Knowing When to Walk Away: What to do When Your Boundaries are Being Violated

This is a difficult topic, especially for those who have little understanding of what boundaries are. This is a place I know well. And time after time, I would find myself in situations where I, or somebody else, was taking advantage of somebody’s boundaries. If you’ve read my last post on “Do I Know What My Boundaries Are?“, you’ll know I’ve been steeped in an environment void of boundaries.

This post and my last post, were inspired by a place I was recently employed with. The ways in which the employer has been treating his employees is something that, well, inspired this post on self-care in regards to personal boundaries. In this post, I’ll be going over some red flags to look for if you feel your boundaries are being taken advantage of. Also I’ll be talking about what you can do if your boundaries are being encroached upon. I’ll be focusing mostly on the workplace. But these examples can be applied to other contexts as well. So let’s jump in with what to look for.

Red Flags

If you’re not used to being in relationships with healthy boundaries, it can be tricky to see the red flags that pop up when they’re being violated. That said, some are fairly obvious. However, it can be insidious in how subtly some take advantage of others’ boundaries. Some examples of red flags are, emotional blackmail, criticism without constructive feedback, being unwilling to give clear and concise direction while communicating needs and using misinformation to misdirect from the issues that are in question. These tactics aren’t new. But they make for unhealthy relationships and boundary violations. So let’s start by taking a look at emotional blackmail.

Emotional Blackmail

Let me start out by saying that lying, in and of itself, is a clear indication that your boundaries are being taken advantage of. If you, or somebody you work with or for, is in the habit of lying, then attention needs to be given as to why it’s happening. This happened to me most recently at a job I left not too long ago.

I was talked to by the owner of a small bakery I worked in and written up for not mixing the starter on the scheduled time. I had brought this issue to the owners attention. My concern was for the quality of the product, so I was willing to take full responsibility for my mistakes. But where the violation of boundaries took place was, the owner said he was writing me up for the second time I had forgotten to do this task. I don’t remember the first incident and when I asked for the date of the original infraction, he was unable to remember the time.

He was unable to give me any detail as to when the first time it happened was. Though made reference to my mistake often after he claimed I had. He said that I had made more mistakes without documentation and was using it to make me feel that I should be worried for my job security. These are the mechanics of how emotional blackmail works. His goal in lying to me was, to make me feel as though I was on thin ice in regards to my job security. By making reference to it often, he was attempting to capitalize on my feeling as though I’m not worthy of my job title. Or that I should feel lucky to have the job.

Asides from this being a stressful environment to work in, it also is a way to manipulate those who work for you. In order to make you feel as though you are worth less than you actually are. The result? This environment may lead to people working harder, to feel as though they have to make up for feeling deficient. Or in not asking for pay increases for inflation. Or for increased responsibilities. But also, and maybe most importantly, it also leads to resentment.

Resentment in the Work Place

What made this so uncomfortable was, everybody I worked with had something bad to say about the owner. There were an awful lot of hurt and abused feelings among his employees. Nobody was happy where they were and everybody made it plainly clear how they felt. Yet, nobody would sit down and have the tough conversations around why they felt the ways they did. I attempted to, but was met with arrogance. Actually, much in the same ways I used to be when I was younger. It wasn’t unfamiliar, but that didn’t make it any less difficult to bear.

In these situations and from my experience, it’s best to take the high road. Ask a lot of clarifying questions and try not to lose focus on what is at the heart of the situation. In my case, I wasn’t a bad person for making the mistake. It was only a mistake. The mistake, which at worst was an inconvenience. Because in a bakery, you always have a backup starter for this reason. Also, keep focus on the present and leave the past in the past. Unless it is a string of related events. And most importantly, don’t let someone else attempt to define you by the mistakes you’ve made. We’re all only human. And humans make mistakes.

Criticism Without Constructive Feedback

This is difficult for a lot of people. And rightly so. Without constructive feedback, criticism, especially if given often, is just another way to bully someone. It also creates an unclear or unachievable standard. This was also the case with my last employer. The owner was constantly finding fault with the tasks that were being done. And he was very vocal about his opinion.

An example being, there was one woman who had been baking for him for the better part of two decades. Before she worked there, she owned her own bakery in Viet Nam. She was a good baker, actually one of the best bakers I’ve known. And she did her job well. But regardless of her baking prowess, the owner would often criticize her by calling her the “queen of steam”. If you you’re not familiar, you use steam in the baking process by injecting the oven with water to create steam, right before you put the loaves in to bake. The steam gives the crust a shiny look to it, while the crust develops. So the owner was constantly implying that she was too heavy on the steam.

Later when he criticized my bake, I asked him some clarifying questions around what the standard should look like. He gave reference to the woman’s bake I mentioned above. Saying it should look, just like hers. This was confusing. Because the most common comment I heard from him about her bakes, was how they weren’t good enough. Too much steam. So I was left with no direction on what he wanted from me and the feeling of not doing an adequate job. Regardless of how good my bakes looked. And everybody that baked there, was an excellent baker. Including myself. So there was no clear standard of what he expected from us. Only criticism.

Lack of Clear, Concise Direction

This was at the root of a lot of the miscommunication and confusion. Not only with my last place of employment, but many places have communication issues. Information that is important for employees to do their jobs, is sometimes not provided in a timely manner. In these situations, I find it best to pursuing the information. For example, in my last place of employment there was no established line of communication from what the owner wanted, to what was expected of us.

This left us in the uncertain place of not knowing whether or not we were doing right by his vision of what he wanted from us. Or if we were meeting his expectations. We were left in an uncertain purgatory. This led the employees to distrust those in charge. Because without clearly communicating needs, those who need to know are left feeling unsupported. An example of this type of miscommunication was, there would be changes made to the bake last minute. And if the changes weren’t reflected in the bake, do to the changes not being communicated in a timely manner, than the employees would be reprimanded for not implementing the changes.

These unreasonable expectation and lack of support led directly to feelings of resentment on the parts of his employees. There was a high rate of turnover and there was a steady rotation of managers before I took the position. The lack of communication directly led to a lack of feeling supported, which in turn impacted the turnover rate of the owner’s employees. Not to mention the amount of hurt emotions along the way. All of which could have been avoided if there had been clear direction and support.

So the lack of clear communication is an indicator that your boundaries are being infringed on to some degree. It’s best to address these issues when they arise, as well as to set reasonable expectations for what is expected of you from my experience. This way, you’re not left wondering what you’re supposed to be doing. Or feeling unsupported.

Misinformation and Misdirection

This can be an especially difficult boundary violation to navigate. While I was at my last place of employment, as I’ve said above, I was written up for forgetting the starters and then mislead about forgetting it for the second time. In the same write up for mixing the starters late, it was also mentioned that my bakes didn’t meet their standard.

This came as a surprise. I had no prior warning about the quality of my bakes. No one had ever brought this to my attention. There were also only two supervisors present while I was being spoken with, but there were three supervisors on my write-up. One of which I wasn’t aware was my supervisor.

All of these extra additions, to what was a matter of mixing a starter late, had the effect of misdirecting focus from what the actual issue was. I was being written up for mixing the starter late, which turned into being spoken to by three supervisors, as well as the quality of my performance. This is a good example of misdirecting from what the issue is and an encroachment of boundaries.

Ideally, these should have been brought to my attention in separate conversations, as they arose. So when we discuss the matter, it wouldn’t be a surprise. The experience left me uncertain as to what was expected of me. But also wondering, if it was that important, why was it only now being brought to my attention? Especially since I, like most people I believe, want to do the best job they’re able to.

Using fear and misdirection to manipulate a person to work harder because they fear for their job security, leads to feelings of resentment and confusion. Resentment for the feeling of being in an environment where it’s unacceptable to make mistakes. And confusion because the standards are constantly changing. There was no clear way to discuss what the issues actually were. And another example of boundaries being violated. Anytime there are unclear expectations and you are being told that you are not achieving them, this is a violation of boundaries.

What Can We do About It?

With all of these abuses of boundaries taking place, it may be difficult to know what to do or how to act. With your attention being pulled in so many different directions, it can be difficult to know first, how you feel about it while it’s happening. Secondly what you can do about it. For me, it helped to take it slowly. As I said above, I asked a lot of clarifying questions. I gave them the benefit of my doubt and made sure to follow up with those who were the decision makers. I also gave support to those I was able to, who were looking for direction. Some of the following suggestions are easier to do than others, but with some perseverance, it can be done.

Clarifying Questions

As I said above, asking clarifying questions goes a long way into finding out what specific expectations are being asked of you. The more specific, direct and often your questions and communications, the less likely it will be that there are grey areas. Or feelings of uncertainty.

This may be difficult for a few reasons. First, if your supervisor is being evasive, than it can be tough to get a clear and direct answer from them. Second, if you’re shy or don’t like making waves, than asking questions can make you feel as though you are being a burden on those you need clarifying from. And nobody wants to burden the boss.

But this is where it is so important to be persistent. Asking the right questions and knowing precisely what’s expected of you will only help to improve things for everybody. It will also make you stronger in the end. So try to calm your fears and advocate for yourself. Who knows, maybe you’ll receive the guidance you need.

Give the Benefit of the Doubt

This one can be difficult. Mostly because it involves a lot of trust where trust may have been abused. But going into a situation thinking you are going to be taken advantage of, leads to being guarded and unreceptive to change. And the situation may be that the person who is showing the red flags, may be under a fair amount of stress. Life happens. And it’s best to be able to help out those who need it. Instead of being quick to judge them as being neglectful or malicious in their actions.

I’ve also found that it helps to stay positive in these situations. Bringing an attitude of resentment to the issue won’t help to resolve the issue. It also takes a toll on your own well being. And in situations where your boundaries may be being violated, it’s important to take care of your needs and well being.

Following Up

Following up with your concerns and questions are important aspects of getting your needs met. Especially if the issue has been avoided. This shows that you are invested in finding a resolution. But also as important, sending the message that you are going to advocate for yourself and your teams needs.

This also helps to keep those who are in charge accountable. This way, you’re taking care of your own needs by respecting yourself by advocating for your needs, while also sending the message that your needs deserve respect and acknowledgement.

Giving Support

This one is important. Giving Support to those you are able to helps to provide a sense of working to achieve a shared goal. Teamwork. This is especially important when there isn’t support coming from the person in charge of making their vision a reality. As I’ve said above, a lack of support can lead to resentment. And if we don’t support those we work with, we end up resenting one another. In this case, nobody feels supported. And if we can take care of each other along the way, it helps to make everyone feel a little better.

Conclusion

It’s not easy, but if you’ve found yourself in a situation where your boundaries are being violated, these steps may help you to navigate them with some confidence. And if you do everything you’re able to, for example finding appropriate help for mediation, and you still find that you are being taken advantage of, your best bet may be too leave the situation entirely. But give it some serious thought and try not to let your emotions rule your actions.

My motto in my teen and early twenties was, “bridges are for burning”. This was due to feeling hurt by those closest to me. But it was an attitude that left me alone and without any support. Just because someone has taken advantage of you, doesn’t mean that they’re a bad person. Who knows what their history holds. If it is anything like mine and they’ve been hurt in the past, I can relate. But also be open to the idea that people can change. This helps to soften the blow of your boundaries being violated.

That doesn’t mean that you should allow them to be violated, but to take care of your needs by maybe walking away from the situation. And try not to hold anger or resentment towards those who hurt you, while you’re taking care of yourself. If you’re looking for some more information on healthy boundaries, this article from positive psychology goes into more detail with exercises to help build and maintain healthy boundaries. I hope this has helped in some way. As always, peace : ) & thanks for reading.

Image Credits: Walking Away by Matt Henry photos is licensed under

Updated: 10/27/22

      CC BY 2.0

Author: nolabelsliving

Social worker by day, blogger by night. I have a lot of lived experience which is why I started my blog. I was not given any direction when I started out on my journey, but have been blessed with some amazing support and guidance along the way. Just want to give back a little of what I've received : )

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