Personal boundaries are essential when it comes to navigating relationships in our life. Specific personal boundaries vary, from work to family to friendships — but they all share the same concept: creating limits that separate us from one another. These imaginary lines tell people how they can treat you, including your threshold for feelings, needs, communication, responsibilities, and physical space. Even if we’ve established healthy boundaries, though, sometimes the people in our lives are guilty of overstepping boundaries (whether or not they meant to do so). Heck, sometimes we’re all guilty of it. But because boundaries are essential for our self-care and well-being, it’s critical to act upon and communicate our needs when there’s been an instance of overstepping boundaries in our relationships.
One of the biggest challenges people experience in their interactions with others is figuring out what to do when someone is repeatedly overstepping boundaries. Unfortunately, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all response. However, there are some ways to deal with it, and the following suggestions could help you traverse this tricky situation.
What does it mean when one is “overstepping boundaries”?
Overstepping boundaries means someone has crossed the imaginary lines we’ve created for ourselves. Here are some overstepping examples to give you an idea.
Physical boundary: This is usually an easy one to tell. It’s when someone has invaded your personal space, including your office, home, and even yourself. For example, your mother-in-law comes to your house without asking, or your co-worker barges into your office without knocking.
Emotional boundary: Emotional boundaries are all about respecting your time and energy and emotional capacity. Examples of someone overstepping an emotional boundary include your mother criticizing and judging for a parental decision you made; a friend emotionally dumping on you without your permission; a co-worker betraying your confidence; or your sister assuming how you feel about a situation.
Time boundary: Time boundaries are crucial when it comes to protecting how your time is being efficiently used in ways that feel good and productive to you. Examples of someone overstepping a time boundary include your boss asking you to work overtime without notice and/or pay; your friend keeping you longer at her social event than she promised (and guilt-tripping you for it); your brother showing up late or canceling at the last minute to your holiday party; or your father contacting you during your vacation even though you told him you’d be MIA.
Intellectual boundary: These boundaries include having respect for someone else’s intelligence and perspective. Examples of someone overstepping an intellectual boundary include your cousin belittling your college education; your father-in-law engaging you in a political discussion despite your refusal to engage; or your co-worker openly disrespecting your opinion.
Material boundary: This type of boundary refers to your possessions and material goods, like your home, car, clothing, etc. Examples of someone overstepping a material boundary include your brother demanding he borrow your car because his is being repaired; your mother guilt-tripping you to give her money; or your friend borrowing your dress and never returning it.
What should you do when someone oversteps your boundaries?
People cross boundaries often. Whether someone has overstepped our boundaries intentionally or not, it’s up to us to inform them what feels comfortable to us, and to assert what is acceptable or not. Here are a few tips on how to tell someone they are overstepping your boundaries.
Handle it internally. If the violator is a first-time offender, you might want to handle them overstepping your boundaries internally. Meaning, you try to seek the positive in the situation rather than focusing on the negative. For example, maybe your friend inquiring about your marriage was inappropriate, but you know she cares about you and your well-being, so you let it go and instead respond to her in a way that feels good to you.
Reaffirm your boundary. On the other hand, if you have someone who continually oversteps your boundaries or someone who violates boundaries in a way that feels unsafe to you, restate your boundary. For example, if your mother-in-law continues to gossip about your sister-in-law, you might tell her, “Maybe I didn’t make it clear to you, but I don’t want to hear you complain or gossip about Susan. I love and care for both of you.”
State your boundary in a positive way. While no one likes it when someone oversteps our boundaries, sometimes phrasing our boundary in a more positive and constructive manner drives the point home. For example, instead of telling your sister “Stop talking to me like that!” you might say instead, “I hear what you’re saying, but I would appreciate it if you can speak to me in a more calm manner.”
How do you apologize for overstepping boundaries?
Hey, we all do it. It might be a little embarrassing — and you might have to eat a slice of humble pie — but here’s how to make things right when you overstep someone’s boundaries.
Discuss what’s happened. Make sure it’s clear for both parties what’s happened and why it happened. Communicate why you said what you said or did what you did. Then ask your friend/partner/family member how your actions affected them. Accept their feelings and promise not to overstep their boundaries again.
Define new boundaries. If the boundaries weren’t established before, do so now. This might even require defining new boundaries. Talk about what’s acceptable behavior from both of you, and honor the other’s requests.
Move forward. Allow the relationship to move forward in a new way and communicate how that will look like from your end. Make it clear that you will respect their boundaries and will do better next time.