How To Set Boundaries With Others
Updated: Apr 17
Written by Melissa Barsotti, LCSW, certified EMDR therapist at Mindful Therapy Practice.
What are Personal Boundaries?
Personal boundaries are rules you set for yourself regarding what you will and will not do or accept in relationships. Boundaries are meant to protect us and others from harm or exploitation.
Setting boundaries is difficult, especially when boundaries were not set or role modeled when you were growing up. Individuals with developmental trauma in particular, who experienced emotional/physical/sexual abuse or neglect likely learned to disregard their needs and silence their voice. When this occurs, one may not even be aware that a boundary violation is occurring due to the fact that boundary violations were commonplace in one's family of origin.
It is difficult to set boundaries when living at home, still taking part in the original family dynamics; however, this can be done, as long as there are no major consequences to setting a boundary. As a child, saying no, or not going along may have resulted in some form of abuse, including deprivation of love and acceptance. As one becomes older, we hopefully grow more and more autonomous, and more and more less reliant on the adults that raised us.
First, tune into your intuition, your felt sense. Late author and researcher Eugene T. Gendlin identified experiential Focusing, "a form of felt-sensing, as a practice of allowing our bodies to guide us to deeper self-knowledge. Felt senses are full of our felt meaning of a situation. Learning to listen to the felt sense through Focusing allows us to hear the messages that our bodies are sending us (Gendlin, 1978)." I teach my clients to learn to trust that their felt sense will let them know what feels comfortable and uncomfortable. Sometimes these messages are very subtle, in the form of tension in one's muscles, a leaning away, or other symbols/colors/pictures/memories.
Now, let's learn about boundaries. Author Anne Katherine identifies violations of intrusion and violations of distance. Violations of intrusion occur when physical or emotional boundaries are intruded upon. Examples include the following: rape, physical abuse, screaming at others, inappropriate personal questions, and attempts to control how others think/feel/act. Distance violations occur when intimacy or closeness is LESS than what is appropriate or expected of the relationship. Boundaries can also be too rigid or too flexible. "Healthy boundaries protect without isolating, contain without imprisoning, and preserve identity while permitting external connections (Katherine, A. 1991, p. 130)."
The next step to setting boundaries is knowing your personal rights. The following is adapted from author and psychologist, Dr. Edmund Bourne, in his book The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook (Bourne, 2015, p.299):
PERSONAL BILL OF RIGHTS
1. I have the right to ask for what I want 2. I have the right to say no to requests or demands I can’t meet. 3. I have the right to express all of my feelings, positive or negative. 4. I have the right to change my mind. 5. I have the right to make mistakes and not have to be perfect. 6. I have the right to follow my own values and standards. 7. I have the right to say no to anything when I feel I am not ready, it is unsafe, or it violates my values. 8. I have the right to determine my own priorities. 9. I have the right not to be responsible for others’ behavior, actions, feelings, or problems. 10. I have the right to expect honesty from others. 11. I have the right to be angry at someone I love. 12. I have the right to be uniquely myself. 13. I have the right to feel scared and say “I feel scared.” 14. I have the right to say “I don’t know.” 15. I have the right to not give excuses or reasons for my behavior. 16. I have the right to make decisions based on my feelings, values, preferences, and logic. 17. I have the right to my own needs for personal space and time. 18. I have the right to be playful and frivolous. 19. I have the right to be healthier than those around me. 20. I have the right to be in a nonabusive environment. 21. I have the right to make friends and be comfortable around people. 22. I have the right to change and grow. 23. I have the right to have my needs and wants respected by others. 24. I have the right to be treated with dignity and respect. 25. I have the right to be happy.
Now, identify your non-negotiables.
Important non-negotiables include but are not limited to the following (adapted from author Melody Beattie in her book Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself, p. 219):
1. I will not allow anyone to physically or verbally abuse me.
2. I will not knowingly believe, or support lies.
3. I will not allow chemical abuse in my life or in my home.
4. I will not allow criminal behavior in my life or home.
5. I will not rescue people from the consequences of their irresponsible behavior.
6. I will not finance a person’s irresponsible behavior.
7. I will not lie to protect myself or anyone from addiction.
8. I will not let others spoil my fun, my day, my life.
Then, identify your values as a guidepost to your decisions and boundaries. See resource section for a list of values offered by Dr. Brene Brown.
Important values may include the following: Autonomy, authenticity, kindness, community, contribution, trustworthiness, respect, knowledge, well-being and health, and connection.
Finally, I suggest the following:
1. Engage in assertive communication using “I statements”
2. Identify the boundary violation, likely an intrusion of your physical or emotional boundaries
Examples of intrusive emotional boundaries:
Providing you with advice that you did not ask for, such as parenting advice, dating or relationship advice, wellness advice, etc.
Asking you personal questions that you are not comfortable answering.
Telling you what to do with your body, money, life, relationship, career, etc.
Examples of intrusive physical boundaries:
Touching you in any way that you do not feel comfortable.
Being physically too close to your personal space/your body.
Coming to your home/work, etc uninvited.
Getting into a car with you uninvited.
3. Identify your feelings: uncomfortable, upset, hurt, betrayed, angry, resentful, embarrassed, rejected, anxious, etc.
4. Make a request that is stated firmly, is simple and to the point, and do not make apologies for setting limits.
5. Express your need. A need can be connection, togetherness, celebration, acceptance, autonomy. See resource list for list of needs.
The following are just a glimmer of what setting boundaries can look like...
“I’m not comfortable receiving parenting advice at this time. Please stop commenting on how I attended to my son’s tantrum. I would like for us to enjoy our time together.”
“I feel offended by the comment about my partner. I would appreciate if we stopped talking about my relationship and talked about something we can both agree on. I was looking forward to celebrating this holiday with you.”
“I am noticing that I am becoming upset regarding comments on my eating habits/choice of foods. I would like you to please stop commenting on my eating. Let’s please change the subject.”
“I believe we do not agree on politics. I would appreciate if we changed the subject and focused on lighter matters because I would like to enjoy our time together.”
Author, researcher, and speaker Dr. Brene Brown offers a free pdf on values. See below
Puddle Dancer Press: Nonviolent Communication Books and Resources have made a list of feelings and needs pdf available. See below
Beattie, M. (1992). Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself. Hazelden Publishing.
Bourne, E.J. (2015). The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook (6th edition). New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Gendlin, E.T. (1978). Focusing (first edition). New York: Everest House.
Katherine, A. (1991). Boundaries: Where You End And I Begin. Parkside Publishing Corporation.