How to Set Boundaries and Deal with Intimidation

The doors of my house have locks. I not only have the right to lock my doors, but I have the duty to protect my family from thieves and dangerous people. Yet, even with the doors locked, my home is occasionally invaded by telemarketers who interrupt whatever I’m doing with the hope of making a sale. At other times, an acquaintance may call and poison the atmosphere with endless whining about how unfair life is.

Yes, life would be unfair if we were forced to listen to someone whose only purpose in life is to complain. Thankfully, life is not unfair. We have power. We can define what we are willing to put up with. We can establish what is and what is not acceptable to us. We don’t have to listen to every call. We can say, “Sorry, I’m busy now. Thanks for calling. Talk to you later. Good-bye,” and hang up.

In a word, we can set boundaries. Boundaries don’t separate us from life; they enrich it. After all, boundaries give us the freedom to become the person we wish to be. Some, however, are afraid to speak up. They are afraid of being rejected and losing their friend. They are willing to give up all that they can be to hold on to the little that they now have. It is like a tadpole refusing to become a frog or a caterpillar refusing to become a butterfly. It doesn’t make any sense.

If we wish to oversee our destiny, we have to learn how to speak up and tell others what is unacceptable to us. You can start enriching your life today, by setting boundaries. The four-step procedure is outlined below.

I’ll start with a summary of the four steps and then go into the details of each step. First, the summary.

1. Begin by saying, “WHEN YOU …” (state what is unacceptable)

2. “I FEEL …” (describe your feelings),

3. ‘I WANT …” (describe your expectations),

4. IF YOU ~ I WILL …” (describe the consequences of ignoring your request).

Now for the details. 1: Define the unacceptable behavior by stating WHEN YOU… For example, whenever Mary says something her husband disagrees with, he rolls his eyes and sighs, dismissing her opinion. Mary decides to set a boundary and begins with Step 1 by saying, “Whenever you disagree with me, you roll your eyes and sigh, as if you are exasperated by something stupid I’ve just said…”

When explaining your grievance, it is important to be specific. The person you are dealing with is not a mind reader and cannot be sure of what is troubling you unless you spell it out. Note that Mary did not say, “When you belittle me…” (that is too vague), but said, “When you roll your eyes and sigh…”  By being specific, you not only make sure the person you’re speaking to understands you, but you are helping them to become aware of their behavior, which may be automatic and done without any thinking on their part.

Mary continues setting her boundary by taking Step 2 and saying, “WHEN YOU do that, I FEEL hurt. When you dismiss my opinions like that, I FEEL as if I have nothing of value to say to you.” Steps 1 and 2 are not about blaming. They are merely factual statements. Mary is not accusing her husband of being cold-hearted. She is just expressing her feelings, and in Step 3, she will go on to express her needs.

Mary is ready to go on to Step 3, so she continues, “I want to be in a loving, caring, supportive relationship. I expect to be appreciated and admired. When you treat me with disrespect, I feel like we are being driven apart. So, from now on, when I express an opinion, I WANT you to stop rolling your eyes and sighing as if I were a jerk. I WANT you to listen to what I have to say, consider it, and respect my right to express an opinion without being laughed at. I don’t always agree with what you have to say, but I respect your right to have another opinion. At the very least, you can grant me the same courtesy.”

Note that in Step 3, too, it is important to be specific in stating what we want. Granted, it is helpful to know that Mary wishes to be in a loving, caring, and supportive relationship, and wants to be appreciated and admired. But those wishes are still too vague to be clearly understood. Fortunately, she later spelled out exactly what she wants when she added, “I WANT you to stop rolling your eyes and sighing as if I were a jerk. I WANT you to listen to what I have to say, consider it, and respect my right to express an opinion without being laughed at.”

A new boundary cannot be established unless it is enforced. The role of Step 4 is to announce the consequences of refusing to comply with the request being made. It isn’t always necessary to announce the consequences to the person you’re dealing with. However, it is essential that you choose the consequences in your own mind and commit to carrying them out if necessary. In the case of Mary, her purpose isn’t to antagonize or threaten her husband. She merely wishes to correct his unacceptable behavior. So, in place of Step 4, she may simply say, “Do you understand what I am saying, Honey?”

But what if Mary’s husband continues to ridicule her? A boundary without enforcement is not a boundary, so Mary will now announce the consequences. The actions she will take are not punishment she is meting out, but the consequences her husband brought on himself by his own actions. Although there is much Mary can do and say, here is just one example, “I asked you to stop rolling your eyes and sighing whenever I express an opinion that differs from yours and you have refused to stop. So, I have decided to spend less time at home and start taking night school classes where I can improve myself and make new friends. If I cannot find the respect I need and deserve at home, I will find it outside the home. I hope you understand…”

Everyone resists change, so if you try to set a boundary with a friend that ridicules you, they will probably try to brush it aside by saying something like, “I was just joking. You’re too sensitive.” But don’t accept that explanation. Immediately reply, “You may have been joking, BUT I AM NOT. If you continue to ridicule me, I will find another friend.”

You are not less important than others, so stand up for yourself. The other side of the coin is, others are not less important than you, so respect and honor their boundaries. Rewording the point I wish to make, you are not here to live up to the expectations of others, but neither are they here to live up to yours. Seek balance or the middle path. That is, don’t be passive, allowing others to step all over you. Also, don’t be aggressive, bullying your way through life. Rather, be assertive, defending your rights and the rights of others. The purpose of setting boundaries is not to be separated from others, but to gain the freedom and strength to better serve them. For it is only after we learn how to protect. honor, and love ourselves that we will be able to do the same for others.

Dealing with Intimidation

Were you ever bullied, humiliated, harassed, or treated with contempt? Were you ever called names, such as fatso, baldy, geek, retard, or ugly? When you tried to fit in at a new school, job, or neighborhood, did someone or some group make racial slurs, belittle your religion, make fun of your appearance, ridicule your opinions, mock your speech, or deride your beliefs? When you tried to express yourself, did they show appreciation or show disdain? When you arrived, did they cheer or jeer? Did they celebrate you or denigrate you?

If you spoke up after being taunted, did they try to blame you, the victim, by saying, “What’s the matter? Don’t you have a sense of humor? Don’t be so sensitive, I was just kidding. Don’t be a sissy!” When you complained to your boss, parents, or teachers, did they help? Instead of doing so, they may have compounded the problem by brushing it aside and saying something like, “Don’t let it get to you. You’ve just got to learn how to get along with people!” I wonder which is worse, to be made the brunt of jokes or to have one’s pain trivialized?

Intimidation of others takes many forms. It could be physical violence or verbal abuse. You may be prevented from doing what you want to do or forced to do what you don’t want to. You may be shunned, ostracized, or given the silent treatment. The abusers may steal your property or your reputation. You may be criticized, insulted, or threatened. The result of it all is considerable emotional and physical pain.

What can we do about such abuse when it happens to us? First, we can learn to understand the causes. Once we do, that may be enough to, if not end the pain, at least lessen it. Understanding the causes will also point out options and possible solutions. So, why are some people so belligerent?

They act tough because they’re weak. They have little or no confidence. They feel like losers. They feel unsuccessful and incompetent. They feel that they have no power over their lives and are desperately looking for a method of filling this vacuum. Then along you come. If, somehow, they can make you feel bad; if they can control your emotions, they will have redeemed themselves, for now at last they will have some control and power. True, it is destructive rather than constructive power, but any power is better than none. Granted, it is control over the lives of others rather than over their own life, but, again, some control is better than no control.

Because of the complexity of life, there is not one explanation of hostility, but many. However, there is a commonality. In all cases the aggressor is weak. He or she may wear their belligerence as a shield. They may be afraid of being laughed at because of their own incompetence, so they lash out at others in a pre-emptive attack. Also, because of feelings of worthlessness, they seek ways of becoming the center of attention and ways of gaining popularity. After all, if a late night talk show host can earn millions and win respect by insulting the President of the United States, why can’t they become a local ‘hero’ by making fun of you?

Other reasons for indulging in malicious behaviour include peer pressure, jealousy and envy, not knowing any better, and the glorification of violence on TV and in the movies and video games. The instigators themselves may also be victims. Perhaps they’re being abused by a sibling, a parent, or a neighbor and are now striking out at others to release some of their pent-up hostility. Politicians sometimes exemplify yet another reason for insulting others: manipulation. Candidates running for office with a weak platform will often slander their rivals to divert attention from their own lack of ideas.

It is also helpful to understand that the pain we feel when insults are slung our way is not caused by the insults themselves, but by our internal reaction to them. This important lesson, (that it is not outside events, but our reactions to them that causes our suffering), is a major tenet of modern psychology. Yet, this teaching is hardly new.

Nearly 2,000 years ago, the Greek philosopher Epictetus taught, “It is not he who gives abuse that affronts, but the view that we take of it as insulting; so that when one provokes you it is your own opinion which is provoking.” We may not be able to change the abuser, but we can change our mind. We can decide that the frail attempts of a weakling trying to hurt us can be ignored. What better revenge can you enact than to deprive the abuser of the satisfaction of seeing you get upset?
Another point to ponder is a harasser cannot change the truth. A shrill little man may call Luciano Pavarotti “fatso,” but does that diminish in any way the quality of Pavarotti’s voice or his magnificent accomplishments? Of course not. Here’s how Samuel Johnson advanced the same argument, “A fly may sting a stately horse and make him wince; but one is but an insect, and the other is a horse still.” So, why let the pathetic attempts of an insecure person irritate you? In fact, try to feel their pain. Who knows, if you act compassionately, you may be able to heal their wounds as well as your own.

Did you know that Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Tom Cruise, and Michelle Pfeiffer were all bullied in school? Who’s laughing now? Doesn’t this demonstrate that things change? Just because you’re in an unpleasant circumstance today, it doesn’t mean that it will remain that way indefinitely. Also remember that bullies are not really attacking you but attacking events that occurred in their lives.

Can anything positive be said about insults? At least it is far better to have someone hurl insults at you than to stone you to death! Which is why Sigmund Freud wrote, “The first human being who hurled an insult instead of a stone was the founder of civilization.” Changing from physical abuse to verbal abuse may be a step in the right direction, but it offers little consolation to those suffering mental anguish.

Options Available to Us when We Are the Victims of Aggression

Let’s say a co-worker, schoolmate, or neighbor makes fun of you and treats you with disrespect. What can you do about it? Let’s look at three options.

1.When insulted, our first instinct may be to fight back. The confrontational approach is emotional, not rational. It is never the correct answer. All it does is escalate the tension and anger. It makes all future dealings with the same person that much more stressful. But what if, after being insulted, I punch the bully in the face and win the fight? If I do, doesn’t that make ME the bully? Besides, people don’t change their behaviour because of force or intimidation, but because of example. So, don’t try to right a wrong with another wrong. 

2.Our second option is to walk away, ignoring the abuse. This choice can be correct or incorrect, depending on the circumstances and our motivation. If the only reason I walk away is because I’m passive, unassertive, and unjustifiably fearful, it is the wrong choice to make. For once I accept abuse, I invite more of it. Don’t become the type of person the aggressor is looking for. That is, don’t become an easy target, one who will not stand up for their rights.

Yet, sometimes, accepting defeat gracefully is the better part of valor. What’s the point of standing up to a thug if he shoots or stabs me to death? Neither the fact that I was right nor my heroic actions will serve as consolation to my widow and fatherless children. If we have reason to believe the abuser is violent, it makes sense to walk away. No one likes to be viewed as a coward, so it takes courage to admit defeat and walk away.

There is another reason for walking away. Perhaps I have pity for the bully who is desperately looking for attention and the control of others to hide their own feelings of inadequacy. In other words, I walk away in compassion and forgiveness. I rise above the pettiness of it all. That’s what Rene Descartes did, for he wrote, “Whenever anyone has offended me, I try to raise my soul so high that the offense cannot reach it.” There is also a common-sense aspect to this method, for if I do not accept the insults of another, who is there that will be offended? The spiritual approach of ignoring the insults and treating the abuser with respect can lead to their transformation. So, it’s worthwhile giving this method a chance.

But what if the abuser is cold-hearted and doesn’t respond to my unconditional acceptance? Then it’s time to rethink the proper spiritual path. Consider the following two spiritual choices. I can retire to an isolated cave and meditate for ten years. If I were to do so, it may be helpful for MY spiritual development, but how much help would it provide to a troubled world? A second approach is the way of Mother Teresa. It is active involvement in the world, offering assistance where it is needed. Isn’t that a superior way?

How does this point apply when dealing with bullies?  Well, if I walk away in forgiveness year after year, my actions may be fine for MY spiritual development, but what about the other victims? Perhaps their hearts are not filled with compassion, but filled with anguish. Why are there bullies in the first place? Isn’t it because not enough of us stand up for our rights? Therefore, the ideal action to take, which is not always possible, is to defend ourselves. This is the third option. It is the superior choice, for when we follow it, we help ourselves, help the other victims, and help the abuser.

3.The third option is not about standing up TO the bully. That is, it is not about becoming aggressive. Rather, it is about standing up FOR our rights. It is about being assertive. Failure to defend our rights has severe consequences. It leads to more abuse and causes us to experience the toxic emotions of anger, resentment, anxiety, frustration, and depression. We not only lose control over our lives, but also lose our integrity because we conceal our feelings. And we lose trust in others, lose self-confidence, and lose the daily pleasure of life. So, we have plenty of reasons to agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson who wrote, “One ought never to turn one’s back on a threatened danger and try to run away from it. If you do that, you will double the danger. But if you meet it promptly and without flinching, you will reduce the danger by half. Never run away from anything. Never!”

All right, a co-worker constantly insults us and we’re unhappy about it. How do we act assertively? We do so by following the four steps below.

  1. Begin empathetically. That is, show you understand their feelings and are not trying to argue with them.
  2. State the problem by giving the reasons why the bully should end their poor behaviour.
  3. State what you expect.
  4. Ask for feedback or confirmation.

Now, here’s an example of the four steps in use.

  1. “I understand you just want to have fun and don’t have any bad intentions, but I don’t want you to have fun at my expense.”
  1. “When you joke that way, it offends me, encourages others to act disrespectfully, and breaks team spirit.”
  1. “So, I would appreciate it if you stop the name-calling. There’s no reason why we can’t respect one another.”
  1. “Do you understand what I mean?”

As you can imagine, it takes time to arrive at such a thoughtful response. So, take the time to think things through. Write down what you wish to say, and practice saying it firmly, but not threateningly, in front of a mirror so you will be properly prepared.

Words may not break bones, but they can break a person’s spirit, so when you see someone being abused, step in, if you can, and come to their defense, but without becoming abusive yourself. Team up with likeminded individuals and support one another. Also, never lose sight of compassion, for in the end, the best way to destroy your enemies is to make them your friends.

Additional Ways of Handling Abuse

The more variations you know, the more options you will have, and the greater the likelihood of finding one to match your particular situation. So, here are some more responses that may help.

  1. Without being confrontational, ask the bully to repeat what was said. For example, “What was that?” or “Sorry, I didn’t catch what you said, can you repeat it?” Asking a question reverses the situation, placing you in control. It’s like playing a game of tennis. When bullies taunt you, they are slamming the ball at you. When you immediately respond with a question, it is a volley, placing the ball in their court. It catches them off guard. They didn’t expect that. The question forces them to reconsider the vicious remark that they made. Embarrassed or befuddled, they will usually respond with a weaker version of the original remark. So, with a single question, you have lowered the level of intimidation by one notch. After they repeat it, what should you do? You could brush it off; laugh it off, or continue with another response, such as the following.
  1. After getting the bully to repeat the remark, say something nice! Such as, “I can’t believe you would say such a thing. It is beneath you. Such remarks are unworthy of you. Guess you’re having a bad day. Got to go now. See you later.” All bullies are deeply troubled. They wish someone would understand them. Your remarks suggest that you may not only understand, but also sympathize with them. If you repeat similar comments whenever you meet, you may change them into decent people.
  1. Practice reverse psychology by turning insults into compliments. If the bully says, “My, you’re terribly ugly,” you could say, “What a nice thing to say! I didn’t think you noticed. Bye, bye.” When you refuse to be hurt by the comments of bullies, you make them become failures at their own game. That may make them uncomfortable enough to stop taunting you.
  1. Redirect the insults back to the source. For instance you could say, “I’m so happy you’re practicing affirmations! Keep repeating what you said. If you say it often enough, you may come to believe it. That will make you feel better. Next time you see me, you can practice some more.” A variation of this theme would be, “I apologize. I didn’t realize you have such low self-esteem that you have to belittle others to feel good. Next time I’ll try not to be so obvious.” This response may force the bully to face his or her weakness and bring about some change. But never say these remarks in a malicious manner. Instead of acting superior, act more enlightened.
  1. Offer help. You could say, “Look, no one is this mean unless something is troubling them. If you ever want to speak about it, let me know. Perhaps I can help.”
  1. Fogging. Fogging is a term used in assertiveness training. It means to agree with part of the bully’s statement. By expressing an area of agreement, you are being non-confrontational, yet remain firm. For example, the bully calls you a skinny moron and you reply, “Yes, I am skinny. In fact, I may even be a moron in your mind. But I’m sure you’re intelligent enough to know I’m not stupid. So, why are you insulting me?” 
  1. Reply with a sense of humor. But don’t act as though you’re looking down at the bully. You’re not laughing at them, but at the situation. Here are some one-liners you can add to your arsenal: 
  • Keep talking. I always yawn when I’m interested.
  • When you get to the men’s room, you will see a sign that says, ‘Gentlemen.’ Pay no attention and go right on in.
  • You must have gotten up on the wrong side of the cage this morning.
  • I’m sorry, I’m busy now. Can I ignore you some other time?
  • You used to be arrogant and obnoxious. Now you are just the opposite. You are obnoxious and arrogant.
  • I admire you because I’ve never had the courage to be so boring.

The above retorts may be funny, but bullying is no laughing matter. It is not to be put up with. So stand up for yourself and others whenever it is possible. Remember that there is strength in numbers. When you hang out with friends, you can offer support to each another. The only reason there are bullies is that not enough people stand up to them. So, do your part. You never know; you may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. You may be the one responsible for the bully changing their ways and returning to the flock. Try to be sympathetic and redeem the bully. But if you can’t, and they pose a risk, speak to the authorities. For example, if it’s a matter of bullying in the workplace, talk to your supervisor and the HR Manager, firmly letting them know that the intimidation must end. There are laws regarding safety in the workplace, so if your company doesn’t correct the situation report it to the correct authorities, such as a workplace safety board. Finally, if you are less assertive than you would like to be, do something about it. Take an assertiveness course and learn how to gain control over your life and happiness.



Boundaries Updated and Expanded Edition: When to Say Yes, How to Say No To Take Control of Your Life by Henry Cloud and John Townsend

Where to Draw the Line: How to Set Healthy Boundaries Every Day By Anne Katherine

Boundaries Where You End And I Begin: How To Recognize And Set Healthy Boundaries by Anne Katherine

Empowered Boundaries: Speaking Truth, Setting Boundaries, and Inspiring Social Change by Cristien Storm

Better Boundaries: Owning and Treasuring Your Life by Jan Black

Boundaries and Relationships: Knowing, Protecting and Enjoying the Self By Dr. Charles Whitfield MD


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