How to Be Assertive and Set Healthy Boundaries
Why are so many of us so accommodating, nice and conflict-averse in daily life? Often what belies niceness in the face of hostility is fear – fear of conflict. Permitting others to be offensive or aggressive, however, gives the message that they are entitled to treat us this way. If someone is rude to you, you should not feel obligated to put up with it.
We need to learn when to speak up and when to stay silent. We need to speak up if our silence could be damaging – emotionally or physically – to ourselves or to other people. But we should stay silent if what we seek is revenge, for example, because retaliation tends to lead to an escalation of aggression and violence. So, how do we stand up for ourselves and others? How can we best be assertive and set good boundaries?
Confronting hostility without being hostile
Hostility and aggression come in many forms, eg:
- Discounting to disregard what people say or do and treat them as unworthy of consideration; to pay no attention to, take no notice of, take no account of, overlook, dismiss, ignore.
- Intimidating to deliberately frighten, menace, terrify, scare, alarm, terrorize or unnerve someone.
- Belittling to dismiss someone or some situation as unimportant; disparage, denigrate, run down, deprecate, depreciate, play down, trivialize, minimize, undervalue.
- Excluding to deny someone access to a place, group or privilege; ban, prohibit, reject, ostracise, freeze out, send to Coventry.
- Manipulating to control or influence people or situations in an unscrupulous way; to deliberately exploit, seek to control, influence and use/turn to one’s advantage, manoeuvre, engineer situations and ‘manage’ people. Manipulators are indirect and take the passive aggressive route.
Dealing with violent people
Violence is a special case – act fast and get away
- If the violent person is trying to physically hurt you, get out of the situation as soon as possible and call the emergency services straight away. Let the police handle those situations.
- If your partner is physically abusive, make plans to leave the relationship. Get away, and stay away.
- Do not get caught up in the violence and start acting violently yourself.
- Do get help. It would be dreadful if you ended up severely hurt and no one had any idea what was going on with you. Find the courage to talk of your experiences with friends and counsellors.
Psychiatrist Marcia Sirota, founder of the Ruthless Compassion Institute originated the term ruthless compassion, which I’ve found to be helpful for being assertive and dealing with aggressive people.
Ruthless compassion means, among other things:
- being responsible for yourself and your choices and holding yourself accountable for your actions.
- acting on what you know is right, rather than what you think you ‘should’ do, or what you think others want you to do - speaking your truth even if it isn’t popular.
- listening to your inner wisdom and trusting your intuition about the people and situations you encounter.
- having clear, firm boundaries, without being rigid or unreasonable
- knowing how to simply say ‘no’ and disengage from drama.
Listening to your instinct - intuition and survival
When faced with a threat of aggression or violence, we have an early warning system – our intuition.
The word ‘instinct’ derives from instinctus, or ‘impulse’ and is innate. It is instinctive in us to recognise when to run from a perceived danger. This is known as the ‘fight or flight’ response.
Unfortunately, such gut feelings can also be silenced and suppressed. A childhood hijacked by abusive or neglectful people can make it difficult to separate traumatic past experiences from gut intuition or instinct. And strong emotions, particularly negative ones, can cloud our intuition.
Most of us, if not all, are connected to our intuition, but some people don’t pay attention to it. The main thing that distinguishes intuitive people is that they listen to their intuitions and gut feelings, rather than ignore them.
Initiating and upholding personal boundaries provides a way to show hostile people that we won’t tolerate their antics. This is ruthless compassion in action. If we habitually let people stand close and get personal or direct offensive comments at us or we put up with physical abuse, all this says to the aggressor is, ‘I will let you hurt me because I need to avoid conflict’. It won’t stop that person behaving aggressively. This is even more likely to happen if the aggressor lacks self-awareness or a conscience, which makes it important that you impose boundaries of communication and some safe distance between the aggressor and you.
Personal boundaries are the limits we establish to protect ourselves from being manipulated, used or violated by other people. They include:
- material boundaries (money, clothes, food)
- physical boundaries (your personal space, privacy and body)
- mental boundaries (your thoughts, values and opinions)
- emotional boundaries (separating your emotions and responsibility from someone else’s
- sexual boundaries (protect your comfort level with sexual activity – what, where, when and with whom)
- internal boundaries (regulating your relationship with yourself.)
Last, but most important, boundaries help us express our individuality.
Not all of us are shown during childhood how to maintain healthy boundaries, but the good news is that boundaries can be learned. It helps if you are able to:
- know that you have a right and also a responsibility to put into effect personal boundaries. Your boundaries demonstrate what is acceptable in your life and what is not.
- recognise that other people’s needs and feelings are not more important than your own.
- say ‘no’ when something doesn’t feel right. Many of us put ourselves at a disadvantage by trying to accommodate other people – even people who violate our boundaries.
- identify the conduct and behaviours that you find unacceptable.
- let others know when they have overstepped your boundaries.
- trust yourself and care about what you need, want and value.
Anger often is a signal that action is required. If you feel resentful or attacked and are blaming someone for the situation you find yourself in, it might mean that you haven’t been setting boundaries. If you feel anxious or guilty about setting boundaries, remind yourself that your relationships suffer when you don’t. Practise setting boundaries – but remember it takes time, support and relearning to be able to set effective boundaries.
Dealing with verbal hostility – assertive, not aggressive
In many situations there are alternatives to being someone’s punchbag or striking back. First, pause for thought and take note of what you feel. Is what the person is saying making you feel defensive, anxious, fearful, angry or mad? Ask yourself not if you or the other person is right, but do you like being treated the way you are being treated? If not, then it is time to assert yourself and establish some clear boundaries.
Maintaining a respectful line of communication enables you to assert yourself, while amplifying the other person’s unreasonableness and hostility. Below is an approach you could consider taking, with some example responses.
1 What is going on? Once you have paused for thought and listened to the other person’s rant, you may want to assert a boundary and ask what is going on to cause the evolving situation.
‘Why are you shouting at me?’
‘I don’t understand what this is about.’
‘What are you saying?’
‘Why are you being so aggressive?’
‘I am confused.’
This turns the focus back on the aggressive person for a minute, which might calm them down as a lot of people get lost in the moment and don’t realize they are being aggressive.
2 Identify the problem This gives the person who is hostile or angry a chance to explain their view, while giving you the chance to take stock of the situation.
‘Is something wrong?’
‘You are angry because you think I did something wrong?’
Don’t get sucked into their arguments. The other person’s purpose is to make sure you lose the argument, thereby showing they have won. If you don’t get sucked in there is no argument to win.
3 Problem-solve Show that you are willing to see this from the other person’s perspective. Without accepting blame, see if they will attempt to resolve the issue.
‘I am sorry, I didn’t realise.’
‘I am glad you told me.’
‘Let’s try and solve this.’
‘Let’s see if we can find a way of resolving this.’
4 Amplify the other person’s unreasonableness Reflect their unreasonableness and lack of willingness to resolve the problem. This can help in situations where there is an audience or bystanders, where you need help and witnesses.
‘You don’t want to find a way forward?’
‘You are not concerned how I feel about this?’
‘It is OK for you to get want you want, even if I lose out?’
‘So it doesn’t matter how I feel about this?’
‘I am willing to find a way to resolve this in a way that works for us both.’
5 Lay down the boundary At some point we have to stand up to aggressors to leave them in no doubt that their behaviour is unacceptable.
‘This is unacceptable.’
‘I will not agree to that.’
‘I am not sure that we can go any further with this if you are not willing to work this out together.’
‘If you are not willing to work with me towards a way to resolve this, I will take this forward as a complaint of harassment.’
‘If you change your mind and you think we can find a way to resolve this, I’d be happy to hear from you.’