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

This is a difficult topic, especially for those who have very little understanding of what boundaries are. This is a place I knew well, and time after time I would find myself in situations where I, or somebody else was taking advantage of personal boundaries. If you’ve read my last post on “shoring up your personal boundaries“, you’ll know I’ve been in some pretty iffy situations.

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

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 your boundaries are being violated. Some are fairly obvious. But it can be insidious in how subtly some use them to take advantage of others. Some examples 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 need focusing on. These tactics aren’t new, but they make unhealthy relationships. So let’s jump in with 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 not telling the truth, then some serious attention needs to be given to what the circumstances are and why it’s happening. This happened to me most recently at a job I left not so long ago.

I was talked to by the owner of the small bakery I worked in, at the time, and written up for not mixing the starter on the scheduled time. This was something that I had brought to the owners attention, as 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 was clearly being lied to, and when I pressed 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 said I had. He was saying that I had done more than what was actually done and was using it to make me feel as though I should be concerned about my job security. This is where emotional blackmail comes into the equation. It seemed as though, from my perspective, that 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, bakery manager at the time, or that I should be lucky at all to have a job.

Asides from this being a stressful environment to work in, it also is a way to manipulate those who work for you, to feel as though you are worth less than you actually are. This may lead to people working harder to feel as though they have to make up for feeling deficient in some way. Not asking for pay increases for standard of living or increased responsibilities. But most importantly, it also leads to resentment.

Everybody I worked with had something bad to say about the owner. There were an awful lot of hurt and abused feelings. 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. I attempted, but was met with arrogance, actually much in the same ways I used to act. It wasn’t unfamiliar, but that didn’t make it any less difficult to bear.

In these situations, 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 a mistake, it was only a mistake. Keep focus on the present and leave the past in the past. 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 Feedback

Criticism without constructive feedback. This is a tough one for a lot of people, and rightly so. Without constructive feedback, criticism, especially if given often, is just another way to bully someone and create an unclear and unachievable standard. This was the case with my last employer. The owner was constantly finding fault with everything that everybody was doing, while being vocal about his opinions to everybody.

For example, there was one woman who I baked with who had been baking there for the better part of two decades. Before she worked there, she owned her own bakery. She was a good baker, and did her job well. But regardless of her baking prowess, the owner would often criticise her by calling her the “queen of steam”. If you don’t know, 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 developing the crust. 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 like hers. This was confusing because all I’ve ever heard him say about her bakes was how they weren’t good enough. So I was left with no direction on what he wanted from me, and only the feeling of not doing an adequate job, regardless of how good my bakes looked. And everyone that worked there that baked was an excellent baker, including myself. So there was no clear standard of what he expected from us. Only criticism.

Lack of Clear and Concise Direction

This was at the root of a lot of the miscommunication and confusion at my last place of employment. Information that was important for us to do our jobs in a timely manner was not provided. And there was no lack of us pursuing this information. It just wasn’t provided. For whatever reason, there was never any direct line of communication from what the owner wanted, and what we were supposed to do.

This also left us in the uncertain place of not knowing if we were doing the right thing. Or if we were ever meeting the expectations of the owner. We were always left in the uncertain purgatory of not knowing. This also breed a sense of distrust with those in charge. Without clear communication of needs, there was a lack of trust and we were left feeling unsupported. There would be changes made last minute and if the changes weren’t made, usually do to the needs not being communicated in a timely manner, than people would be reprimanded for not doing what was asked.

This lack of support also led to resentment on the part of the employees. There was an incredibly high rate of turnover, compared to other places I’ve been employed. There was a consistent rotation of managers before me and the one I took over for, left from the frustrations I’ve mentioned above. The lack of communication directly led to a lack of feeling supported which directly impacted the turnover rate of employees. Not to mention the amount of hurt feelings and emotions that were taken advantage of. All of which could have been avoided if there had been clear direction and support.

Misinformation and Misdirection

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

This came as a surprise, as I had no prior warning about the quality of my bakes. No body had ever brought to my attention that my bakes looked off in any way for the entire time I had worked there. There were also only two people 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 “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 and the quality of my performance was being brought into question.

These should have been brought to my attention in separate conversations and also when they happened, not by surprise and in conjunction with one another. The experience left me uncertain as to what was expected of me, but also wondering, if it was so important, why was it being brought up so late? 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.

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 happening, and second what to do about it. For me, it helped to take it slowly. As I said above, I asked a lot of clarifying questions, gave them the benefit of my doubt and made sure to follow up with those who were the decision makers and give support to those I was able to who were looking for direction. Some are easier to do than others, but with some perseverance, it can be done.

Clarifying Questions

As I said above, clarifying questions goes so far 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. And 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.

Give the Benefit of the Doubt

This one is tricky, because it involves a lot of trust where trust may have been abused in the past. 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 some of 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 too quick to judge them as being neglectful or malicious in their actions.

It also helps to stay positive in these situations. Bringing an attitude of resentment to the issue won’t help to resolve the problem. 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 still important aspects of meeting your needs, especially if you’re being avoided. This shows that you are invested in finding a resolution, but more importantly, 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 for their actions or inactions. This way, you’re taking care of your own needs by respecting yourself enough to advocate for your needs while also sending the message that you deserve respect and acknowledgement of your needs.

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 where it should be coming from. As I’ve said above, a lack of support leads to resentment. And if we pass the buck along to those we work with, we only end up resenting one another. In this case, nobody feels taken care of. 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 always easy, but if you’ve found yourself in a situation where your boundaries are being violated these steps should help you to navigate them with some confidence. And if you do everything you’re able to, and you still find that you are being taken advantage of, your best bet may be too leave the situation entirely. It’s what I did with my situation and it worked out for the best. 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, and if it is anything like mine, I can relate. But also, being open to the idea that people can change, 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, maybe by walking away from the situation, but not holding any anger or resentment towards those who hurt you while taking care of yourself.

I hope this has helped in some way. As always, peace : ) and thanks for reading.

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

      CC BY 2.0

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