Setting personal boundaries

Sep 17, 2020 | Blog Articles

What they are, how to set them, why we don’t set them and why we need them.

By Bernadette Arena


There’s always confusion around boundaries – what they actually are and how to use them.

Generally, we understand physical boundaries – fences, signposts, gates. Where it gets messy is with emotional boundaries.

We might not know we have boundaries, but we definitely know when they have been crossed.

Imagine how you feel in these situations when someone:

  • uses your toothbrush
  • stands too close
  • takes something without asking
  • looks though your phone
  • rings you after 10pm

Brené Brown defines boundaries very simply as

‘what’s ok and what’s not ok’.

It’s a guide for how we want to be treated.

I think we have poor boundaries because we don’t believe, or are unaware, that we have a right to them. And we’ve never learned how to set them.

Sometimes we don’t want to talk about, or set boundaries, because –

  • we want to be ‘nice’, we want people to like us
  • we’re afraid to rock the boat or fear we may jeopardise the relationship
  • we fear we’ll be judged or even abandoned
  • we focus on other people’s needs and feelings (as we do with our kids)
  • we don’t know how to be assertive
  • we think boundaries need to be rigid, with no flexibility
  • we feel guilty – again back to the fear we won’t be liked
  • we have never said ‘no’ and don’t know how to say it skilfully.

Boundaries are not something we impose on others. An effective boundary is about our own behaviour. Good personal boundaries are essential for good communication and healthy relationships. Boundaries are not punishment; they are based on self-care, being conscious of how and with whom we spend our time and respecting ourselves. This way when we say, ‘yes’, we turn up 100% without any resentment.

The key is keeping the focus on yourself

Instead of –

“You need to stop hassling me as soon as I get home”,

We could say –

“I need time to unwind when I get home and then I’ll be fresh for a conversation”.

Perhaps choose a time to revisit a conversation that didn’t go well and see if you could structure the conversation more skilfully.


  • “I will hang up if you shout at me”
  • “I can stay for 10 minutes/an hour”
  • “I need to think about it, and I’ll get back to you”
  • “Thank you for asking me, however, I’m fully committed at present”
  • “I don’t answer emails on the weekend”
  • “I respect your opinion, and I’ve made up my mind”
  • “I’m not comfortable discussing that”
  • “When we greet each other, I prefer a hug to a kiss”
  • “Please ring before you visit”

One of my boundaries is that I remove myself from angry people – I won’t be shouted at.

So, for example, if my brother is shouting at me, asking him to stop when he’s so riled up only escalates things. This has happened before, it’s predictable, he’s being consistent! Rather than taking it personally, I say to myself, “it’s not about me, it’s his stuff, it’s all about him, his words and actions are about him”.

I won’t argue with him or try to reason with him.

Now, if he were more stable or it was a different person, I could, in a calm moment, state my boundaries clearly by using the Quest ‘formula’ – 

I notice…, I imagine…, I feel…, I need…,

I could say –

I notice yesterday you shouted at me when we were discussing x.

I imagine you were trying to get your message across or make me understand what was important to you.

I feel upset when you raise your voice. I can’t take in what you’re saying.

I need you to remain calm when you talk, so we can find an outcome that works for both of us.”

Of course, the art is in discerning with whom to have such a conversation! That is the art in life; figuring out the situations we need to accept and work around, and which are the ones we need to take on and improve. If setting boundaries is new for you, then practice with people who can hear you non-defensively before you start on some of your more challenging relationships.

I like this quote –

“Givers need to set limits because takers rarely do”.

For me, the body always holds the answers – we can learn from our cells which are deliciously known as being ‘selectively permeable’. They only let in what’s good for them! The same needs to apply to us.


  • help us communicate our needs clearly
  • set limits
  • are based on self-respect
  • don’t punish others
  • are for well-being and protection.

Saying ‘No’

‘No,’ can be a complete sentence; it’s not unkind.

Saying ‘no’ is hard for people pleasers. Yet, saying ‘yes’ when we want to say ‘no’ causes resentment and perhaps anger at ourselves because we haven’t been true to ourselves.

When we set boundaries there are positive outcomes for us –

  • improved confidence and self esteem
  • increased respect for our time – and the time of other people
  • relationships and communications improve
  • we get clear and can say what we want and don’t want
  • we feel more in control.

Self-awareness is the beginning of setting personal boundaries and it’s a journey many of us need to make.

We wish you well and we’d love to hear your stories about setting boundaries.

How Quest for Life can assist

If you have low self-esteem, poor relationships, need communication strategies, are at a crossroads or would like to feel more in control of your life, Healing Your Life can assist. This program provides a wealth of practical skills, strategies and tools for better communication and relationships, and gaining more control over your life.

Learn more about Healing Your Life

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