Setting Boundaries (The What, Why, and How)


Let's talk boundaries.

Whether it’s struggling with a demanding job or coping with a person who is draining our time/energy/resources, we’ve all been put in the awkward position of having to take a stand and draw some limits. In a perfect world, enforcing boundaries should feel empowering. But sometimes (speaking for myself here) I feel anxious, resentful and guilty when I try.

Many of my clients have boundary challenges, whether with family, work, or friends. It can be so hard to know what is ours to take care of and what to let go. So in response, here is a kitchen-sink type post with some of my thoughts about boundaries:

  • what they are,
  • how they get violated,
  • why they're important,
  • and what we can do to keep them strong and healthy.

What They Are and How They Get Violated

Boundaries, literally speaking, are "where you draw the line."

They are the internal rules that govern what behaviors are okay with you and which are not. Each person's boundaries are individual and unique to them. Yours may even vary depending on the person and/or situation.

In my own experience, there are two types of boundary violations.

There's the kind you violate yourself, like when you keep getting asked to work extra hours and you have trouble saying no. Then there's the kind other people violate, like a coworker who won't stop telling offensive jokes around you.

How do you know whether one of your boundaries has been violated?

Look for times when you feel angry or resentful. As Karla McClaren says in The Language of Emotions, the questions we should ask of anger are, "What must be protected? What must be restored?" Anger is a sure sign that one of your personal boundaries has been breached and needs to be attended to.

Let's Create a New Narrative

Why are boundaries so hard to create, maintain, and respect?

Boundaries are necessary for our own mental and emotional well-being, but there are some pretty negative cultural messages about them out there. When I set a boundary, I sometimes worry that I will appear petty, selfish, miserly, inflexible, uptight, humorless, uncaring, entitled, or rude.

These stories tell us that boundaries keep us closed off and disconnected from other people. While that's not true in my lived experience, it's still a powerful message.

Let's look at some evidence to the contrary and create a new narrative.

Boundaries create safety.

Imagine being able to say what is okay and not okay with you in any situation and trusting that it will be respected. I don’t know about you, but I heave a sigh of relief just thinking about it. This creates a fertile ground for trust and intimacy to grow.

Boundaries create closeness.

Clear communication is a cornerstone of good boundaries. For example, I have a couple of friends who are really cool about saying, “We’re going to bed, it’s time for you to leave.” I can relax and enjoy the evening without worrying that I’m overstaying my welcome, and I appreciate that they feel comfortable saying that to me.

Boundaries create healthy separation.

Many of us think that to empathize with another person, you have to be able to feel their feelings. Not so! It can be all too easy to take on the emotions of everyone you meet until you can’t separate out what’s yours and what’s theirs.

Listen: it’s not your job to carry around everyone else’s pain. And it’s not anyone else’s job to carry yours. When you're always trying to guess how someone will react to something, you're so far in their business that you aren't able to take care of yourself.

Boundaries create freedom.

When you are able to truly claim responsibility for your own feelings, thoughts, and actions, it’s easier to give up the need to control other peoples’. This is hard stuff.

Anne Lamott says of one of her mentors, “She insists that if we want to be free, we have to let everybody be free. I hate and resent this so much. It means we have to let the people in our families and galaxies be free to be asshats, if that is how they choose to live.”

When you're able to realize how hard you're working to manage everybody else's stuff, it can be a huge relief to let go of that responsibility (even if it feels terrifying at the time).

Boundaries create spaciousness.

This can be as simple as not responding to work e-mails over the weekend, not picking up a stressful phone call, or responding to requests with, “Let me get back to you on that.” They can be stalwart defenders of your happiness and sanity if you let them.

Boundaries cultivate self-care (and thus, care of others).

Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend compare poor boundaries to turning on your sprinkler and watering your neighbor’s grass instead of your own. Clearly defining that “property line” makes it easier to meet your own needs first; as a result, you can help others from a place of wholeness rather than depletion. “Secure your own oxygen mask first” is a cliche in the self-help world for good reason.

Ladies! Boundary-setting can be especially hard for us.

We are trained from birth to be accommodating, diplomatic and nice. We give people the benefit of the doubt. When we see a woman standing up for herself, she’s often characterized as bitchy, over-reactive, unreasonable, or rude. I know, it’s gross and no one wants to be seen that way. But we have to stop caring so much about what other people think of us. When we are able to create those healthy, flexible boundaries and hold them with love, we become beacons for everyone trying to do the same. It takes courage and heart, but all the women I know have that in spades. </soapbox>

How To Start Thinking about Healthy Boundaries in Your Life

(Super-important note before I jump in: I'm guessing we've all had not-good, creepy boundary-pushing experiences, from unreasonable demands to unwanted sexual attention. These can range from icky comments to outright assault. Many of the suggestions I make below are for situations where the boundary-pusher is more on the “well-meaning but oblivious” spectrum.

If you are dealing with someone toxic or violent who treats boundary violation like it’s their job, they will be much less likely to respect yours. Know that this doesn’t say anything about you, and please make your own personal safety a priority. Leaving/restricting contact is just as much a boundary as engaging verbally. If you can, surround yourself with people who support you in keeping yourself safe and well-cared for.)

Believe that you deserve to have boundaries.

Practically speaking, this is the hardest part. Everything else is just logistics. This is hard work, friends - unfortunately, the Fuck-Off Fairy is not guaranteed to visit you in your sleep and magically make it so you don’t care what other people think about you. It takes some practice, but it’s so, so worth it.

Get clear on what your boundaries actually are.

What’s on your "dammit list"? (As in, “No one gets to shame me about my looks, dammit!” or “I don’t work weekends, dammit!”) What are your deal-breakers for a job or a relationship? Notice if there’s anything you’d like to put down, but feel like it’s too much to ask or that you don’t deserve it. That right there is valuable information. What do other people get to have that you don’t? You have to be willing to honor your own boundaries before you can expect others to do the same.

How respecting are you of others’ boundaries?

Whether it’s your best friend’s smoking habit, your sister-in-law’s constant relationship disasters, or even your kid insisting, “I can do it myself!”, there can be a real compulsion to jump in and fix the situation. I know, you just want to help. You have all the good intentions in the world. If you could just get them to see what they’re doing wrong, they could fix it and be so much happier! Right?

This probably deserves its very own blog post, but think on this for a minute. When you ride in on your white horse, you deprive those people of the opportunity to ask for help when they want it. When you anticipate their needs, they never have to figure them out for themselves. When you assume you know what’s best for them, they either blindly accept your leadership (and miss out on a growth opportunity) or they end up resenting you. Is that how you want to treat the people in your life? How you want to be treated?

Let it be awkward.

Boundary setting can feel awkward, and one of the most powerful things you can do is just let it be that way. As another self-help aphorism goes, “‘No’ is a complete sentence.” Boundary-pushers will often (consciously or not) use your discomfort or sense of obligation to try to get you to agree to things. A little discomfort won’t kill you; if it feels weird, they’re the ones who made it that way.

Respect your instincts.

Sometimes you will just know when something isn't right for you. Trust that feeling. It will save you loads of regret and resentment down the line. Your mind may try to justify it, but ask yourself, "Am I trying to talk myself into this or out of it?"

Get clear on what piece of the situation is yours.

(Hint: that would be your thoughts, feelings, and actions. Period.) Remember those emotions of anxiety, resentment, and guilt that I mentioned way back at the top of the post? How much of that is directed at the boundary-pusher? How much is directed at yourself for not being able to say no?

Boundaries are a place where emotions get mirrored and projected all over the place, which is why it’s really important to separate your stuff from theirs. What are you, personally, responsible for here?

Let the other person have their experience.

Taking responsibility for others’ reactions and emotions feeds right back into that white-knight urge. No matter how well-intentioned, it’s a way to try to control the other person. The most respectful thing you can do is give them the freedom to react in their own way, even if you’re scared that you might not like it.

Explore those fears of what will happen if you do set boundaries.

A lot of people are afraid of being rejected somehow, like people will decide that respecting the boundary is too high a price to pay for being around them. But do you really want people around you who feel that way? These fears of abandonment and rejection usually go really deep, like back to childhood, and talking to a therapist or going through a process like heart-centered hypnosis can go a long way to healing these old wounds.

Don't beat yourself up if you can't enforce your boundaries in the moment.

It takes awhile to establish those new patterns and gather the courage to speak up for yourself. Thank goodness, there’s no statute of limitations on bringing it up later. If they try to make you feel weird for talking about it, that's about them, not you.

Stick to specific behaviors when you do speak up.

Calling out behaviors ("Don't tell racist jokes around me"),rather than judgments of them as a person ("Stop being such a creep") makes them more likely to be respected. The "around me" is important here - you don't get to use your boundary to dictate behavior in all of their life, just the part that affects you and your loved ones. Even if you wanted to, it wouldn't work anyway.

When you state your boundary, they are allowed to say no.

They may just outright refuse, get defensive, or try to make you feel unreasonable for having it. (I think this falls under the "free to be an asshat" clause.) That's their stuff, it's not about you. The important part is that once you get it out in the open, no one can claim ignorance. If the other person promises to honor your boundary, yay! If they ignore it or debate it with you, you just got some useful information that you can use to decide how you want to proceed.

One of the best pieces of advice I've heard about training people to respect your conversational boundaries is to politely change the subject, disengage if they won't take the hint, and try again later. In other words, reward good behavior, ignore bad behavior. Solid gold examples here and here.

Boundaries are hard to put in place all by yourself.

Figuring out what they are and how to enforce them in a healthy way requires a crazy amount of self-awareness and perception. Getting support from my community of coaches and therapists has done amazing things for my boundary skills.

In the end, they're fundamentally about relationships.

With ourselves, other people, the world in general. The hard news is that once you start thinking about things in terms of boundaries and relationships, it seems like everything relates back to them. The good news is that you now have some keys for making those relationships safer, healthier, and more authentic than ever. 

You may even find that once you’ve gotten internal clarity on what your boundaries are, you’ll find that the people around you start behaving differently without you having to say anything. It’s kind of freaky, actually. But really cool.

This ended up being kind of a hodge-podge of thoughts, and I know I'm leaving some stuff out, but at some point I have to stop giving five caveats to every statement I make. What's important to you about boundaries and boundary-setting? Leave me a comment below!

Some of my favorite resources on boundary setting:

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6 Things I Learned about Relationships from Neurotic Cats


I love watching animals because they're so transparent in their relationships. They don’t lie to save your feelings, they don’t hold grudges, they couldn't be passive-aggressive if they tried, and they perfectly mirror the energy of their environment. You get instant feedback as to whether something's working or not. No wonder I'm currently obsessed with My Cat From Hell. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a highly entertaining TV show featuring a tattooed rocker-turned-cat-behaviorist named Jackson Galaxy(!). I started watching it for ideas I could use with our own cats, but I got hooked because of how it addresses the universal themes of relationship, behavior, and happiness for both felines and humans. Here are some of the takeaways I got from the show (presented in cat terms, but easily transferable to us as well).

1. Everybody has to be invested for the relationship to work.

In most of the episodes, one person wants to give the problem cat away, and one wants to keep it. Jackson reinforces over and over again that each person has to develop their own relationship with the cat - especially when that means challenging assumptions about its personality or facing the fear of getting scratched. Ambivalence is not an option here; everyone has to get involved and do their own work.

2. A little willingness to compromise goes a long way.

Many of the people aren’t thrilled at first about putting cat furniture in their living room, or a litterbox in the middle of the floor. But when they see how their cat’s personality is transformed by a simple change in the environment, they stop caring quite as much about the purity of their mid-century decor. (And no, the litterbox doesn’t have to stay there!)

3. When you say “no” to one thing, say “yes” to something else.

When a cat is overly aggressive, Jackson plays with it to siphon off excess energy. When it jumps or scratches on prized possessions, he gives it a different object to focus on. A “no” by itself doesn’t pack much punch unless you back it up with a positive alternative.

4. Feeling stuck? Change your environment (and/or perspective).

Probably the number-one thing I see recommended on this show is the addition of vertical spaces for the cats to explore. This helps convert them from the mindset of scared “bush-dwelling” prey to confident “tree-dwelling” lords of the household jungle. They can perch up high and observe the action below before deciding if they want to get involved, and it gives them a sense of safety as they learn how to be big and take up space.

5. The relationships in your life mirror the energy you put into them.

Not to get all woo-woo, but animals can sense how you’re feeling and read your non-verbal cues. When people approach their cats with feelings of anger, fear, or annoyance, the cat reflects that emotion right back to them. The verbal brain can process about 40 bits of information a second, compared with 11 million bits from the non-verbal brain - and guess which one the cat is using? An attitude of openness, receptivity, and calm leadership goes a long way with both animals - and people.

6. Everybody wants to feel at home.

One of the biggest themes I saw was that the cats were lashing out because they didn’t feel like they had their own space or that they belonged. It was amazing to me how much subtle changes could affect their behavior once they felt secure in their place in the household.

My own success story:

Using these principles and tips from the show, my husband and I successfully turned my scaredy-cat Sophie into a fully participating member of the family (in four days!). When we gave her more vertical space to explore, she almost magically went from spending most of the day under the bed to claiming her space in the living room alongside her big rough-housing housemate, Mao-Mao. We also started playing more with Mao-Mao to give his energy a healthy outlet, and he's mostly stopped "playfully" stalking and attacking her at every opportunity. As I write this, they're peacefully napping less than three feet apart.

Your turn!

Hopefully there are some interesting parallels to be drawn in your own life or with your own relationships. What could you do to feel safer being seen by others? How could making a small change in your environment impact your mood? What relationships could use a little more compromise or positive energy?

My hope is that as I get more attuned to my cats’ needs and body language, I’ll get better at picking up non-verbal cues in the human world as well. In the meantime, it's reassuring and heartwarming for me to be reminded that no matter our species, we all need the same things: love, respect, safety, and the space to be ourselves.

Are you ready to make the transition from bush dweller to tree dweller and want some support along the way? I won't show up with extra furniture for your living room, but I can help you to feel more comfortable and at ease in the world. Check out my coaching offerings!

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