Nosy neighbors…critical spouses …friends and colleagues who cross the line. Life is full of “boundary breakers”—people who ask intrusive questions, take advantage of your goodwill and make hurtful comments. Whether their behavior is malicious and intentional…or just clueless and insensitive…it causes a lot of stress. And until you can communicate your boundaries in a calm, honest manner, these people will continue to make assumptions about what’s acceptable to you and, more often than not, they will get it wrong.

Over the past 25 years, psychotherapist and author Terri Cole has coached thousands of clients on how to deal with boundary breakers. Here are her strategies for fighting back…

Four Steps to Establish Boundaries

I use a four-step process created by psychologist Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD, founder of the Center for Nonviolent Communication. Practice these steps with small boundary breaches before you move on to the bigger problems. Example: You gave a neighbor a spare key to your home for emergencies, and now he uses it to occasionally borrow your garden tools and equipment without asking. What to do…

Step #1: State the issue. Use factual language. “The other day you used your spare key to borrow my lawnmower.”

Step #2: State your feelings. Don’t assume the other person’s motivations or anticipate his/her reply. Simply discuss how it affects you. “I thought the mower had been lost or stolen. I couldn’t mow my lawn, and I was frustrated when you told me a day later that you had taken it.”

Step #3: Make a simple request in a nonconfrontational way, and attach a mutual benefit to it. “In the future, if you want to borrow something of mine, please check in with me first so I can continue to let you have my key.”

Step #4: Suggest a shared agreement. This engages and enrolls the other person into taking equal responsibility for the success of your new boundary rule. “Can we agree that if you’re interested in borrowing any of my things, you will text me before you let yourself in?”

For the Spur-of-the-Moment 

Sometimes when your boundaries are violated, you don’t have the time to calmly reflect on what’s going on and use the four-step process. Instead, you need the right language and real-time strategies to quickly establish limits and prevent tensions from escalating.

Nosy questions: You don’t owe explanations or answers for every inquiry about your love life, family or finances. Ways to respond…

Promise to answer the question on your terms when you’re ready. Example: A relative asks how serious you are about the new person you’re dating. Your reply: “I’d rather not discuss that right now. When I have news I want to share, I will let you know.”

Use humor (accompanied by a wink). You gently deflect the question while getting across the message that you are not interested in sharing. Example: A friend asks how big a raise you got at work. Your reply: “Trust me, not even close to what I am worth!”

Respond with your own question. This shifts the dynamic instantly, turning the spotlight onto the other person and causing him to lose interest in what he just asked. Example: An acquaintance asks your age. Your reply: “Why would you want to know that?”

Alternative: Reply with a question on a different subject. Example: A neighbor asks if your son has found a job since he was laid off. Your reply: “Let me put that on hold. I keep meaning to ask you if you are enjoying your new grandchild.”

When you’re asked to do something that you don’t want to do: It can be difficult to say no when the other person is in a jam or sincerely just wants to spend time with you. You may not have a specific reason to turn her down but don’t want to hurt her feelings—so you may end up reverting to what I call an “auto-yes,” even when it means letting someone else’s needs trump your own. Other ways to respond…

Buy yourself some time. If you need to figure out what you want, be honest and show gratitude for the effort the person is making. Example: A friend invites you to dinner. Your reply: “That’s very nice of you to offer. Thank you for thinking of me. I’ll have to check my calendar and get back to you.”

You can use the same diplomatic approach to turn down an offer. Example: A friend asks you to volunteer for an event. Your reply: “Sorry, I have other commitments this weekend. I hope the event is a grand success, and I’m sending you good vibes.”

Use “no/but.” Example: A friend suggests going out to eat. Your reply: “I’m going to say no to dinner, but I’m planning to go to the gym later if you’d like to come.” Or: A colleague wants help with a project that’s beyond the scope of your interest or responsibility. Your reply: “I can’t, but once I finish up my current project, I’ll circle back to see if there’s some way that I can support you.”

When someone is overly critical of you: Comments that are rude or thoughtless can undermine your self-esteem and confidence. Ways to respond…

Avoid putting yourself in the line of fire if you know the other person has a tendency to be judgmental. Example: Your father asks if you got your hair cut. Don’t set yourself up for an insulting comment by asking, “Do you like it?” Instead, just reply: “Yes, I did.”

Use a “qualifier” before you share news or a personal dilemma with someone who tends to be a “fixer”—“I’d like you to simply listen without offering advice or criticism. Just a compassionate ear.”

Offer more context about what you need from him/her before you share—“I love that you are always game to help me. What I need right now is for you to listen and have faith that I’ll come to the answer on my own.”

Shut down the “I’m just being honest” comments. Some people feel it’s their duty to tell you how unflattering your outfit is or how badly you’ve messed up your marriage. Your reply: “I don’t recall asking you for your thoughts.” Or: “What you call honesty, I call you giving unsolicited and unconstructive criticism. Please don’t.”


You may have people in your life who simply refuse to respect your boundaries no matter how patient and skilled you become at setting limits and communicating your needs. They even may be so good at emotional manipulation that you find yourself apologizing to them!

Trying to reason with ­“boundary-destroyers” is a dead end. Instead…

Cut them off…or at least limit your time with them. If someone is not emotionally trustworthy, you still can love and care about him—just less frequently and from further away. Say: “We seem to argue more than we get along. I need a break because it’s not healthy for me to continue this friendship.” Or: “I wish you all the best, but this relationship is really hard on me. I don’t think we should be in contact until the family holiday party next year.”

Important: It may not be possible to distance yourself from some ­boundary-destroyers—perhaps parents or colleagues. In these situations, adjust your expectations and accept that the relationship will be one-sided and offer the person very limited satisfaction. Conduct yourself in a calculated way to keep relative peace. Don’t share important or emotional issues…and stop trying to defend yourself in conversations or change the other person’s mind. Even boundary destroyers find it hard to argue or manipulate someone who always agrees with them.

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