Boundaries: what are they and how to set them?
Updated: Dec 31, 2021
Boundaries, or personal limits, are the felt energetic experience in the setting of human contact where one individual ends and engagement with another begins. The boundary contact point is where permission is given, limits are defined, and psychological decisions are made. Boundary setting is usually spoken in order to be known and respected.
Your boundaries are about what you want and don’t want. They are invisible, the result of a conscious, internal felt sense, defining who you are. They are free of any rigid expectation that your desires will be respected. Boundaries spoken in a clear manner invite dialogue which allows scope for discussing specific perceptions, interpretations, feelings and behaviours.
Boundaries are not about what you want someone to be or to do. They are not obligations or rules, neither are they rigid and permanent. They are not a form of self-defence, nor only thought based, fixed ideas, monologues, threats or demands. You cannot expect them to be automatically respected, and they are not an instrument to control others. Understanding and using them in these ways would only close doors and build walls.
In order to effectively communicate boundaries it is important to understand anger and healthy and unhealthy expressions of anger.
Anger is a natural, ‘secondary’ feeling that emerges in response to frustration, hurt, fear, loss or sadness. It is intended to overcome the sense of helplessness associated with the primary feelings. When it is expressed outwardly it becomes an emotion.
Healthy anger is an internal feeling that becomes an emotion when expressed. It respects boundaries, is expressed only once permission is received and isn’t intended to control or harm.
Unhealthy Anger is an action or behaviour, not a feeling or emotion. It crosses boundaries, is acted out without permission, is intended to control or harm. Expressed inwardly it can become depression, expressed outwardly it can become violence. Violence is the crossing of a person’s boundaries without informed consent or choice, with the intent to control or harm.
Creating a boundary
Take a deep breath and turn inwards. Check personal intention (Do I want to control another’s behaviour? Be clear and honest, own it).
Identify the specific issue that creates tension, irritation and/or charge.
Relate the issue to the core value (i.e. safety, privacy, respect of agreements, personal time and space, relationship quality, other core values).
Create an ‘about me’ boundary statement (I want, don’t want, no this is my limit, I want more / less etc.)
Example - setting a boundary with an adult:
I do want to communicate passionately with you and I don’t want to feel afraid or threatened. We agreed not to shout, so when you raise your voice, I begin to imagine that I am not safe and I feel afraid. I want our agreements about anger behaviours to be respected.
Example - setting a boundary with a child:
I do want to let you cook by yourself. When you do I want to feel safe. We agreed that you would tie your hair back so that you weren't at risk of getting hurt. When you refuse to do this I begin to feel afraid. It is important to me that our agreements about safety are followed.
Ask for permission to discuss it.
Speak the boundary statement in as concise a statement as possible. Share its relationship to your core value and restate why the core value is important to you. When addressing a child it is important to start by validating their desire if it is contrary to what you are asking.
In the above example it would be "I hear that you want to cook with your hair down and you really don't want me to ask you to tie your hair back and you really want to be free of any restrictions and just cook" followed by the boundary.
Ask that the boundary be respected, and invite dialogue if desired (with real curiosity).
Stay open and present for feedback. Agree or disagree, recognise your feelings and those of others and share how it is to agree or disagree.
Reflect on what actions you will take in support of your boundary. What consequences are there for you and the other(s) within your boundary choices?
Start an exploration and sharing of your inner process: Are my core values being supported? Am I distancing myself? What is it like for me? Is this my usual pattern? What do I want to do this time? Ask the person whom you are in dialogue with. Work towards common ground and agreed upon boundaries.
It may seem that children are too young or won't listen and boundaries are too hard to set and hold. At 3 and a half years of age my daughter yelled "Daddy, NO! You are crossing my boundaries!" I think he had asked if he could finish her uneaten breakfast. They understand.
The more we take the leadership role, not controlling our children but modelling empathetic, strong and clear communication, they will do the same. My daughter offers possible variations to boundaries I set and we discuss how that might work, and we agree on the boundary. When I do something that my daughter doesn't like we go over my actions and how she would have preferred I dealt with it, and we develop her boundaries.
For example, when she was still 3 and a half, she was feeling emotional and reached out for me as I was walking away, she tapped her hand on a hot pan and screamed. I picked her up immediately and put her hand under a cold tap (I later learned that a luke-warm tap is now the treatment). My daughter screamed even more. I felt justified, she felt enraged. Afterwards we talked it over. She wanted me to ask permission to pick her up even when she is in pain, tell her what I was planning to do (the tap) and ask her permission. If she denies permission then she wants me to respect that. I agreed. I understand, it's her body and her choice. There are obvious exceptions to this, if a child's life is in danger or the burn is much more serious.
Boundary modelling can be with our partners, friends, work place, grandparents etc. and it is important that our children see us setting, holding and respecting boundaries if they are to grow into adults that can set, hold and respect boundaries themselves.
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