The Art of Boundary Setting: How to Respond with Compassion

I'm A Relationship Expert & Here's How to Respectfully Respond When Someone Sets a Boundary

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How to Respond When Someone Sets a Boundary Expert Advice

Have you ever been on the receiving end of someone setting a boundary with you? It can be a challenging situation to navigate without getting defensive. So, here’s a delightful guide on how to respond with compassion and avoid the knee-jerk reaction of turning into a porcupine.

The Battle of Boundaries: Why It’s Challenging to Respond with Compassion

We all know the importance of setting boundaries. But when someone actually sets a boundary with us, our natural instinct is to fight back or feel attacked. It’s like they just launched a fiery missile at us from a slingshot, and we’re left with a mix of confusion and defensiveness.

According to therapist extraordinaire Erin Pash, not all boundaries are equal. Some are collaborative, some are one-sided, and it’s the one-sided ones that tend to deliver the knockout punch. Picture this: your friend tells you that if you keep showing up late, they won’t invite you anymore. Ouch! It feels like a sucker punch to your timeliness—and your ego.

Linda Carroll, the legendary couples therapist, calls this the “red zone” of communication. It triggers our fight-or-flight response, making us ready for battle or a hasty retreat. Our hearts race, our muscles tense, and our laser-like focus narrows. It’s hard to see the bigger picture when we’re in this state, let alone remember those fancy communication techniques we read about one time on the internet.

So, even though we’d love to respond with understanding, it’s not always easy during boundary warfare.

3 Tips to Respond to Boundaries: Dive into the Compassionate Zone

  1. Pause before you react: In heated conversations, especially when a boundary catches you off guard, take a moment to breathe. Licensed marriage and family therapist Erin Pash suggests giving your brain and body time to calm down. Reacting in the heat of the moment won’t end well. It’s best to calm your central nervous system, step back, and revisit the boundary later. You can even say, “Let’s talk about this after I’ve had some time to reflect.”

  2. Reflect: Once you’re in a calmer state of mind, take a step back and reflect on the situation. Give yourself time to look at it objectively. Pash says that when you distance yourself, you might realize, “Oh wait, I do show up late all the time! No wonder they’re fed up with me.” It’s all about gaining some perspective and acknowledging your role in the boundary being set.

  3. Seek to understand & collaborate: When you’re ready to revisit the conversation, bring with you curiosity, openness, and a truckload of deep breaths. Let the person know you care about the relationship and how your behavior has affected them. Express your willingness to work on improving. For instance, if you have a habit of being fashionably late, you can say, “I don’t want to be known as the perpetually tardy friend. Please don’t stop inviting me.” And make sure you follow through on your promises.

Erin Pash, our boundary expert, points out that the boundary-setter also has a role to play. They need to communicate their expectations and engage in a dialogue instead of issuing unilateral ultimatums. Setting harsh boundaries without considering the other person’s feelings can jeopardize the relationship. After all, collaboration is key to finding a harmonious agreement.


Q: What do you say when someone sets boundaries?

A: Take a pause, get curious about the boundary’s origin, and acknowledge your part in the equation. It’s a dance of compassion and self-reflection.

Q: How do you respond when someone pushes your boundaries?

A: Be specific about the behavior that upset you and how it made you feel. Let the person know that you won’t tolerate such behavior in the future. Draw your line in the sand, my friend.

The Takeaway: Unleash the Power of Compassionate Boundaries

Getting defensive when someone sets a boundary can feel like being attacked by an army of angry kittens. However, boundaries have the potential to lead us down a path of understanding and greater harmony. So, embrace the marvelous art of boundary setting, respond with compassion, and coexist with others in a world filled with love, respect, and fewer arguments over who ate the last slice of pizza.

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