10 how-tos for healthy boundaries

Posted by on Jan 21, 2014 in Blog | 0 comments

The beauty of boundaries

iron fence

Setting boundaries is like flossing—that good habit you should do more of, and better, but you don’t.

But while it doesn’t sound like a very sexy topic, it’s actually very, very important.

And if you do it well, setting boundaries will help you lead the life you want.

So if you’re ready for some tips on how to set better boundaries in your life and relationships, listen up!

This will help you get started.


logs1.) Tune in

Get to know yourself.

If you’re a people-pleaser, chances are good you’re pretty estranged from yourself.

By that, I mean you’re probably cut off from what you think and feel.

You may not have a great sense of what your hobbies, interests, and values are.

Or, you may know, but you haven’t had a chance to express or indulge in those things in a very, very long time.

So tune in and get to know yourself better.

2.)  Establish priorities

How can you set boundaries if you don’t know what matters?

Based on what you learned in step #1, now you need to establish a hierarchy.

What matters most to you in life?

What do you value?

Remember, that’s your values, not your parents’ or your partner’s or your friends’ values—but your own.

So, establish your priorities based on what you value.

And give yourself permission to have your values and priorities evolve over time.

3.)  Ask for help

Even if people agree with good boundaries in theory, they may struggle with it in practice if it manifests in relationship with you.  People don’t like change.

Do your best to find an ally who can be impartial, who can remind you of the importance of doing this, that you’re not selfish etc.

A therapist can be a good ally.

Don’t be surprised if some of the people nearest and dearest to you resist your new boundaries—they are the ones most likely to be affected by these changes.

Getting it done:

4.)  Say no, say no, say no.

fence postYour no’s can be kind and polite and also firm.

Avoid reflexive yeses– don’t say yes off the bat if you’re not sure you can or want to do it.  Buy some time.

Say, “Thanks for asking, I’ll need to think about that.”

Or, “I appreciate you thinking of me, let me check my schedule and get back to you.

Just be sure that you do follow up—don’t use avoidance as a primary strategy to hold boundaries.

If you did reflexively say yes to something you had rather declined, follow up as soon as you can and say something like,


“You know, I was hasty in committing to that earlier.  I don’t think I can give that project/task/request the time and attention it deserves, so I need to decline.  But thank you for thinking of me.”

You may have to say no several times to the same request, often even in the same conversation.

You also don’t have to supply a reason for your no—in fact, it is generally best not to do this unless asked.

Overexplaining may just invite an argument about your rationale for saying no.

If you want to sweeten your no, you can decline what was asked for, but offer up something else in its place—but this should be used sparingly.

And you should only offer up things that you are glad to do, not things that will leave you feeling resentful.

5.)  Say yes, say yes, say yes!

Iron Gate Autumn ColoursOne big reason we hold boundaries and set limits is so we have more time, energy, and money for the things that matter.

So don’t forget to take a victory lap around your life with a whole lot of yeses—yes to the good things, the things that you do want.

Nature abhors a vacuum—so fill your life deliberately with the things you want to say yes to.

Even if that’s large expanses of unscheduled time.

(You can say no even if you have “nothing better to do.”)

Otherwise, you may find yourself sucked back into a whirlpool of stuff-I-should-have-declined.

6.)  Listen to your feelings.

You can’t advocate for yourself if you don’t know what is going on.  Your feelings can offer you important pieces of data here.

Anger might be a sign that a boundary has been crossed.

Resentment is usually a good sign you’ve given too much or are giving out of obligation or guilt rather than good feeling.

Fatigue and exhaustion may be signs that you need to slow down and turn some of your efforts and attention inward.

Just remember that feelings aren’t the be-all end-all.  They are important pieces of information—but they need to be balanced with thoughtful reflection on your circumstances.

Change in the long haul:

7.)  Consider the climate.

Gentle boundaryAre you in a job/relationship/environment where you are discouraged from having boundaries?

Is your time not really your own?

Does your employer act like they own you?

Sometimes, I have clients who give me a you-have-got-to-be-kidding-me look, when we talk about setting limits at work.

This could be a sign that they are more conflict-avoidant than most and do not relish the idea of establishing boundaries.

It could also be a sign of a domineering boss or toxic work environment.  Sometimes this problem gets pitched to me as a “work hard/play hard” scenario.

If this sounds a little familiar, just ask yourself:

“Am I using my time as I wish? 

Is work my biggest priority—and if so, how does that fit with my long- and short-term goals?”

8.)  Check your guilt.

wooden fenceIf you grew up in a family with confused boundaries, you’re prone to feeling guilty when you advocate for yourself.

This makes saying no a real challenge.

You need to check your guilt at the door!

Just remind yourself that boundaries are a healthy and appropriate part of adult life.

Boundaries are a useful way of communicating clearly and kindly what you need.

It keeps people from having to guess at or infer what you need, and it puts you in the driver’s seat of your own life.

If someone else is hurt by your setting boundaries, it’s their problem, not yours.

Your ally (see step #3) can help remind you of this if needed.

9.)  Work on your self-esteem.

If you struggle with #8, you’ll probably need to focus especially on this step.

Feeling guilty about having appropriate boundaries can be a sign of low self-esteem.

It could also be a sign of growing up in an enmeshed family, where everyone was tangled up in each other’s business and boundaries were very unclear or absent.

Here are a couple of examples of basic boundaries that could be distorted as a result of trauma and confused family boundaries when growing up:

You have a right to choose what to do with your free time.

You have a right to choose if, when and how other people touch you.

You have a right to decide what you will eat and when.

You have a right to develop your own interests and hobbies.

You have a right to tell others “no.”

10.)  Stay firm

police tapeThe hardest part of setting a boundary is holding that boundary over time.

If setting boundaries was as simple as saying no once or twice, people wouldn’t struggle so much with it!!

And remember, our priorities can shift over time—so we need to check in periodically, and make sure we are still holding boundaries that reflect our personal values and needs.

As always, knowing which changes to make isn’t the hardest part of change.  It’s actually doing it, and sustaining those changes over time, in spite of the resistance and backlash that may come.

Helping people pleasers is what I do!  So, if you’re in Austin, Texas, and you’re looking for a counselor who helps with people-pleasing, drop me a line.  I offer free, half hour consultations in person at the office, and I’d be glad to set one up for you.

More resources:

+ No is not a four letter word

+ Five tips to gracefully embrace your inner k(no)w

+ You can be firm without being mean


One year ago… A new kind of new year’s resolution

Two years ago… Dark places

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