Setting Boundaries and Setting Limits

setting boundaries
R. Skip Johnson

"Setting Boundaries" is a life skill that has been recommended by therapists, self-help authors and support groups since the mid 1980's. It is the practice of openly communicating, asserting, and defending personal values. The term "boundary" is a metaphor. "In bounds" means acceptable to you. "Out-of-bounds" means unacceptable. 

This is the life skill of openly communicating, asserting, and defending personal values.

The need for better “boundaries” is advice often given when someone complains about how another person has been treating them. 

“Help, my girlfriend isn’t treating me well. Now she is giving me the silent treatment.” 

“Well, friend, you need to set some boundaries”. 

“You’re right, I have bad boundaries.”

From this discussion one might believe that if we are angry and say "no more" or even walk out that our girlfriend (or other loved one) will change their ways and all will be well. That's not what this is about.


The Idea of "Setting Boundaries" is Misleading

The terminology of "setting boundaries" is misleading and often mistaken to mean "giving an ultimatum." It is true that issuing ultimatums can be part of this life skill and at times, very necessary, however it's only one aspect of this life skill.

When we speak of the boundaries we are really speaking about our personal values and our need to get them in focus and live with more conviction. This is a lifestyle, not a quick fix to an interpersonal squabble.

This is an important point that is often overlooked. 


The Three Pillars

This life skill has three pillars: defining personal values to ourselves, communicating and asserting what is in-bounds and out-of-bounds to others, and being committed to make hard choices, when necessary, to honor and defend.

  1. Defining values: Healthy relationships are sometimes characterized as an “inter-dependent” relationship of two “independent” people. Healthy individuals have values that they honor and defend regardless of the nature of the relationship. These are core or independent values. Healthy individuals also have values that they are prepared to negotiate and adapt to in an effort to bond and collaborate with others. These are known as inter-dependent values.
  1. Asserting boundaries: Using verbal and nonverbal communications to assert intentions, needs and define what is in-bounds and out-of-bounds. Laying out reasonable, safe and acceptable ways for other people to interact and relate to us.
  1. Honoring and defending: Living a life that honors our values and knows how to take constructive actions necessary to avoid being compromised.

Defining Values

Having a healthy relationship takes a great deal of self-awareness and knowing:

  1. which of our values are independent, core values to be upheld by us and defended (in a constructive way, of course),
  1. which values need to be more open for compromise or replacement based on our desire to bond and build relationships with others (partner, friend, relative), and
  1. how, in difficult situations, to look across multiple values and balance priorities. 

Independent core values  It's important to not only identify core values, but to live them. Independent core values should guide important  decisions in our lives. Our values should be clearly reflected in the life choices we make. 

Those who value their individuality take responsibility, are self-reliant and act with self-respect. Those who value truthfulness cannot bring themselves to tell a lie. Those who value family or friendship sacrifice their personal interests for the good of others. Those who value goodness cannot bring themselves to do something they know is wrong. We express values in our relationships with other people when we are loyal, reliable, honest, generous, trusting, trustworthy; feel a sense of responsibility for family, friends, co-workers, our organization, community or country.

Inter-dependent values  Being realistic about values is important. If we have an unusually large number of uncompromising independent values / core values, we may be too dogmatic to have a relationship with very many people. At the same time, if we have so few independent values, or such a weak commitment to them, we will then be "undefined" to ourselves and to others and the only values that matter are those of others. The latter is common in codependent or enmeshed relationships.


Asserting Boundaries 

Boundaries are how we communicate our values to others. A boundary defines the scope of our independent core values. It is the fault line on a tennis court - everything inside the fault line is playable.  With boundaries, everything inside the boundary is consistent with our value.

For example, if your independent core value is "always to be respectful of others", would abruptly walking out of the room when someone says something highly offensive be inside or outside of your definition of this value?  One person may answer "yes" while another says "no".  Our boundaries are often not as obvious to others as we all see things differently. As such, educating and informing others is an important pillar of this life skill.

A significant part of this is the nonverbal communication that we lead by example and practice what we preach.

It will be hard to convince others to respect boundaries that we don't respect ourselves.


Honoring and Defending

Even when we model our values and communicate responsibly, we can still encounter boundary busters. Boundary busters are people who are caught up in their own lives and are oblivious to our needs, or possibly defiant of our values and boundaries, or simply unaware/unconvinced of there importance.

When this happens, we should first challenge ourselves.   

  1. Have we made choices that are inconsistent with our core values?  If so, which was wrong, the value or the choices?  Do we need to change one? 
  1. Have we been consistent in our actions and effective in our communications?  Or have we been sending mixed messages?  Do we need to dedicate the time and effort to communicate better?
  1. Have we looked at all the options we have available to us to help us navigate back to a "healthy place" where we can stay true to our values?  It's important to think broadly. Issuing ultimatums or taking timeouts work initially, but not in the long run. They are not the only tools we have. We can change ourselves and how we interact.  We can change the relationship role in our life. We can alter the environment. We can exit.

Take action. Measured. Steady. Consistent. 

Know your priorities.  Don't get caught up in dramas (conflict where one or both parties want to "win the fight" and have lost sight of solutions).

Try to collaborate and get a buy-in on solutions. Be prepared to take unilateral action if that fails.

Remember, the goal is not to fight or to argue what is right and wrong in an ideal world, or to have it your way, or to control others.  

The goal is to live true to your values (1) and the dependent values of the relationship (2).


The Right Way and the Wrong Way 

Having values-based boundaries empowers us and motivates others:

  1. I listen to the points of view of others and take them seriously
  2. I treat everybody with respect
  3. I am always supportive of family and friends
  4. I am totally honest in all of my dealings with others
  5. ... and I expect that same.

Enforcing boundaries without values, or that haven't been clearly communicated and understood, tends to be shallow, reactive, confrontational and destructive:

  1. I will not tolerate you getting in my face (stated aggressively)
  2. If you do things I don't like, I will respond by doing things that are equally distressing to you
  3. You weren't there when I needed you, so I won't be there when you need me
  4. Etc.

Interested in learning more or discussing this with others?



Last modified: 
January 04, 2021