Helping parents & caregivers design their own handbook for raising amazing kids.


6 Things That Surprised Me About Setting Boundaries

By Emily Mall

Posted on December 3, 2023

Platform divided into 2 with a wall in the middle
Platform divided into 2 with a wall in the middle
Platform divided into 2 with a wall in the middle

It took me many years to understand boundaries. I thought “having boundaries” was just a gentle way of saying someone was uptight or difficult, the same way someone with “leadership qualities” can also mean bossy and demanding. Raised in a patriarchal and religious society, I understood at a young age that I was supposed to show up as someone who was meek, kind, and self-less. Boundaries weren’t even on my radar.

Honestly, it took me a long time to understand boundaries and grasp the consequences of not having them. I didn’t know what they were, what they looked like, where and when they were needed, how to implement them, and how to manage my feelings around them. With the help of my therapist, I was able to discern the places I needed to set boundaries, the skills to create and hold them, and the support it took to guide me through the process.

Because I didn’t have boundaries, I gave away who I was and what was important to me. Basically, I outsourced myself, and thus became unable to figure out my individuality. I allowed other’s needs to be a priority over my own. Without boundaries, I had no real, authentic way of living life—making choices—on my own terms. As a teenager, I had no real vision of what I wanted my future to look like, because I was so out of touch with what I wanted and constantly being told what I should want. I was constantly at the mercy of bigger, stronger, or louder wants and needs.

What are Boundaries?

Just in case you missed our previous post, let’s take a minute to explain what boundaries are:

Boundaries are where one thing ends and another begins. They are like property lines. They help us determine and share what is okay and what is not okay in a relationship. We set them in every type of relationship to honor ourselves and our needs and to help build trust, safety, and respect in order to protect our well-being.

Dr. Tracy Hutchinson, Ph.D, talks about how boundaries are essential for healthy relationships in her article, What Are Boundaries and Why Are They Important. She says:

“Boundaries are basic respectful guidelines created that establish how others behave around you. This should be obvious, right? If you are reading this, you may be respectful of boundaries but have found yourself confused by how you have been treated by a friend, co-worker, loved one, or family members. Perhaps you may be seeking how to respond to strange feelings you have about a person who may be violating your emotional boundaries, physical boundaries, or psychological boundaries. One way to know if you are being violated is the way that you feel, trust your intuition and discomfort because it’s probably right…Setting boundaries takes practice. It involves deciding what behavior is okay and what is not and how to respond if someone passes your comfort and limits. Setting boundaries can ensure that relationships can be mutually respectful, appropriate, and caring.”

Once I started practicing boundaries with people I felt safe with, it started to become easier and more natural, if only because of the newfound understanding of having them: without boundaries, it is difficult to enjoy myself and my life.

Here are 6 things that surprised me along my journey of boundary-setting:

1. Boundaries are not put in place to control others.

I’ll say it again in a different way: You can’t control or change someone by setting boundaries.

You can’t get someone to stop smoking by setting a boundary with them. If they decide to change because you setting a boundary led them to want to change their behavior, great! To be clear: changing is their choice, and not something you did to them. Control is about power and manipulation of others. Boundaries are about responsibility, safety, and protection of yourself.

Boundaries simply let people know what you will and won’t tolerate. It’s up to you to maintain that boundary when they violate it by enacting your clearly stated consequences.

For example:

Setting a Boundary:  “You cannot smoke in my house. Also, if you smoke around me, I will walk away/leave.” 

In this example, you aren’t controlling the person or making them quit their habit. You are simply letting them know what you will not tolerate. They still have choices. They can continue to smoke to their heart's content, just not around you. 

Being Controlling and Manipulative: “You should stop smoking. I stay up at night and worry all the time that you will get lung cancer and die. Don’t you want to see your kids grow up? It just breaks my heart. I bet it breaks your partner’s heart, too. I don’t want to die before you. You have to stop smoking, or else you are going to destroy me.” 

This is not setting a boundary. This is using emotional manipulation to try to control someone’s behavior. Consider the uncomfortable feelings you are trying to avoid if you catch yourself attempting to control someone else. 

No matter what someone else’s behavior is or continues to be after setting a boundary, you are only responsible for yourself.

2. Don’t assume people “just/should know” what your boundaries are without stating them and being clear.

No one can read your mind! Be honest with yourself (or ask for feedback) about what you have or have not communicated, and if it was stated clearly.

For example: Maybe your family gives you a hard time about being the “quiet one” at family gatherings, and after learning about boundaries you realize you have actually never told your family why you are always quiet: you hate being interrupted and it happens constantly (it’s part of the family culture at this point!). 

The next time they hassle you about your “quietness” at the dinner table, you say: “Hey, just wanted to say this in case I haven’t said it before—and that’s on me if I haven’t—that I don’t talk much because I really hate being interrupted. If you want to talk to me, I’m open to conversations when I’m not interrupted constantly and can’t get a word in!” 

You might still have a few family members that give you a hard time (gah, families!), but you’ve honored and respected yourself and who you are by being clear and direct. Plus, now your family has accountability when it comes to you being “quiet” all the time. If they have a problem with it, they know they are more likely to get you to be “loud” or open up if they don’t interrupt you.

3. Creating boundaries feels hard and awful… at first. 

Setting boundaries can feel anxious and unsettling before feeling natural. And that makes sense and is totally normal; you are creating a new pattern or way of interacting. It’s uncomfortable to be different and want change in a system, culture, or relationship. It’s hard when the other person doesn’t understand or “get it,” or is uncomfortable with change and continues to think everything is fine, or they don’t want to respect your boundary and then simply ignore it. 

“When we begin to set boundaries with people we love, a really hard thing happens: they hurt. They may feel a hole where you used to plug up their alone-ness, their disorganization, or their financial irresponsibility. Whatever it is, they will feel a loss. If you love them, this will be difficult for you to watch. But, when you are dealing with someone who is hurting, remember that your boundaries are both necessary for you and helpful for them. If you have been enabling them to be irresponsible, your limit setting may nudge them toward responsibility.” ― Dr. John Townsend and Dr. Henry Cloud, “Boundaries” 

Setting boundaries can feel like swimming against a current. You are likely changing the direction of a behavior that has been ongoing for a long time. Or you are standing up for yourself in a way you never have before.You will need extra support at first. Ask a friend for backup or meet you somewhere after for encouragement, enlist a therapist or coach if you are able, and practice setting boundaries with people close to you who you consider safe. 

 It’s like when you start going to the gym. You choose to go because your current situation isn’t working for you anymore and you need to do something about it. You might enlist a personal trainer to show you how to start building muscles. It’s hard and painful at first, and you usually end up sore for the next few days. But the effort is worth it! Your muscles grow and you get stronger, allowing you to feel better and enjoy your life.

4. People are allowed to push against your boundaries.

This one blew me away when I first experienced it. I thought the toughest part of setting boundaries was speaking up and saying them out loud to the person who was crossing them. I did not expect that my boundary wouldn’t be as important to them as it was to me (or perhaps it was that they didn’t care, listen, or understand?), so I was surprised when they continued to ask me to cross my own boundary I set with them. I was also hurt and upset, feeling like I wasn’t seen or understood. When I talked to my support system about it, everyone sympathized with some version of: “Yeah, that happens. People can and will push against your boundaries if they want to. It sucks.” 

Often, people who do care, understand, and listen to your boundaries will forget them, and just need gentle reminders. Setting the boundary is great, because now you both have accountability and can say, “Hey Grandma, remember when I talked to you last year about commenting on my weight every time you see me and how it makes me feel?” You now have more information to help you choose how many more times you are willing to give gentle reminders, or if it’s time to set up consequences. 

And yes, then there are those who don’t care and will repeatedly cross your boundaries with no intent of honoring or respecting them. That’s when the 3rd hardest part of boundary setting comes in…setting and holding consequences. 

Remember #1? You can’t control someone; you can only control your response. If someone continues to push against your boundary, it is up to you if you want to give a few gentle reminders or enact consequences.

5. Love cannot exist in relationships without boundaries.

This surprised me only because I hadn’t thought about it much before I read it. Love is honoring and respecting yourself and others. If a loved one doesn’t honor and respect your boundaries, then it can be argued their “love” is conditional. 

In the book “Boundaries in Marriage,” co-author John Townsend says: “Boundaries are a litmus test for the qualities of our relationships…Those who can’t respect our boundaries are telling us…That they only love our “yeses,” our compliance. ‘I only like it when you do what I want.’”

6. You are allowed to change your mind or your boundaries at any time.

You won’t need rigid boundaries with everyone. You might need them with a stranger until you get to know them better and learn you can trust them. Then, you can soften or change them. 

For example: 

Initial boundary: I won’t tell the person I’ve just met about my mental health struggles. 

Changed boundary: After I have spent a significant amount of time and have developed a relationship of trust and respect with them, I am willing to share with them about my mental health struggles.

These are all things I found helpful to learn as I continue to grow in my boundary journey. They have become an essential life skill that I’m excited to pass down and teach to my kids. I hope they help and encourage you, too!

And remember: 

You are allowed to be human and to show up with your own individual wants and needs. You are allowed to say what is important to you. You are constantly learning and growing, so making space for needs and wants is imperative! Make sure you make space for others’ boundaries and their changing needs and wants, too.

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Helping parents & caregivers design their own handbook for raising amazing kids.

© 2023–2024 Great job. All rights reserved.