthy, accusatory messages and it was clear that she was taking it very personally that I wasn’t able to talk that day or the next. I called my sponsor about this because it felt like an attack, and it really revved up my nervous system and made me feel very defensive. 

As I talked to my sponsor about it, I realized that this was me setting boundaries with her and that she was unable to respect them. For one, I have boundaries around phone calling vs. emailing and texting. And guess what? I get to communicate with people in whatever way I want. They don’t get to dictate how (or when) I communicate with them.

For another, I had boundaries around my time that day and the next. But I also offered her an entire weekend during which we could talk. And BTW – she did not take me up on that offer!

I happen to know that she's very enmeshed with her family and has an extremely difficult time setting boundaries with them. The way I experienced this situation was as if her reaction was something like this:

How dare you have boundaries Barb, when I’m not allowed to or not able to!

In consultation with my sponsor, I decided to send her an email. I didn’t have to do that, I chose to. It took a couple of days to construct the email so that I was sure to be cooled down. I also ran it by my sponsor before sending it since she was not emotionally involved in the situation and could look at it objectively. She asked if I was certain I wanted to do this and I said yes.

My email went something like this: I'm so sorry that my lack of availability to talk to you felt like a rejection. It was not. I’m very protective of my time because I used to give my time away to others all the time, and I don't do that anymore. I had a very busy schedule that day and the next, so I didn’t have time for phone calls. The day you texted me was my anniversary with my sweetheart, so I wanted to spend every spare minute with him.

In response to her comments about me responding via text or email but not by phone, I told her I’m sometimes able to shoot off a text or an email while I'm in the middle of something else. For me, phone calls are reserved for pre-scheduled times because that's what works for me and my schedule.

Again, I didn’t have to explain any of this to her. But I had compassion for her because I knew she was in distress and wanted to connect. Now that I have healthy boundaries, I don’t make other people’s emergencies into my emergencies. I live my life the way I want to live it, not by how others want me to live it.

I didn't hear anything back from her for quite some time. Weeks later, I sent a message to a bunch of people in recovery (blind copied!) about an event that was happening and I included her. I decided to include her because I'd always included her in such things, and I had no ill will toward her. She wrote back, “Thank you” so I took the opportunity to respond,  “I'm glad to see you respond to my message.” She responded, “I haven't responded to your other email because I'm still processing, so I let it go.

Some months later, she wrote back that she understood now. The more I thought about this incident, the more I could see that her reaction - which was way out of proportion to the situation - was because I set a boundary, and she couldn't handle it.

If you recognize yourself in her and this situation, and you get really offended when people set boundaries, it's an indication that you don't have healthy boundaries. If you recognize yourself in me in this situation, remember that you get to have whatever boundaries you want. You get to decide how you want to live your life. 

Many people don't manage their time the way I do, and that’s fine for them. I’m not living their lives, and they’re not living mine. Some of you are probably thinking right now that I’m a bitch for not taking phone calls at any time. Many people leave their ringer on and take phone calls at any time, or decide not to pick it up when it rings if they’re busy. 

That just doesn't work for me because I find myself getting resentful of people for calling me and texting me, so I turn off the ringer on my phone. That way, I get to decide when I’m going to look at my phone and when I’m going to interact with others. Then I don't get resentful of people.

If you’ve been afraid to start setting boundaries because you don't want to put up walls with others or be mean or rude, I'm guessing it's because that’s how you’ve experienced it when other people have set boundaries with you. That’s an indicator that you don't have healthy boundaries. If that’s you, this page has all kinds of free resources on boundaries. I also have tons of free resources on boundaries on my Instagram feed, including almost daily reels with actual scenarios from my life and the lives of my clients.

It’s not mean or rude to set limits with others so you can live your life the way you want. It’s healthy. You get to direct your life, and I get to direct mine. The way you direct your life will definitely be different than how I direct mine. And that’s as it should be. So if you’re taking offense to others’ boundaries, it could be because you have poor boundaries yourself.

Instead, when we think, “Something came up” it has a much lighter effect on us. We're able to stay in the present and go on with our day and have pleasant experiences. If we assume the best of intentions on everyone's part, and that something benign came up, we're so much more likely to have high quality life. If we assume bad things happened to them, or they’re not showing up or calling means something bad about us, then we’re likely to have a much less satisfying life. 

When we think that something must have happened or we’re to blame, our emotions are likely to go haywire. We go down the rabbit hole of negativity. But you can avoid that rabbit hole altogether by thinking, “Something must have come up.” 

I honestly didn’t know I was thinking so negatively, or that it was an option to just think something innocent like something came up. And I’ve always thought of myself as an optimist!! I can’t imagine what happens in the minds of those who are pessimists if this is what happens in the mind of an optimist!! You have the power to determine the quality of your life, and it starts with what you’re thinking. This is a perfect example of how important changing perspective is.  

There’s a quote that goes like this: 

“Water the flowers, not the weeds.”

Focus on the positive and not on the negative. What you “water” grows. What you put your attention on grows. If you pay attention to negative thoughts and negativity, you’ll experience more of that. If you pay attention to positive thoughts and positivity, you’ll experience more of that.

Living in the wreckage of the future did me no good. In the past, I didn’t understand I had a choice about my thoughts. Or that I didn’t have to believe my thoughts just because I think them. Now, I understand I actually do get to choose my thoughts. And now you do too.

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