Boundaries and Verbal Abuse  E-mail
Written by Dr. Sidney Langston   

Verbal abuse in the form of character assassination, shaming and "hitting below the belt" is a way of life for John and Mary.  John often says to Mary, "I'm the best thing that ever happened to you, because no one else would put up with such a slob."  Mary retaliates by saying, "Look who's calling who a slob." They relentlessly pound away at each other, heedless of the pain they are causing.

John and Mary do not have a healthy respect for each other's boundaries because their own boundaries were probably violated and abused in childhood. As a result they never learned to set appropriate boundaries for themselves or to recognize and respect one another's boundaries. This is an all-too-common problem in relationships.

Defining Boundaries
As human beings our boundaries consist of our bodies, thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Thus, human boundaries fall into two categories, external and internal. The external boundary protects our bodies. This boundary regulates who, when, where, how and what we allow to touch our bodies. Internal boundaries protect our thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

We have the privilege of thinking what we think, feeling what we feel and behaving as we choose. However, we are responsible for the consequences of our thoughts and actions. We need to be careful not to offend someone by maliciously or immoderately expressing our feelings. We also need to be aware of the effect our behaviors will have on other people and society in general. If our behaviors offend others, we are responsible for dealing honorably with the situation.

Myths About Boundaries
Many people do not understand how to set healthy, appropriate boundaries. Some commonly held myths include:

  • If I set a boundary, I'm being selfish.
  • If I set a boundary, others will hurt me by lashing out at me or refusing to bond with me.
  • If I set a boundary, I will hurt others. Fact: appropriate boundaries don't control, attack or hurt anyone.
  • If I set a boundary, it means that I am angry and anger is a wrong or negative emotion. Fact: Appropriate anger allows us to defend against injustices, protect ourselves and problem-solve. Boundaries actually decrease anger.
  • When others set boundaries, it injures me.
  • Boundaries cause feelings of guilt. For example, if someone does something nice for me, I feel obligated to do something nice for them.  If I need to say "no," I will feel guilty.
  • Boundaries are permanent. Fact: boundaries can be renegotiated and changed as appropriate.

Resistance to Boundaries
Sometimes we resist setting appropriate external and internal boundaries for ourselves because we fear hurting others or getting hurt ourselves. For example, when John verbally abuses Mary, she retaliates because she is hurt by his remarks and is afraid there will be more to come. We also resist setting boundaries because we fear how it will affect the other person or how they might react, and because we feel guilty when we fail to please.

On the other hand, people often resist the boundaries we do set. Because unresolved grief or loss influences their behavior, they have an urgent need to have their own way and get their own needs met. They are emotionally immature and self-centered, resist taking responsibility for their own lives and attempt to control others. It is difficult for them to comprehend that others also have hurts, needs and desires just as they do.

Protecting Your Boundaries
If you are trying to deal with someone who frequently oversteps your boundaries, some of the following suggestions may prove helpful.

When your boundary is overstepped, immediately confront the violation, unless you have been physically attacked.  If you have been physically attacked, get away as quickly as possible and report it to the proper authorities.  Otherwise, let the offender know you feel like you've been hit below the belt or that their criticism felt like an assassination of your character. Ask them if they meant to hurt you in that way.

Practice saying "no" when you mean no and "yes" when you mean yes.  You may have to repeat this over and over because people who resist boundaries have trouble hearing what we have to say.

If someone is using guilt to motivate you, confront their destructive manipulative behavior by calling it what it is and telling them how you feel about it.  In addition, let them know that, in your opinion, this behavior is disrespectful and dishonest and that you are going to let them experience the consequences of their irresponsibility.

Develop assertiveness skills that allow you to set appropriate boundaries and to express your thoughts and feelings in a respectful manner. As you model healthy behaviors, it creates an environment in which destructive patterns of relating to one another can change.

Success in Setting Boundaries
To measure your success in setting boundaries ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I feel free to say yes or no when I want to?
  • Do I respect the boundaries others set even when I don't want to?
  • Am I free of the "guilties?"
  • Am I comfortable being with others because I know how to take care of myself?
  • Am I free of resentments and bitterness?
  • Am I able to set appropriate goals for myself in relationships?

Verbal Abusers Can Change
If you see yourself in the description of a verbal abuser, don't despair. There is great hope for you if you are willing to face yourself. Few people really want to be mean and when you find you have been, you probably justify your behavior by describing it as frank, outspoken or straightforward. Be grateful that you have discovered your abusive behavior because that gives you the opportunity to change and quit hurting other people.

You've been good at being blunt (abusive is more accurate) with others, now be honest with yourself without being self-abusive. Explore the causes of your behavior. Only when you can identify the personality characteristics that have made you a verbal abuser can you effectively break the habit. The following questions will be helpful.

Ask yourself:

1. Do you feel weak and inadequate unless you are angry and lashing out at others with words?

2. Do you allow stress to build up until it bursts the boundaries of your control?

3. Did you ever master the skills of self control?  Do you believe it's foolish to practice self control?

4. Do you believe it is honest or desirable to express feelings and ideas with all the passion you feel inside, regardless of how it affects the other person?

5. Do you use anger against others to protect yourself?

6. Do you find low self-esteem to be at the core of your emotional pain?

Next, recognize your strengths. You do have the ability to think, reason, and make wise choices. To develop self control, make yourself do one thing every day that you hate doing, and stop yourself from doing one thing each day that you want very much to do.

Steps to Change
Practicing the following common-sense rules will help you to change:

  • Face the need to change.
  • Give yourself permission to change.
  • Develop a specific plan, for change. The more specific the plan the more successful you will be in meeting your goals.
  • Seek assistance from someone you trust who will help you stay on track.
  • Be persistent. Changes are hard to make, but the struggle is worth it.



Cloud, Henry, and Townsend, John. (1992). Boundaries. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan
Publishing House.

Mellody, Pia and Miller, Andrea Wells. (1989). Breaking free, Recovery workbook for
co-dependents. San Francisco: Harper Collins.

Ketterman, Grace. (1992). Verbal abuse, Healing the hidden wound. Ann Arbor, MI:
Servant Publications.

Copyright 1994 El Rophe Center, Inc.

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