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.

11 Responses to Setting Boundaries

  1. betsy boney says:

    Greay article!

  2. 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!

  3. 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

  4. 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.


  5. 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. :)

  6. 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.

  7. 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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