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How To Set Boundaries With Harmful People And Boundary Violators

It isn’t easy to set boundaries with people who you find toxic, unhealthy and personally harmful. It’s even more difficult to set boundaries for people who routinely plow through the boundaries you set. Yet these types of people are in the lives of every church leader and when you do set effective boundaries it can make a huge difference in your mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health. In this last in a series of articles on healthy boundaries for church leaders we discuss ways to set boundaries with harmful people.

In an ideal world, people will honor and respect your boundaries when you communicate them clearly. But the reality is that some people will do everything they can to resist your efforts to set boundaries, including arguing, blaming, ignoring, manipulating, and threatening you. And while you can’t prevent people from acting like this, you can learn how to set effective boundaries with harmful people.

Who Are Harmful People?

Harmful people are the people who leave a trail of negative energy and make you feel worse after being around them. Usually, your gut instinct will tell you whether someone is not healthy to be around, but below are some typical characteristics of harmful people.

  • Don’t respect your boundaries
  • Are dishonest on a consistent basis
  • Take advantage of your kindness
  • Manipulate you in order to get what they want
  • Put you down
  • Undermine your efforts
  • Disparage you to others
  • Don’t encourage you
  • Don’t consider your feelings or needs
  • Feel entitled
  • Are frequently aggressive with words and actions
  • Rarely apologize
  • Blame others and don’t take responsibility for their actions
  • Drain your energy
  • Have a lot of “drama” or problems they want to share
  • Think that the rules don’t apply to them
  • Talk a lot, but never listen
  • Leave you discouraged

What To Do When Your Boundaries Aren’t Respected

First, remember that healthy personal boundaries are a way to protect and care for yourself so you can be the best version of yourself. And that boundaries are the foundation of healthy relationships. So, what can you do when your boundaries aren’t respected?

Setting and maintaining boundaries is an ongoing process and unfortunately there isn’t a quick fix or silver bullet for dealing with boundary violators. The following ideas though can help you choose the best approach for dealing with chronic boundary violators in your life.

Decide whether a boundary is negotiable. Some boundaries are more important than others. Identifying what you’re willing to accept and what you consider intolerable or non-negotiable will help you decide if you’re willing to compromise.

Compromise can be a good thing if both people are adjusting but in reality, most unhealthy people won’t make the necessary adjustments. People who repeatedly take harmful abuse in the hopes the person will change usually find the person has no intention of changing.

Determine how long you are willing to go along. Determining what behavior you will accept is important, but just as important is to determine how long you will take the harmful behavior. If someone repeatedly violates your most important boundaries, you have to ask yourself how long you’re willing to accept such treatment.

Keep a journal. Recording boundary violations and your responses will help you see their frequency and your resulting feelings as well as identify inconsistencies or weak spots in your boundaries.

Accept that some people will not respect your boundaries regardless of what you do. This is a difficult truth to accept because we like to think that by being kind and persuasive we can convince people to respect our boundaries. But trying to change a harmful person’s behaviors rarely works. You must choose to accept them as they are and continue in your relationship or choose to disengage.

Practice kind disengagement. Detaching yourself from a relationship moves you away from trying to control a toxic relationship or change the harmful person. You can disengage from a harmful person by:

  • Physically distancing yourself from situations that place you near the person.
  • Declining invitations and opportunities to spend time with them.
  • Responding in a different way to their comments. For example, making a joke or changing the subject alters the dynamics of the conversation.
  • Walking away choosing not to participate in the same old conversations or arguments.

Choose to end the relationship. Sometimes the only way to protect yourself is to completely stop associating with people you find harmful. Eliminating contact isn’t intended to punish others, or communicate that you don’t care about the person. It’s a form of self-care. If someone is consistently harming you physically, spiritually or emotionally, you owe it to yourself to remove that person from your life. Choosing to end a relationship is never easy. It may even mean divorce, changing jobs, or moving to another community to free yourself from a harmful person. Completely disengaging from a relationship also means you are letting them deal with the consequences of their behavior.

Unfortunately, none of the above approaches provides an easy answer. But, you have choices, you are not trapped or powerless against harmful people. Boundaries allow you to be all that God intended you to be. You deserve to be your best self and that is a priceless gift to God, yourself and to others.





Posted on April 26, 2022

Jim Baker

Jim is a Church Organizational Leadership and Management Coach, Consultant and Trainer. Throughout his career Jim has demonstrated a passion for showing Pastors and Ministers how to use organizational tools for church and personal growth and health.

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“For I may be absent in body, but I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see how well ordered you are and the strength of your faith in Christ.” Colossians 2:5