10 Reasons Why Boundaries Don’t Work

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assertiveness quote, woman motioning stopHas setting limits not worked? Despite your efforts, are your boundaries often ignored? It’s frustrating, but it’s not always the other person’s fault. Here’s why and what to do.

There are several reasons why boundaries don’t work. To begin with, assertiveness is a prerequisite to setting effective boundaries, and it isn’t easy.

“Setting boundaries is an advanced form of assertiveness. It involves risk and entails taking a position about who you are, what you’re willing to do or not do, and how you want to be treated and respected in your relationships. It first requires awareness of your values, feelings, and needs, plus some practice in making “I” statements about them.” From How To Speak Your Mind – Become Assertive and Set Limits

Why Assertiveness is Difficult

Learning assertiveness takes self-awareness and practice. The symptoms of codependency are obstacles. Often due to underlying shame and low self-esteem, we find this difficult, because:

  1. They don’t know what they need or feel.
  2. Even when they do, they don’t value their needs, feelings, and wants, and put others’ needs and feelings first. They feel anxious and guilty asking for what they want or need.
  3. They don’t believe that they have rights.
  4. They fear someone’s anger or judgment (e.g., being called selfish or self-centered).
  5. They’re ashamed of being vulnerable, showing feelings or asking for what they want and need.
  6. They fear losing someone’s love, friendship, or approval.
  7. They don’t want to be a burden.

Instead of being assertive, codependents communicate dysfunctionally, as they learned from their parents, often being passive, nagging, aggressive, or critical or blaming. If you nag, attack, blame, or criticize someone, he or she will react defensively or tune you out. Assertiveness can be learned with practice.

Why Boundaries Don’t Work

Of course, it will be more difficult to set boundaries with someone highly defensive or abusive, but it is still very doable. If you’ve repeatedly communicated your boundaries assertively and it’s not working, it’s likely because:

  1. Your tone is not firm or is blaming or critical.
  2. There’s no consequence for violating your boundary.
  3. You back down when challenged with reason, anger, threats, name-calling, the silent treatment, or responses such as:
    • “Who do you think you are, telling me what to do?”
    • “That’s selfish of you.”
    • “Stop controlling me.”
  4. You make threats too frightening or unrealistic to carry out, such as “If you do that again, I’ll leave.”
  5. You don’t sufficiently appreciate the importance of your needs and values.
  6. You don’t exercise consequences on a consistent basis – every time your boundary is violated.
  7. You back down because you sympathize with the other person’s pain, and you place his or her feelings and needs above your own.
  8. You’re insisting that someone else change. Consequences aren’t meant to punish someone or change his or her behavior, but rather require you to change your behavior.
  9. You don’t have a support system to reinforce your new behavior.
  10. Your words and actions are contradictory. Actions speak louder. Actions that reward someone for violating your limit prove that you aren’t serious. Here are some examples:
    • Telling your neighbor not to come over without calling first, and then allowing her to come into your apartment uninvited.
    • Telling your boyfriend “no contact,” and then texting or seeing him nonetheless.
    • Telling someone not to call after 9 pm, but answering the phone.
    • Giving attention that reinforces negative behavior, such as nagging or complaining about unwanted behavior, but not taking any action. In the preceding example, answering the phone and saying, “I told you not to call,” still reinforces the unwanted behavior, albeit with negative attention, because you took the call.

Things You Can Do

In “The Power of Personal Boundaries,” I underscore the importance of boundaries in order to ensure respect, safety, and trust. In formulating boundaries, it’s critical that you identify your feelings, needs, values (e.g. honesty, fidelity, privacy, and mutual respect). Do you honor or over-ride them? Once you know your comfort zone, you can determine your boundaries. Assess your current boundaries in all areas? Codependency for Dummies has self-healing exercises that take you through these steps. Think about:

  1. What specific behaviors have you participated in or allowed that violate your values or compromise your needs and wants?
  2. How does it affect you and the relationship?
  3. Are you willing to put in the risk and effort to maintain your boundaries?
  4. What rights do you believe you have? What’s your bottom line?
  5. What have you said or done that hasn’t worked and why?
  6. What are consequences that you can live with? Always mean what you say, and never make threats you won’t keep. Remember, all your effort is undone if you don’t maintain your boundary and consequences.
  7. How you will handle the other person’s reaction.
  8. Learn the 6 C’s of assertiveness and how to set effective boundaries in the ebook How to Speak Your Mind – Become Assertive and Set Limits.
  9. Do the role plays in  the webinar, How to Be Assertive.
  10. If you’re dealing with someone highly defensive or abusive, read Dealing with a Narcissist: 8 Steps to Raise Self-Esteem and Set Boundaries with Difficult People. If you’re experiencing violence, get professional help immediately.

It’s important to take baby steps, get support, and practice, practice, practice. Consider the wise words of Randi Kreger, author of Splitting: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing Someone with Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder:

“To maintain your limits over the long haul, you need to have conviction that the limit is necessary and appropriate. Conviction comes when you know how much it costs not have the limit in place. The longer you wait, the more it costs.”

©Darlene Lancer, 2015

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Sharon
Sharon
4 years ago

Excellent information- I would really appreciate some examples of consequences? That is confusing to me — my husband is extremely avoidant of resolution and will not agree to formulating his own consequences for repeated P-A patterns of behavior. I have tried marital separation, having him sleep in the car when he refused to look for a job for 60 days, dropping him off at a local shelter for several days…he states he wants to work on his manipulation and dependency, but I am weary of being cast as the critical/mean parent! Help with ideas/examples?? Btw, he has an autism spectrum… Read more »

Erika
Erika
3 years ago

This helped me a lot. Ive been in a relationship with a passive aggressive man for two years and its been driving me crazy. Ive made excuses for him to the point that i started to loose friends and disregarded my own sons needs. I recently ended the relationship though after a traffic accident where he almost got us both killed but was of course “not responsible” Im surprised that I even reached this low point and how I could allow it. At this moment I’m struggling to get back on track and forgive myself for letting this person take… Read more »

Sharon
Sharon
4 years ago

Excellent information- I would really appreciate some examples of consequences? That is confusing to me — my husband is extremely avoidant of resolution and will not agree to formulating his own consequences for repeated P-A patterns of behavior. I have tried marital separation, having him sleep in the car when he refused to look for a job for 60 days, dropping him off at a local shelter for several days…he states he wants to work on his manipulation and dependency, but I am weary of being cast as the critical/mean parent! Help with ideas/examples?? Btw, he has an autism spectrum… Read more »

Darlene Lancer, LMFT
4 years ago
Reply to  Sharon

The problem is you keep repeating YOUR pattern of playing the role of his parent, if not in behavior, in your mind. Start going to CoDA meetings, and put more attention on your life, not his. He needs professional help.

Sharon
Sharon
4 years ago

I was wondering if you could help me with some specific ideas of appropriate consequences?
Re:#8 are consequences his or mine to do/receive? Hope I am clear-thanks!

Darlene Lancer, LMFT
4 years ago
Reply to  Sharon

Consequences might be an action or inaction on your part the has “consequences” to the person you’re speaking to. So if your child doesn’t do his homework or chores, there’s a punishment or loss of a privilege. You have to decide what they are, but consequences aren’t used for punishing adults, but for protecting yourself. There are guidelines on setting boundaries in Codependency for Dummies and in more detail in How to Speak Your Mind: Become Assertive and Set Limits and my webinar, How to Be Assertive. If you need help or specific advice, contact me for a personal consultation.

Sharon
Sharon
4 years ago

Thank you so much — I struggle with the divide between not playing in role of ‘parent’ yet enacting consequences always has felt parental to me…looking forward to being able to afford those resources asap. Thank you again!

Catherine Todd
Catherine Todd
4 years ago

thank you so much. I see so much of myself in every word, every sentence and every paragraph of being a raging codependent myself, dealing with a raging obstructionist passive-aggressive partner. Yet it all boils down to ME: “Just say No.” Will be following your blog and hoping to find more realizations that hit me like a ton of bricks.Talk about “opening my eyes!” Let’s see if this old dog can learn a few new tricks, even at this late stage. Better late than never, I hope. Much appreciated and most needed!

Darlene Lancer, LMFT
4 years ago
Reply to  Catherine Todd

We can learn at any age. Start reading and applying the suggestions and exercises in How to Speak Your Mind and How to be Assertive.

Chinarut
Chinarut
6 years ago

This is a really excellent post! Thank you so much for reaching back out to me. Since seeing you in Santa Monica, I’ve been putting down boundaries like crazy & you provide much insight in regards to the assertiveness required to honor them which is what I’m dealing with esp around my online participation! What I mean by boundaries: I’ve spent a great deal of energy moving chats to social spaces (on and offline) to provide more context (ie. book discussions on GoodReads, Q&A on Quora, etc). I focus on making conversations public & try to speak to at least… Read more »

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