Setting Boundaries

"Squaw Valley Meadow Fence" by Mimi Stuart ©

Have you ever longed for more peace, quiet and solitude? Are you in a relationship with a person who is controlling, critical, or disrespectful? Have you ever felt trapped in a conversation with someone who’s intrusive or meddling?

Boundaries are critical for sustaining any respectful and fulfilling relationship in our modern Western culture. We all need boundaries and can create them in different ways; some are more effective and less hostile than others.

Some people feel uncomfortable creating boundaries and end up enduring unwanted advances, venting sessions, or abusive criticism. Others create unnecessary conflict by shouting “I need respect!” “Give me space!” or “Stop it!” People who are best at creating boundaries often do so without others even realizing it. What is their secret?

They are people who both know and respect themselves, and are sensitive and respectful toward others. They create boundaries through use of appropriate body language, energy modulation, tone of voice, and choice of words.

Creating Boundaries:

1. Don’t give access to yourself when you first meet someone, but do so only very gradually. While you can be friendly and polite, be more thoughtful about opening up completely. Open up 20% instead of 80% until you have a good sense of the person. If you don’t open up too quickly, there’s no need to shut down the energy as dramatically if things get uncomfortable. People are more likely to be offended if you are very warm and open, and then cool off suddenly. Take your time.

2. Recognize and respect your own needs, desires, and comfort zone. Some people are so concerned with pleasing others, they don’t check in with their inner compass to find out what their own needs are—a need for respect, quiet, personal power, support, kindness, solitude, free choice, etc. The earlier you are aware of your own comfort zone, the less likely you will let people go too far.

3. Tune down your energy. When you feel discomfort around someone intrusive, whether they are rude or overly friendly, cool down your energy. Be less open and receptive. You can subtly withdraw energy from the other person through posture, tone of voice, facial expression—particularly the eyes—and a palpable sense of energy-cooling. For instance, look at the person less or with less personal warmth.

4. Cool gently or suddenly: If someone is generally well-intentioned and you don’t want to hurt his or her feelings, withdraw energy gently. That person will often sense it without consciously knowing what’s going on. If someone doesn’t sense that your subtle withdrawal, withdraw more energy. If you still feel uncomfortable, you can verbalize your boundaries. For example, in a bar, “I’m sorry, I came here to spend time with a friend tonight.” Then turn away, or you can always leave.

5. Refrain from being 100% open about every feeling and thought even with close friends, children and partners. Keep parts of yourself to yourself. You can be kind without being completely open (and therefore vulnerable). Take care of your precious vulnerability/inner child/inner life spark as if it were life itself, because it is. You don’t want to lock away that part of yourself, but be SELECTIVE in when, with whom and how much you share of it. Make it a conscious choice from moment to moment. You are never obligated to answer anybody’s questions. When confronted, feel free to counter with another question, “Why do you ask?” Or, “I’d rather talk about something else right now.”

6. Express what you want in a positive way. With friends and family, it’s important to express your feelings. If you feel a need for boundaries, state your specific needs and make specific positive requests.

Examples: “I need to be alone right now.”

“I need to calm down.”

“I’m willing to talk to you if you would be polite.”

“I’d like to figure this out myself. You may be right, but life is more enjoyable when we make our own mistakes.”

“I’d like it if you didn’t speak to me with that tone of voice.”

To your child: “I really enjoy spending time with you. I also need a little time alone to re-energize. So I’ll spend an hour reading and then you can help me in the kitchen.”

7. Be less reactive. Keep some feelings and ideas to yourself, OR, if you express them, do so from a place of calm. This is the opposite of being drawn into argument and being reactive. Having boundaries means NOT BEING REACTIVE or FUSED to the other person. It means not needing the other person’s understanding and permission, but knowing what you want and calmly going after it. Often, the more you demand and insist on boundaries in an angry or pleading manner, the clearer it is that you are not in control of yourself or your boundaries.

Imagine an intrusive friend says angrily, “Why don’t you just do it the way I told you!” An over-reactive response would be to say angrily, “Stop telling me what to do! You have no idea what I’m going through.” The better response would be to say calmly, “I appreciate your desire to help. But it would be more helpful right now if you didn’t make suggestions.”

8. Limit intrusive and draining phone calls and conversations, particularly venting, gossip, and complaints. A response might be, “Unfortunately, I have to get going. Talk to you soon.” “Hi. I only have a minute.” One minute later, “I have to go. Good luck/ Have a great afternoon.”

OR if it’s an ongoing problem that you’d like to address: “I feel a bit drained when we talk about these problems so much. I’d prefer to talk about something more uplifting.”

Or, “Although I like to connect with you, I don’t have time to for long phone conversations, given my work and kids.”

OR “I’m sorry you’re going through so much. I’d like to know what you want from me. Do you want advice? Do you want me to point out how you might be participating in this ongoing pattern?” If the answer is NO, you can say, “Then I’m afraid I can’t be of any help to you.”

9. Don’t take without asking. Taking food off someone’s plate without asking is an example of fused behavior to avoid. People often feel it’s intimate and romantic to take food off each other’s plate. The “what’s mine is yours” mentality does lead to closeness, but not the type that’s desirable. Emotional and physical fusion lead to control issues and resentment. Only when people remain emotionally and physically separate can they truly become more intimate. If you wish to achieve the best form of intimacy (whether between lovers, friends, parent and child) be sure to first ask, “May I try a bite?”

10. Respect another person’s body as well as your own. No matter how many years you’ve been married, you are separate individuals, physically and emotionally. Acting as though the other person belongs to you leads to lack of respect, lack of passion, and degradation. Strive to be an honored guest, not an uninvited one. Always seek permission when you touch someone. This doesn’t necessarily mean asking permission with words, but look for the energy and body language that says, “yes.” A little enticement may help as well.

11. Respect a child’s autonomy regarding his or her body. This teaches the child ownership of his or her body. A child who is brought up with parents who dress the child beyond an appropriate age, impose unwanted affection, or don’t respect the child’s privacy, for example, does not learn to sense when his or her boundaries are being encroached.

12. Be respectful and expect respect both in public and at home. People who are critical or bicker in public are self-demeaning and irritating to be with. If a child, friend, or partner is inappropriately rude in private or public, it’s important to express yourself calmly and firmly and be willing to leave if necessary. Public humiliation requires immediate attention.

If someone criticizes or mocks you in public (or in private), you might say calmly but seriously, “When you say that, I feel uncomfortable/sad/angry/ like leaving. Please don’t do that.” If the person continues, it’s important to be willing to calmly leave the situation—the restaurant or eventually the relationship. Once boundaries are established, they are less likely to be encroached upon.

It’s also important not to engage in an argument when there’s no basis of respect. If someone attacks you, don’t participate in the negative engagement. You can respond, “When you yell at me, I feel defensive. I’d be willing to discuss this if we can do so calmly and respectfully.” Only with a prerequisite of respect can there be hope to achieve better understanding and improve a relationship.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “I can never get off the Phone.”


“The Voice Dialogue Series” (CDs), by Drs. Hal and Sidra Stone.

24 Responses to Setting Boundaries

  1. Gab says:

    I have a burning question. I have always had a good relationship with my niece from one estranged sister. About five years ago, my second sister and her daughter became abusive. I called it. Got the cold shoulder from both. Sister reappeared 18 months later, phone call, I set boundaries. (Limited contact). Boundaries were not respected. Sister again gives me the cold shoulder. Sister reappeared 18 months later with inappropriate confidences. This time I got very angry, asked for no contact. Sister reappeared (telephone message) 18 months later. Then again one month later (phone message). Then tried email two months later. I ignored all. Stuck to no contact. I am set on no contact with this sister and her daughter. Burning question coming. I have always had a good relationship with my niece from the first sister who is very close (godmother) to the daughter of second sister as well the sister. My contact with this niece (my goddaughter) has been not as often as warm in the past three years and I feel my second sister and niece have been badmouthing me. I do want to keep a close contact with my goddaughter niece and decided to approach it. I confided in her that I was estranged from my sister and her daughter, that my relationship with her was meaningful to me and I would again feel secure in our relationship if it were agreed that I am not an acceptable subject for conversations between her and my estranged sister and her daughter and if this was acceptable to her. Her reply was: “Thanks, I love you too. Have a great day.” What was this? I felt I needed this “boundary” in our communication because the second sister has used privileged information in the past to hurt me deeply, is very competitive, and abusive. Thank you for your reply. PS Dysfunctional family of origin.

    • Gab says:

      This is Gab to clarify that I am 70 years old, goddaughter 50, second sister 62 and her daughter 25 or so.

    • Alison says:


      While you can’t prevent other people from maliciously gossiping about you or others, you can suggest to them that negative gossip actually brings down your own character and life experience. Instead, focusing on positive goals in their own life is the way to improve life and relationships. So my suggestion would be threefold:

      1. Role model to your niece being being the best person you can be, which includes having compassion for people who can’t help but gossip, and people who make mistakes. Show through your demeanor that you are above negative gossip, and that you are not willing to maliciously gossip (even against the abusive sister). That doesn’t mean that you have to put up with gossip and abuse–you shouldn’t–but you don’t have to be angry about it or spend time worrying that they are gossiping about you. As you’ve said, you all have a dysfunctional family of origin. It’s hard for your estranged sister to become the best person she can in that situation. So don’t be angry, but keep your distance for your own emotional and mental health.

      2. If you feel as though your favored niece has been gossiping about you, don’t worry so much about your reputation. If you retain your sense of dignity and compassion, that will shine through to your niece eventually. Everyone eventually realizes that they shouldn’t trust people who constantly gossip about others. They also realize that if the gossipers are gossiping about others, they are likely to gossip about them as well.

      Now, if instead of maintaining your dignity, you get angry and defensive, then you appear weak, unpleasant and unattractive. Your niece will be more likely to believe the gossip and not to feel drawn to you. Instead focus on interesting and positive activities and topics of conversation.

      3. If something comes up where you feel that you must respond to the gossip, I would try to do so as a wise, loving motherly/grandmotherly relative. You will feel and look much more self-empowered that way than if you become angry. For example, “I know that my (estranged) sister may say negative things about me and other people. Sometimes when people are not focused on the positive in their own lives, they tend to bring other people down. In our family it’s hard to avoid this, because we did not have positive role modeling in our upbringing. But I am trying and hope you will try to focus on positive, interesting topics of conversation and endeavors in our lives.”

      Try not to let other people hurt you so deeply. When they hurt you, it says more about them than it does about you. It is a signal that you should retain some distance.

      Good luck. Take care.


      • Gab says:

        Thank you for your excellent, on-target advice and the time spent in providing it.
        1. I have never maliciously gossiped to my niece about the abusive sister or her daughter. I honestly don´t care if they gossip about me. What I resented or what hurtful to me was what I perceived as –my niece lending herself to be used by the estranged sister to circumvent my existing “no contact” status. I considered my niece above this type of devious behavior. Therefore, before jumping to the conclusion that she was a willing participant, I chose to explain the situation to her in a loving and mature email. Her response was dismissive. What she does from here forward will be her decision and will define her.
        2. For me, the only reputation of value is the one I have of myself. It is self-respect and is earned by honoring and living my life according to my core principles and values. The reputation others assign me is based on their –not mine—principles and values. Healthy boundaries also demand that one discard anger and defensiveness. I have not achieved perfection but have worked arduously and assiduously for improvement in this area and have achieved it.
        3. I am uncomfortable with this one. Maybe because I never had a “wise, loving motherly/grandmother relative” role model. My approach is “ask me and I will answer truthfully” which amounts to giving them my side of the story and having them make their own decisions. These are adults –62, 50 and 25 year olds. Also, my past experience in giving advice to the estranged sister was negative. It was used to mock me and make me an innocent participant in her game playing.
        At a very late age (70), and after many hard knocks, I have finally learned to be protective of my emotional and mental health. I have worked very hard in creating healthy boundaries. Doing so had a tremendous impact on my relationships, I was no longer the naïve doormat they were used to. Some of them left on their own, others I had to let go.
        The silver lining of my current experience is that I learned I have a right to “emotional safety” in relationships with family and friends and that I needed to create a boundary to protect it. (Something I intuitively did in my email to my nice when I established a condition for me to “feel secure in our relationship.”) To do so, I first had to define what an “unsafe” relationship was which by antithesis required a definition for an emotionally secure relationship. I came up with the following by extrapolating from a posting by Dr. Richard Nicastro: Secure Relationship: The Role of Emotional Safety. My experience is was that when I look up “relationship” it mainly leads me to information about couples, therefore my need to extrapolate.
        Definition of an emotionally unsafe relationship. An emotionally secure relationship is based on trust, having each other’s back and best interests in mind and being real and genuine with each other. A relationship devoid of a solid base of emotional security leads to heightened insecurity and, possibly, mistrust and ends up causing pain rather than acting as a buffer against distress. “It’s like being on stage in front of a hostile audience who may boo or throw tomatoes at any moment.” When emotional safety is repeatedly compromised in a relationship, parties begin to disengage and close themselves off from each other. In the long run, this pattern can lead to such a degree of separateness that before you know it, the relationship is no longer a relationship.

        • Alison says:

          Hi again,

          1. Good, especially “I have never maliciously gossiped to my niece about the abusive sister or her daughter. I honestly don´t care if they gossip about me.”

          2. GREAT! No one is perfect, but those are wonderful aspirations.

          3. There is no need to give advice. I just thought that if it felt comfortable to say something to the 25 year old in a way that she could receive it, it might benefit her. That is wonderful to have learned to protect your own emotional and intellectual health–at any age. We should never depend on others to do it for us. Part of protecting ourselves is learning what people in our lives are trustworthy and have our best interests at heart, as you mention.

          It sounds like you are on a good path. Good luck to you!


  2. Caris Marquette says:

    Very helpful!
    1. How do you deal with in-laws who “take inventory” at your home?
    2. How do you deal with in-laws who refer to you in the third person when you can hear what they are saying to someone else about you.
    (Does she use those Christmas dishes?)

    • Alison says:

      I don’t like it one bit. This sounds very disrespectful. How does your husband feel about it? Doesn’t he say anything.

      I would probably try to be confident, friendly, and even use a little humor. “Hey, I’m right here. I love those dishes.” Act in a way where they will feel embarrassed to behave that way. I sure wouldn’t invite them over very much. They don’t sound very welcoming and pleasant at all. But they are relatives. So I would smother them with kindness and see how they react.

      Most important, don’t let them get to you. Don’t walk on eggshells and don’t be defensive. Answer with a laugh if you can. Life is too short to let petty behavior get to you. Maybe invite some fun friends when they come over and make it their job to counteract any negative implications or comments.

      You could invite them over less, or meet them at a restaurant. Ask your husband to defend you and your belongings. If they are rude, he should say “Enough about our stuff. Tell me what you’ve been up to.” Of course you can defend yourself, but it’s better if he stands up to them because they are his parents. You don’t want them vilifying you.

      Good luck!

  3. L. Helwig, M.A. says:

    Dear Alison,
    Thank you for posting this wonderfuly written piece about communication and personal boundaries! I am a mental health counselor and most of my clients stuggle with self-esteem and lack of boundaries. This is written so clearly and concise and I will be sharing it with my clients! Thank you again.

  4. Patricia J. says:

    Hello Alison,
    I find your articles very clear and helpful. My partner and I, both in our late 40s, living separate and divorced from previous spouses, have been together for almost 8 years. We are both very passionate people and not good with boundaries at all. This mixes with the fact that I am more of a pursuer (not completely) and he is more of a distancer (not completely). In general I feel he calls all the shots as his need for closeness and time together is way less than mine. He focuses a lot on his hobbies and often forgets to put more of his energy into the relationship than his ‘music’. He makes lots of efforts for my child and I but he needs way more space than I. That leads to lots of conflicts that soon become very agitated arguments with lots of disrespect. My questions are: is it possible, after so many years, to reverse our communication to healthier style when there is conflict and disagree? He is NOT going to easily cooperate as he tends to be bossy and feel that he is entitled to making all the decisions about how he spends his time without much sensitivity to my needs, which is what causes the enormous frustration in me that escalates into really ugly fights. I would like to regain my power: it’s always me asking when we will see each other again or for him to spend more time with me. The option of just being ‘busier’ and less available does not make me very comfortable as we are not just beginning to date. I would also like to set boundaries without feeling like I have no choice but scream my needs in his face. Any hope?

    • Alison says:


      As to your question, whether you can change your communication style after so many years, yes you can, although it will be difficult and take some knowledge, practice and willpower. In fact, it only takes one person to change a relationship dynamic. It takes two to fight, but it also takes two to have a great relationship. You only have control over your actions and reactions, and those will definitely improve the conflict, but may not get you the desired togetherness that you seek.

      You will probably not get him to decrease the time he puts into music and hobbies, and to put more into the relationship. His desire for you may increase if you become less demanding, and if you go your own way with grace and confidence rather than giving into his bossiness or ending up fighting with him.

      I do think he is entitled to determine how he spends his time, but you are also entitled to decide how to spend your time. You could coerce him into spending more time with him, but it’s really not pleasant or desirable to have to push or manipulate someone into spending time with you. And it certainly isn’t effective in the long-term for a mutually enjoyable relationship.

      You may not feel comfortable with the idea of being busier and less available probably because you fear you will simply drift apart as he won’t care enough to make an effort. Yet it’s better to know that now than to wait another five years. So my advice to you is to withstand the discomfort of not pursuing him, but find other things to pursue, and to avoid getting angry at him for not being sensitive to your needs. That only makes you undesirable. He will only respond to that kind of argument out of his fear of losing you, not his desire to be with you. Also, I would change your expectations. Don’t expect him to change, other than to perhaps have rekindled interest in you if you gain some distance and self-confidence and throw out your neediness.

      Sorry I don’t have easier advice. I wish you the best, and I do think there’s hope if you can change your focus from your need of him to positive actions and pursuits and other friends in your life.


  5. Nat says:

    Thank you so much for this article! I appreciate the helpful advice.

  6. betsy boney says:

    Greay article!

  7. betsy boney says:

    Your article is the most helpful that I have read pn setting boundaries. It is so full of heart and reasonableness. You must be a very sincere,giving and authenic person. Thank you so much for your openess and instruction. I finally have some answers to some muchsought after help in this area!

  8. Patrice says:

    Thanks for having the print option for this article. I’m a reader so it really helps to be able to print out. Some of us still do this, I promise I will reuse the paper. LOL

  9. Alison says:

    Dear Anonymous,

    I’m not for horrible table manners, but in the defense of people who haven’t been told and reminded not to take food off of others’ plates (and there are many who are otherwise very polite) and those who make inappropriate sounds while eating in a buffet line, they probably were brought up in more casual households, and have never become aware of their impact on others. In many cultures, particularly the diverse culture of the US, it is difficult to find people who have the same manners and same expectations. Thus it’s nice to be able to talk about it with a new potential partner or a friend with humor and in the most positive way.


  10. Chelsi steel says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom. Life is very hard most times and we all need help to change certain things . I look forward to reading your book. 🙂

  11. Michael says:

    Your articles are most helpful and fantastic. I wish you could write a book. The reason I like them a lot is because of the examples you provide how to handle.
    Keep up the great work.

  12. Cristina says:

    Thank you very much for having this article online. I feel that it has helped me many times. After grieving for hours it is comforting to believe that life continues to get better through articles such as these.

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