Boundaries: The Inside Story

Establish and maintain your personal and professional boundaries.

“Compassionate people ask for what they need.  They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it.  They’re compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment.”

––Brené Brown

They say fences make good neighbors.  Fences allow you to protect what’s valuable to you.  They also allow you to control who and what enters your space.

Our personal boundaries do a similar job.  They set the limits that separate us from other people––not necessarily to exclude positive interaction, but to protect what matters to us, and to control who enters our psychological space or our physical space.

Boundaries also foster more productive work environments.  Co-workers’ differing values, needs and beliefs sometimes lead to conflict, resentment and stress, so clearly defined boundaries can help to prevent these negative reactions.


The #MeToo shockwave has also highlighted how important these boundaries are to all of us, as human beings. But, if personal boundaries are such a vital part of our interpersonal interactions, why do so many of us struggle to build them?

This article will help you to assess, strengthen and maintain your own personal boundaries, in order to make life easier and more rewarding for you and those around you.

Why Do I Need Boundaries?

I meet a lot of free spirits in my work as a director, and I often hear them proudly proclaim, “I live my life without boundaries, I don’t need them.”  Yet those are the very people I observe to have extremely well-defined and expertly maintained personal boundaries.  They’re so good at it, they don’t even notice them. 

People who set strong personal boundaries empower themselves to exercise greater choice. They have a more robust sense of psychological safety, find it easier to relax, and are generally happier and healthier.

However, many people struggle to establish boundaries.  They are held back by low self-esteem, a dread of upsetting people, or a fear of conflict.  They may simply accept intrusions and interruptions, or subsume their personal feelings “for the good of the team” or out of a wish to be a “good person.”

It’s natural to want to be seen as a capable and reliable, but people who fail to set boundaries risk generosity burnout as others take unfair advantage of them.  This can leave people feeling exhausted, humiliated and hurt.

For these reasons, establishing robust personal boundaries isn’t selfish or arrogant. It’s simply an essential part of treating yourself – and those around you – with compassion and consideration.

How to Manage Your Boundaries

The word “boundary” can be a bit misleading.  It conveys the idea of keeping yourself separate. But boundaries are actually connecting points since they provide healthy rules for navigating relationships, intimate or professional.

There are four main stages to managing your boundaries.

Stage 1: Analyze Your Boundaries

Do you have weak boundaries?

Where do you look for weak or unkept boundaries?  Look for what bothers you and recurs.  Pet peeves are a simple way to start.  What peeves you and why?  What are your recurring negative patterns, such as in relationships?  If you are drawn to a type of relationship that never serves you, there may be boundary issues lurking there. 

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you sometimes doubt that you have a right to have your needs met, or make little effort to have them met?
  • Do you avoid speaking up for yourself, and do you “let things go” without reacting to bad situations?
  • Do you tend to avoid conflict? Do you let others have their way or allow them to make decisions for you?
  • Do you sometimes agree to do things that you really don’t want to do – and later regret it?

If you answered mostly “yes,” then chances are that people see you as a “soft touch” who they can manipulate into doing what they want, without negotiation.  It’s time, then, to start strengthening your boundaries!

Understand Your Needs

You may believe that to get along with others, or to do the job that you’re paid to do, you need to give much more than you take. Perhaps you say things like, “Whatever you choose will be great!” and agree to do things that you don’t want to do, and shouldn’t have to do.

This may avoid conflict with others, but it can create conflict inside you.  Anger and tension can build because you’re not getting what you need, and this can lead to bad behavior or burnout. It’s far better (for everyone) to identify what you need and develop strategies to ensure that your needs are met.

So, think of specific times when you felt angry, tense or resentful, or times when your reaction to something embarrassed you.  These were likely occasions when your needs were not met.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • What need were you denied?
  • What did you really want?

Then, affirm to yourself your specific needs using the following phrases:

  • I have a right to ask for ________, because I need ________.
  • It’s OK to protect my time by________, because I need ________.
  • I will not allow others to________, because I need _______.

This process of self-reflection and self-affirmation will help you to develop the emotional framework to understand and manage your needs.  Don’t minimize your own self-worth – you deserve the treatment and respect that you give to others!

Stage 2: Identify Your Boundaries

It is highly advantageous to you to take some time and identify the specific boundaries that are often crossed.  This way you can determine specific strategies to resolve them.  Taking this itemized approach will give you a boost from the positive results you experience and also help condition you with better boundary habits. 

What Makes You Happy?

The first step in identifying your boundaries is to reflect on what makes you really happy.  Start writing or recording what comes to mind when you reflect on this.  Be specific and very clear about the behavior that makes you happy and how that behavior makes you feel (emotions).

What Are Your Core Values?

Your boundaries also relate to your moral philosophy.  Identify 10 important values, then narrow that list to five, or even three.  A value, simply put, is something that is important to you.  Examples are: Trust, Honesty, Integrity, Financial Security.  Knowing your values is important because your values determine how you act, how you treat yourself and others, and how you spend your time.

Reflect on how often those top 3-5 values are challenged, tread upon, or poked in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable. 

What Are Your Boundaries?

Now, write down behaviors that really tick you off or what feels like a violation in some way.

For instance:

  • What behavior/s really hurt my feelings?
  • What does my partner do that really irks me?
  • What do people in my life say/do that makes me feel like a line has been crossed?
  • What will I absolutely not tolerate from my partner/children/friends/family?
  • What will I absolutely not tolerate from my boss/co-workers/employees or other work relationships?
  • What behaviors are relationship killers for me?

Prioritize your list of boundaries that most need attention.  These are the ones that if properly maintained will give you the greatest sense of calm, joy, and confidence.  They will probably be the ones you are most reluctant to tackle, but don’t worry about that for now. 

Stage 3: Establish Your Boundaries

Now that you know your core values and you have identified what works and doesn’t work for you, it’s time to learn how to set healthy boundaries.

Understanding what must be in place for you to be happy, you must change your behavior and let others know.  They won’t figure it out on their own!

The key is to be assertive.  This means being firm – but not aggressive – about your own rights, needs and boundaries, while considering those of others.  When you’re assertive, you get your point across firmly and fairly, but with empathy.  If you would like an in-depth exploration of how to be assertive, you can read my blog post, “Standing Up for Yourself: The Right Way to Be Assertive.

Be assertive

If someone sets boundaries with assertiveness, it feels firm but kind to others. If they push in to aggressive, it feels harsh and punishing to others.  Assertive language is clear and nonnegotiable, without blaming or threatening the recipient.

You can be assertive by using “I statements.”


I feel ____ when _____ because _______________________.

What I need is ______________________________________.

It is important to give the “why” when you set a boundary, in this way you enlist the person as a positive force.  There are three things human beings, no matter who they are, absolutely love; being helpful, being liked, and being important. 

By allowing them to understand why your boundary is important to you, you give them an invitation to all three of these things.

An actress friend of mine, who was very short, hated being patted on the head.  Frankly, it was easy to do.  She was so short and adorable, people often did it as a friendly joke or a sign of endearment.  Not to my friend however, it was NOT tolerated.

She used to become quite angry, violently smack the persons arm away and say, “DON’T do that, I HATE IT when people do that to me!”  Unfortunately, this only caused people to want to do it more. 

Then, she changed her behavior around it.  Whenever it happened, instead of becoming angry, she would turn to that person, look them in the eye, and in a soft tone say,” Look, I need you to understand something.  It is really upsetting to me when people pat me on the head.  I know I’m short, and I know you don’t mean any harm by it, but people have done that to me ever since I was a child, and it makes me feel powerless and demeaned.  So, I need you to tell me you will never do that again.” 

“OH MY GOSH I’M SO SORRY!  I didn’t know, I will never never do that again!” is the usual reply.  I watched another thing happen that is so important to know.  Someone she had once spoken to about it was standing next to her as another person went to pat her on the head.  This person held out his hand to stop him and said, “Don’t do that man, she doesn’t like that, it’s demeaning to her, so don’t do it, okay?”

Not only did my friend find a way to be non-reactive and clear in setting her boundary, but by being honest, and even a bit vulnerable, she enlisted others to help her maintain her boundary.  Like I said, people love to be helpful, liked, and important. 

Learn to say no

Sometimes the reason is not so obscured, and an explanation of why is more than what is called for.  Sometimes the obvious answer is just “no.”  

Even though it can be daunting to say, “No” is a complete sentence.

We might be hesitant to say no without offering more info, but it’s not always necessary.  Sometimes assertiveness isn’t needed for boundary setting as much as personal tolerance for being uncomfortable.

You can say no without an explanation and without providing any emotional labor to the person you’re saying it to.

If someone asks for your number or to dance, you can absolutely just say no.  If a co-worker asks you to cover their shift, you can also say no, without offering any excuse.

According to Albert Mehrabian’s widely quoted statistics for the effectiveness of spoken communications, the actual word “no” conveys only 7% of the meaning of the person saying it.  The rest is body language, tone, and inflection.  So how you say no is much more important than merely using the word. 

A little acting psychology can really help here.  Many times, our no sounds conditional or tentative, which sends the message that you really aren’t sure, so why not ask again.  Maybe you need convincing?  After all, we are social animals, and we like to be liked, and useful to others.  Even without realizing it, we may not be setting a firm boundary when we say no.  How do we do that without sounding harsh?

The answer is don’t say no as if you have just decided on it, or as if you are busy thinking of excuses why you’re saying it.  For instance, how would you say no if you didn’t want to hurt my feelings?  “Can you take my shift tonight?” “…no…”  How would you say no if you thought I would be angry?  Hear that sound?

Now imagine saying no if I just asked you if you had ever been to the Grand Canyon.  “No. I haven’t seen it yet.”  “Were you born in Italy?”  “No. I wasn’t” (assuming you weren’t).  Can you hear the finality in the sound of that no?  It’s definite, already done and settled, everyone knows it, next question please? 

Say no THAT way, and people will know you mean it. 

Stage 4: Maintain Your Boundaries

Setting boundaries will likely give you an immediate sense of empowerment, but “holding your line” and maintaining them can be hard, especially if others are used to you not doing so.

  • You need to maintain a clear sense of what you will and will not accept, but be realistic and adaptable when necessary.  
  • Reset boundaries to suit your situation, and rethink ones that later seem too rigid.
  • Remember not to isolate yourself or to simply stop collaborating.

When your boundaries are under threat, look out for the negative emotions that you associate with the situation and work to control them, while calmly reasserting those boundaries.

Once a boundary has been crossed, how do you have a conversation about it and what is the most productive way to go about this?

The first thing you want to do is answer the following questions:

  1. What happened? List the facts only
  2. What was my reaction? What feelings came up when this happened?
  3. What is my part in this? For instance, did this person know this was a boundary?  Did you communicate clearly about this boundary in the past?
  4. Did you communicate a consequence if this boundary was not respected?
Use the 3-strike method.
  1. If someone crosses a boundary the first time, let them know clearly and firmly that this behavior doesn’t work for you.
  2. If someone crosses a boundary a second time, do some release work so you are not getting stuck in the emotions and have a second conversation expressing that this behavior does not work for you and if it happens again, what you will do (what appropriate action you will take).
  3. If someone crosses a boundary a third time, you have to take the action you said you would when you had the second conversation.

A word of caution. When you don’t follow through on what you said you would do, the consequence is that you are actually teaching people that it is okay to cross your boundaries.

You cannot control what someone does or does not do. You can, however, control what you decide to do about what someone does or does not do.

If, however, you’ve been very clear about this behavior being a boundary violation on more than two occasions, and the person continues to violate the boundary, you have to ask yourself if yet another conversation will move you closer or not. 

Ask yourself what are you gaining by staying in this relationship and what might you stand to lose if you decide to leave the relationship or remove yourself from the situation. 

NOTE: Even people with strong personal boundaries can experience bad behavior from others.
TIP: If harassment or other inappropriate behavior becomes an issue for you, talk to your manager, or to your HR department if your manager is part of the problem.  If not work related, seek guidance from supportive friends and family, or professional counseling.

The Up-side to Setting and Maintaining Boundaries.

Boundary setting may sound like a lot of uncomfortable soul searching and communication, that’s one way to look at it.  It can also look like a few simple acts of courage and compassion that opens up a deeply gratifying sense of peace and security, and profound empowerment. 

Once you enforce a long-neglected boundary, and experience the acceptance and respect of that boundary from others, you will wonder why you waited so long.  You will see that it is really respecting yourself, and offering others a way to treat you the way you feel you deserve. 

Personal boundaries are how we teach people who we are and how we would like to be handled in relationships.  Boundaries help you to say, “This is who I am.”


Boundaries aren’t about you from the outside, they are about you from the inside.