Setting Boundaries


How often do you agree to do something you don’t want to do because you don’t know how to say no? How many unwelcome behaviours have you tolerated to keep the peace instead of confronting the other person?

While giving in helps us avoid immediate unpleasantness, it often results in a build-up of anger and a simmering resentment under the surface.

If you experience these issues, you are not alone. Many people have difficulties setting boundaries. A personal boundary is a clear line which says “this is where my space begins and you’re not welcome in here.”

Anger is a signal

Anger is the clearest warning signal that someone has crossed your personal boundaries. A colleague asks you to do something and your eyes narrow while you think “Wait a minute, bozo, that’s your job not mine!” or an acquaintance criticises your doodles as amateurish while you seethe in anger wondering who gave her the right to judge your efforts when she’s no artist herself.

Most of us keep this anger to ourselves, trying to keep the peace. The result is an inner simmering that increases our resentment of the other person over time, and eventually erupts in an outburst that’s out of proportion to the trigger.

Setting your boundaries

Instead of hiding your anger or reacting to it, use it as a signal to do something so that the next time it happens, you have a prepared response. Setting boundaries has two parts:

1. Stating clearly where the boundary lies

2. Deciding on your response if the boundary is crossed.

Stating your boundary

It helps to write down your boundary very specifically. Use “I” sentences rather than “you” accusations. After all, the boundaries are yours and the other person cannot be expected to know what they are.

“I have many deadlines to meet and don’t have the time or energy to help you out.”

“I feel that you have no right to criticise my efforts.”

“I get irritated when you boss me around and tell me what to do.”

Deciding on your response

While you cannot prevent others from crossing your boundaries, you can decide what you will do next time it happens. Having a prepared response helps you to keep calm and stay in control.

Sometimes telling the person your boundary is enough to prevent it from happening again. This approach works if both are mature and value the relationship. However, sometimes the other person is unable or unwilling and continues to cross your boundary. Then you may have to use a verbal or physical response.

“I have many deadlines to meet and don’t have the time or energy to help you out. If you keep asking me to help I’m afraid I will have to start ignoring your requests.” (Or you may have to avoid this person by finding another place to work where she cannot find you.)

“I feel that you have no right to criticise my efforts. If I want your feedback in future I’ll be sure to ask you. (Or stand up and walk away once the criticism starts.)

“I get irritated when you boss me around and tell me what to do. If you ask nicely, I’ll listen and accede to your request if I can.(Or simply smile sweetly the next time you’re bossed around, and pretend you didn’t hear anything.)

The first time is the hardest

Many of us find such responses confrontational and so avoid setting boundaries until we’re near breaking point. By that time our responses come across as anger or sarcasm. Or we stonewall and avoid the person altogether and lose a friendship.

As with all things, the first time is the hardest and practice makes perfect. So pick a boundary that you feel has been crossed too often, and decide on your response right now. Next time you sense someone crossing the boundary, practise your response quietly and calmly.

Whether the other person apologizes, lashes out, or is totally clueless, you’ll feel your self-esteem rocket and be proud of yourself for setting boundaries. You’ll earn the respect of the most important person – yourself.

And funnily enough, the more secure you feel about yourself, the fewer boundaries you will need and the easier it will be for you to set and enforce those boundaries.