What makes boundary setting difficult?

If you have difficulty setting boundaries, there's a good chance that you grew up in a family where setting a boundary (asking for something outside the family norms, saying no, or attempting to make a decision for yourself) was punished, shamed, or simply ignored. As a kid, your first imperative is to belong to your parents and family. This is a deeply wired in response that is meant to ensure your survival. In order to maintain a sense of safety and belonging, a child will wall off parts of herself. She will put any part of her that threatens safety and belonging on a shelf and engage in behaviors designed to protect herself.

Research shows* that these behaviors that were adopted in the face of threat can be very difficult to change. An attempt to change them triggers the sense of threat experienced in the original traumatic situation. This sense of threat implores you to stop what you are doing, to back away at any cost. Your heart starts pounding, your palms sweat, and adrenalin rushes through you. Your body tells you to flee the threat and return to homeostasis as soon as possible. Really though, you are lucky if your symptoms are this obvious, because it's easier to see how the reaction doesn't match the situation and therefore you can be more clear about what's really true in the moment.

What's more common is that you have adopted a set of complex decision making processes that keep you from ever facing threat at this level. You learn which situations to avoid and how to navigate through potentially threatening situations in such a way that the sense of threat remains minimal.

So in learning to set boundaries you may be faced with two fundamental challenges:

  1. To go into compassionate relationship with the acute, heart pounding, reactivity that occurs when you move forward with setting a boundary in what you perceive as a threatening situation.
  2. To wake up to all the unconscious ways you sacrifice who you are in order to avoid ever facing threat.

The first one, acute reactivity, you can meet with all the tools you have for centering, the mental clarity that this is arising out of a past threat, and the soothing mantra that it is okay for you to set boundaries. If these three aren't effective at grounding you, you will notice another layer of reactivity. This layer of reactivity will likely show up in the form of defending your right to set boundaries by (either in your head or out loud to someone else) making the other person wrong, giving all the good reasons why you have a right to set that boundary, making yourself wrong for setting the boundary, attempting to shut the whole system down through alcohol, comfort eating, or distraction. Lastly, in the long term, each time you can stay grounded through this acute reactivity and see that your life is not actually threatened as a result of setting the boundary, boundary setting becomes easier and less triggering.

The second challenge requires a subtle study of your experience, decisions, and results of those decisions. With unconscious decisions to avoid being triggered look for these symptoms:

  • a feeling of being small or shrinking
  • accusing others of taking advantage of you, using you, or ignoring you
  • feeling disconnected
  • a sense of inauthenticity as you attempt to give empathy or achieve harmony
  • regret or pain about not getting what you really want
  • complaints about how others get what they want but you don't
  • making someone else wrong (selfish) for engaging in self-care and saying no to what they don't want or asking for what they do want

As you see both of these forms of reactivity more clearly and with compassion, you will become more free to make the choices that serve you and others. To begin to change your relationship to boundaries at this level, it's important not only watch for these patterns, but to also look for opportunities to set boundaries in situations that hold a sense of security for you. For example, you might practice setting boundaries with a trusted friend. This boundary setting practice might look like saying no to his idea of where to eat or asking for what you want when it's uncomfortable and would be easier to let it go.


Take some time now to review an agreement that you have made with someone recently. Mindfully feel and reflect on each part of the agreement and notice if there are any symptoms from the second kind of challenge (bullet points above). If so imagine yourself changing the agreement, mindfully feeling your body and grounding through any physiological escalation. Find even the smallest action to move you towards setting a boundary in this situation.

*For more about how we adapt in the face of threat: Character Styles by Stephen M. Johnson


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