How To Set Clear Boundaries In Your Relationships
Updated: Apr 16
If you've been wondering how on earth you can get people (or one very specific person) to respect your boundaries (especially if they've been repeatedly crossed), keep on reading because in this article I'll share with you exactly what to do and exactly what to say to set a firm boundary that will be honored by even the most challenging person.
1. Listen to your body... No, really listen to your body...
It hurts us and it hurts our bodies when our boundaries are crossed. We can feel disrespected, annoyed, frustrated, invaded, angry, resistant, resentful... We can get restless, our bodies get tense, contracted, we feel uncomfortable... So there's a whole reaction that happens in our body.
The thing is... That emotional and physical response is not only completely natural and normal but it's trying to convey a very important message (our body and our nervous system communicate with us through sensations and emotions): "Attention, this is out of alignment for us!"
Why is this so important?
Because it's our job to start understanding the different signals that our body is sending, how each of them feels in our body, and how to decode what they mean.
When we talk about boundaries, this is especially important because if we want to set and keep firm boundaries, we have to become active in noticing when our boundary has been crossed, so that we can communicate it, and active in honoring that boundary as soon as possible. Not after it's been crossed 10 times, but the first time.
Now, that fast reactivity takes skill. And since setting boundaries is a foundational relational skill it needs practice and time in order to be fully developed, just like any other skill. This is why I want to invite you to go into this as an experiment, understanding and expecting that you will fail a hundred times, that it will take time, practice, and patience, but also trusting that you can and will master it.
I've been actively practicing setting boundaries in all my relationships (work, coaching clients, friends, family, partner) for the past 5 years and it still challenges me in different situations, even though I've gotten really good at it.
🔖 Here's one of my examples that I call the sandwich story. 🥪
Five years ago it was incredibly hard for me to say no or to stand up for my boundaries, especially in my romantic relationship and at work. I remember I had just started setting firmer boundaries in my relationship because they were all over the place, and as it is - life quickly presented me with an opportunity to practice. 😁
One day me and my ex-partner were watching a movie and he wanted me to make him a sandwich (I can laugh at this now, but I swear, back then it felt like one of the hardest things I ever had to do in my life!).
Since I had been paying attention to my body, I could tell that something about this didn't sit right with me. I felt resistance in my body and a part of me knew that I didn't want to do it. But then there was another part of me (a very loud part at the time!) that was saying that I'm not a good girlfriend if I don't, that I'm selfish, what's so hard about making a sandwich, that when someone asks you nicely, you're supposed to do what they ask of you, especially if you have "nothing else to do / nothing more important to do." So there were these two competing parts in me - one didn't want to make him a sandwich and the other one felt guilty for not making him a sandwich.
The reason why I'm sharing this is that setting boundaries isn't always straightforward and we often find ourselves in an inner conflict between what we want to do and what we think we "should" do.
And this is where we come back to why it's important to listen to our bodies. Our bodies are the unconscious and they hold a much deeper level of awareness than our limited mind.
Luckily, we are wired in a way that what's aligned with us feels good in our bodies and what's not doesn't feel good.
So start paying attention to how your body responds and trust the response of your body, not the battle that's happening in your mind.
2. Boundaries are one of our basic human needs
Not only is it OK to have boundaries, in fact, we need to have limits and boundaries if we want to function to our highest ability, live happy, healthy lives, feel amazing and have fulfilling relationships.
It's not better to please the other person or to let it slip when your boundary is crossed. That's a disservice to you and to them.
What serves BOTH OF YOU most is to not try to please them, but to please YOU. To not put them first, but to put YOU first. Listen to your body and to your wisdom and honour yourself and your boundaries. Give yourself permission to come first.
Alyssa Nobriga, international speaker, coach and founder of the Institute for Coaching Mastery says: "We can be with people in care, but still be fierce and firm. Sometimes love says: 'I care about you. I see you, but this doesn’t work for me.'"
When we share our boundaries we teach people how to treat us. Boundaries protect us, our physical, sexual, material, emotional, and mental safety and stability, and our time. They are the tangible or intangible limits of what we're willing to tolerate (a particular action, reaction, situation). They "help us define our individuality and can indicate what we will and will not hold ourselves responsible for." (Selva, 2018, https://positivepsychology.com/great-self-care-setting-healthy-boundaries/) They also help us "live in and honour our truth" (Alyssa Nobriga, 2021, ICM).
🔖 Here's an example of when our boundary is crossed:
You want and need a good night's sleep to function at your full capacity. You normally go to bed at 10 pm, but your partner has been playing games on their computer until 3 am for the past few months, which has been disturbing your sleep. You get irritated, frustrated, annoyed at your partner, and feel disrespected because you've mentioned a hundred times that this bothers you and affects your sleep, but since nothing is changing, this leads to recurring arguments between you.
We all have at least one person in our life that keeps on challenging our boundaries, for some that's our mom, partner, friend, for others a colleague, child, team member, etc.
I know how difficult it can get in those situations. I know how small that can make you feel. But if you truly want to make a difference in your life, the invitation is for you to come back into your power and first honour yourself, your time and what's most important to you. Hold it in you that this person is your teacher and this is life trying to grow you in this area.
3. We get to decide what our boundaries are
When we're setting our boundaries people will sometimes react negatively and defensively, especially if they haven't done any personal development work. This can show up in different ways - they can get sulky, annoyed, angry, punish us in overt and covert ways etc.
We may hear things like "You're overreacting / You're too sensitive / It's not such a big deal / I'm not asking for too much / Why are you so selfish / You have nothing better to do, etc."
In my example with the sandwich situation (🥪), I gathered up all my courage and said to my ex-partner that I don't want to make him a sandwich, but he (his ego) didn't take it well. In his defense, this was one of the first times I clearly said no and I meant it, so I'm sure it was a shock to his system. 😁 He withdrew his affection, tried to convince me to do it and said something like: "But you have time. Why is this so hard for you? Can't you do something I ask you to?"
The thing is, you don't have to anything you don't want to. EVEN IF YOU HAVE TIME. It really is as simple as that, no matter what someone else says (unless you have a clear agreement with them).
No one outside of us can tell us what our boundary is unless we allow them to. You are the authority on your boundaries, so don't give that power to anyone else. Trust the reaction of your body and your inner knowing.
If they do react harshly, remember that we "can't control how other people receive our energy. Everything we say or do gets filtered through the lens of their own personal stuff, which has nothing do to with us. Other people and their reactions are not our responsibility. Our responsibility is to ourselves and our truth." (Alyssa Nobriga, 2021, ICM). It's just their ego that takes things personally, so stay strong, continue honoring yourself with love and integrity and keep your boundary in place.
Keep in mind that it's easier to set clear boundaries from the beginning than to re-establish them later on. It's absolutely possible, but be aware that it will take some time and you have to be firm in the beginning until it settles.
Also know that boundaries change and fluctuate, so it's ok and normal that your boundaries will change with time, in different situations, with different people. Give yourself full permission to evolve and change!
4. Communicating and honoring our boundaries is our responsibility
When it comes to setting and honoring our boundaries, we have to take an active role in the process. We have to start paying more attention to ourselves, understand what we value & what's important to us and to honor and protect that with love and fierceness.
As we go through life, our boundaries will constantly be tested and crossed because this is how we get to discover what they even are.
Unless someone steps on our toes, we won't know it hurts & that we don't like it.
So even though at first glance it may seem that other people are hurting us, if we slow it down and take a deeper look, the truth is that is has more to do with us than with them. They are just showing us where we haven't clearly defined our boundaries and inviting us to do so.
There will be times when people will unknowingly cross our boundary:
either they weren't aware that that was our boundary because we haven't clearly communicated it yet
we weren't aware of it yet
Other times it will happen knowingly, even after we have communicated it to them a bunch of times.
People that you want to have in your life will always respect and support your boundaries because they care about honoring you and your truth.
Yes, it's our responsibility to stand up for ourselves & our truth and communicate and honour our boundaries so that people know what lines not to cross.
But it's also our responsibility to ourselves to stay in our power and choose to let go of people that aren't able to honour that.
5. Why is it so hard to set boundaries?
1️⃣ We're scared of the other person's reaction (that they will get mad, upset, annoyed...)
2️⃣ We weren't taught how set clear boundaries / how to say no without explaining ourselves + we didn't have a healthy experience of people (in particularly parents, primary caregivers) respecting our boundaries
3️⃣ On a deeper, unconscious level we want to please others (even if it goes against our needs) because we're afraid that if we set boundaries we will jeopardize the relationship / lose them
Know that people will honour your boundary if you honour your boundary and if they truly care about you and your wellbeing.
Getting better at setting boundaries is tightly connected with our sense self-worth - the more we honour and love ourselves and our full expression, the easier it will be for us to set boundaries because we will not accept anything that is out of alignment with ourselves.
When we set those boundaries from that place of knowing our self-worth, people will respect that because it will be felt in our energy. No strong words or explanation needed, just an inner centeredness and ok-ness.
🔖 Here's a practical example so you can see how this works IRL.
Years back I was having a bad day and was lashing out at my ex-partner. I kept on taking subtle and less-subtle jabs at him, trying to get a reaction so that I could get my anger out (which had nothing to do with him) but he wasn't reacting. This went on throughout the evening and at one point he had enough. He looked at me and said very calmly, but firmly "That behavior is not ok for me. I'm not your punching bag and I won't tolerate this. We can talk about how you're feeling, but I won't be yelled at for something that has nothing to do with me."
That left me completely speechless and needless to say I never lashed out at him (or other people!) again and when I did fell into my old pattern, I became aware of it very quickly and interrupted it.
Since his boundaries and his well-being were important to me I respected the boundary he set because I knew that otherwise there will be unwanted consequences.
Here's what he did really well:
1️⃣ He shared how my behavior was affecting him without judging me as a person
2️⃣ He communicated and set his boundary from a place of centeredness & I could strongly feel that this was a "no-go" for him and that if I wasn't going to respect it, there will be unwanted consequences (us breaking up)
3️⃣ He offered an alternative solution
6. Setting boundaries in action: a simple framework and scripts
To help you be as successful as possible in setting and honoring your boundaries, I've developed a simple framework: RICH (R - Recognise, I - Inner Work, C - Communicate, H - Honour).
Because I want you to put this into action and to see you succeed, here is a little challenge for you: I invite you to experiment and to apply this framework to your life for the next 7 days and just observe and notice what happens.
Since these are your first steps, start with someone who isn't as challenging so you gain more confidence and then move on to the person that challenges you most.
Remember that this is a process and the more you practice the more you grow. Be patient and loving with yourself. Every time you set and honour a boundary, you are choosing and coming back to yourself.
🟥 R = RECOGNISE YOUR BOUNDARY
Up until now you may not have been consciously recognising and tracking your boundaries, but this is the very important first step.
Start by paying attention to your body:
notice what happens when a boundary has been crossed and
what happens when you don't set boundaries
so you have an energetic blueprint of how that feels. This will help you become aware of what's in and out of alignment for you and it will make it easier to recognise your boundaries.
Next, keep track of and collect information around your boundaries in a boundaries journal.
It's much easier to set a boundary when you are clear about what your limits are (whether that's around your time, your needs, your body, your space, money). You can always add to that list as you go - as you move through life and relationships you will constantly discover new boundaries.
Remember that anger is often a sign that a boundary has been crossed, so next time you get angry pay attention and track the following in your journal:
Was a boundary crossed, and if yes, what was it?
What triggered it?
How did that feel in your body?
What did you really want in that situation? Not what the other person wanted or what is expected of you, but what did you truly want? (for example: relax, be in silence etc.)
What did you do in response to your boundary being crossed? (for example: withdrew, stayed silent, resented my partner, yelled at my partner...)
How did you treat yourself and others (often we get annoyed at ourselves and/or others for saying yes even though it's a no; for not saying anything, for setting a boundary and then taking it back out of fear)
How did that make you feel (in your body and emotionally)?
What's a lesson you can learn from that situation?
🟧 I = (DO) INNER WORK
If you want to feel more lightness and ease around setting boundaries, I strongly encourage you to do your own inner work so you are in your power, clear, and expansive as you take action on setting clear boundaries.
What do I mean by inner work?
Looking deeper to see what's stopping you from setting boundaries. Ask yourself: "What do I fear would happen if I set a clear boundary with this person?"
Taking a step back and looking at the situation from a wider perspective and seeing how you have contributed to it. Ask yourself: "How did I perpetuate this dynamic?"
Questioning any judgments around the other person, as well as any fears around setting boundaries (examples would be: "They disrespected me" / "They don't love me" / "They never listen to me" / "If I set boundaries people leave me" / "Setting boundaries is selfish" etc.). For this process, I recommend "The Work" by Katie Byron.
Doing self-forgiveness work around setting boundaries, especially if you've been critical and judgemental towards yourself or the other person.
Doing self-worth work so that you deeply feel your inherent worth and won't be willing to push back your boundaries to prioritize others over you.
Since the outer world is always just a mirror of your inner world, once you shift these blocks within you, it will naturally shift with the other person and they will automatically respond to your new energy and show more respect for your boundaries.
🟨 C = COMMUNICATE YOUR BOUNDARY AND MAKE A CLEAR AGREEMENT WITH THE OTHER PERSON
Make a commitment to yourself that as soon as you become aware that your boundary has been crossed (it may be familiar or new), you will communicate it in an honest conversation with the other person and set clear agreements/consequences.
Communicate clearly and with respect, not attacking them as a person, but also knowing that you don't have to explain or defend yourself. Your boundary is valid and that's enough.
It's less about the words and more about where it comes from. You can be loving and set clear boundaries.
What you can say to set your boundary:
"This doesn't work for me."
How to set clear mutual agreements:
a) "What are some other ways we could do this so that we can honour both our needs and desires?
b) "This is important to me and if our mutual agreement gets broken these are the consequences..."
Constanze Buchheim, speaker, founder, author, and expert on the topic of Future Leadership has developed a great boundary-setting process she uses with her employees and in HR practices, but I find that it can be applied to any relationship.
If she notices that an employee is not honoring their agreements, this is the process (it's an analogy to the penalties system in soccer):
🟨 The first time a person crosses a boundary, they get a first yellow card. This is the first warning where you clearly state that this behavior doesn't work and share what consequences will follow if this behavior continues (1 more warning and then they're out). Both parties try to look at the problem and find solutions that honor the agreements and work for both.
🟨 🟨 The second time the boundary gets crossed, they get a second yellow card. This is the second warning, where you again clearly state that this behavior doesn't work and share what consequences will follow if this behavior continues (they're out). Again, both parties try to look at the problem and find solutions that honor the agreements and work for both.
🟥 The third time the boundary gets crossed, they get a red card and they are out.
If the person doesn't show respect towards you and your boundaries, they are not someone you want to keep in your life.
🟩 H = HONOUR YOUR BOUNDARIES
If people don't honor our boundaries it's because:
a) we don't honor our own boundaries: by dishonoring our boundaries we teach them that it's ok for them to dishonor them to
b) we're not consistent with keeping our boundaries firmly in place (sometimes we honor them and sometimes we don't)
Here's what honoring our boundaries looks like in action:
1️⃣ Communicating our boundary + keeping it firmly in place (even if the other person gets upset, annoyed, mad...). Remember that their reaction isn’t our responsibility. We can share our boundary firmly and with love.
2️⃣ Let the other person experience the consequences if a mutual agreement or a boundary gets crossed.
If people still aren't respecting our boundaries and are getting upset, then that's how it is.
We can't change their experience, but we can choose whether we want to have them in our lives. Your boundaries are yours and you get to decide what works for you and what doesn't.
There you have it. This is all the information and tools you need to start setting boundaries that everyone will respect.
Let me know in the comments what was your biggest insight from this article + what challenges you are currently experiencing with setting boundaries. 👇
If you took up the "Setting Boundaries In Action Challenge", share your experience below, I would love to celebrate you and hear your insights! 🎉
Deeply honoring you!
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, 2012, Scribner
Materials from Institute for Coaching Mastery, Alyssa Nobriga, 2021, ICM
Materials from Fundamentals of Imago Professional Facilitator Training, Klaus and Evelyn Brehm, John Mortensen, Kobus van der Merwe, Wendy P. Patterson, Sonali Sadequee, Sophie Slade, 2020, Imago International Training Institute