Healthy Boundaries: How to Set and Stay Within Your Limits

Boundaries -using gestures to say no

What are boundaries?
Maintaining boundaries is crucial to lock in your gains from therapy.  While there are many perspectives and ways of discussing boundaries, the most useful is one that captures its inseparable link to integrity. 

As humans, we are unique in requiring physical as well as psychological safety to attain homeostasis e.g. balance.  Essentially, boundaries are what allow us to interact with our environment so that we operate within our physical and psychological limitations. 

This balance is what we refer to as self-regulation and relational regulation to manage our integrity.  What’s integrity got to do with anything? We simply don’t feel right when we stray from our sense of who we are.  We don’t feel safe when we’re stressed or extremely fatigued. 

In other words, we feel safe and are less prone to a state of disequilibrium when we perceive no threat to our physical or emotional integrity.  Boundaries require staying within your limits.  Within all of the limits that have you waking up each day feeling like your capable Self.

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Boundaries-staying out of survival mode

Poor Boundaries Affect Stress Levels

If you have poor boundaries, it is likely that you are familiar with feeling flustered, fatigued or even resentful.   There’s no buffer between yourself and the demands of your environment which includes the situations, people and activities that make up your life.

Managing overwhelm is no small thing since it is vital to staying out of survival mode which is at the focus of so much trauma work. 

Our bodies are triggered to go into survival mode when we are overwhelmed because overwhelm is a threat to safety.  Our survival mode is always calculating how much energy we have on hand to take care of present or future threats.  It operates with a reserve in mind. 

If you’ve spent any decent amount of time with a trauma therapist or working on your trauma, you’ll recognize the importance of self-regulation and relational regulation to your well-being.  When you are in survival mode, you can’t apply enough clear thinking to absorb interventions to fully treat your trauma.  Safety planning starts with emotional stabilization.

If you can’t set boundaries, you may as well live in a bubble, because it will be difficult to maintain any self-care regimen once you interact with your environment.  That’s because our environment changes all the time.  And your environment includes the people, places, demands and situations that you face every day. 

Setting Boundaries
Contrary to popular belief, boundaries aren’t simply verbal communications that you convey to others. They are also limits that you set for yourself. You can wear yourself out in an empty house by overeating, doing endless chores, staying up until the wee hours of the morning and overthinking everything without a single person within ear shot. 


Self-Care as a Framework for Setting Limits
Tying the concept of boundaries to self-care is also useful to distinguish self-care from leisure activities.  Ask most people their definition of self-care, (prior to therapy), and they typically describe leisure activities or indeed anything that falls outside of work.

Unfortunately, not all leisure activities are restorative in the sense that they help calm our nervous system and act as a salve for an overworked brain.  Video games and most vacations are classic examples. 

Ever return home from a vacation and feel as though you need another?  Or is your brain more active after a busy video game than before you picked it up? 

Self-care from a therapeutic perspective involves strategies, behaviors or rituals that help you put the world on pause and restore your nervous system to some state of homeostasis.  This is a state in which you are not on alert to real or perceived threats.  You can employ the full extent of your frontal lobes when you need those to kick in for problem-solving, empathy, self-regulation, reality-checking and other executive functions. 

In other words, it’s about attaining an internal sense of safety. It is under conditions of safety that the prefrontal lobe kicks into gear.  Stress hormones tend to depress prefrontal lobe functioning. Even minor stress can cause dramatic loss of your prefrontal cognitive abilities.  This is why your words don’t always land the way you think they do when you are “off your game.”

Setting limits and self care as boundaries

When we set boundaries for our self-care, we prioritize our needs over others.  That’s implicit in calming your own nervous system. If you’re preoccupied with another’s nervous system, you are not prioritizing your own.  Indeed, the anxiety that is sometimes evoked in trying  to appease or calm another can counter any self-care effort to attain an “at ease” state. 

When we set boundaries for our self-care, we prioritize our needs over others.  If we’re preoccupied with another’s nervous system, we are not prioritizing our own.

Setting boundaries and maintaining them

Some Boundary Guidelines
A common objection or fear regarding boundary setting is the reaction of another person to that boundary.  For the most part, another person’s opinion regarding your boundaries is just that. 

If boundaries are intended to keep you safe, you can see that another’s objection, rejection or point of view is not always a sufficient reason to not set them.  Let’s walk through an example of setting a boundary. 


Walking Through Indecision
An example that might help to provide some clarification might be the decision to submit your resignation at a job that no longer holds your interest, is low paying or which is draining you to your core. 

In most cases barring any statutory or contractual obligations, most people are perfectly within their rights to give notice (or not, as the case might be), and resign from a job.  Again, barring any contractual or statutory reasons, for the most part, they don’t need to give a reason.  A supervisor or colleague might not like that you are leaving.  Certainly, you might be considerate about it, explain a little, if you like, for strategic reasons, common sense or courtesy, but the decision to leave because that suits your well-being (or whimsy), is yours. 

The following guidelines might help if you find yourself wavering, or are prone to fawn responses, because someone doesn’t like your decision:

  • Have the facts changed regarding your work conditions or your ability to continue in that position?
  • Can you come up for reasons other than someone’s disagreement for staying? 
  • Is that person thinking of their inconvenience or yours?
  • What relevant qualifications does the other person have regarding your values, needs and preferences?
  • Is the other person’s decision-making at the expense of your sanity, well-being, comfort, needs, desires?

Physical Boundaries
Another example of a boundary regards our physical and emotional comfort.  Touching has a number of cultural aspects that are interwoven with views about intimacy, privacy and what we think of as public and private.  It’s not the easiest example to have introduced, but it’s so vital to the well-being of so many particularly in the world of trauma, that it is well worth mentioning. 

Reflect a little on who you touch, when you touch and where and how touch is reciprocated by those people. What are your comfort levels in different situations among different people? Do they reflect “rules” that you learned from family, friends and culture? Do you submit to touch that is not ok? Have you crossed lines with others? What cues were in place that you received from others? What thoughts did you have about others touching you that you did not share? 

Touch as a boundary

Boundaries From a Cultural and Trauma Perspective

In addition to touch, eye contact, gestures, facial expressions, physical distance as well as tone and inflection also play a role in our physical and emotional comfort and can differ by culture, age as well as gender.  Certainly, there’s room for interpretation and misreading cues, but there are commonalities even among different cultures.  The insights from one particular study indicate that women in almost all the countries studied tend to prefer more personal space from strangers than men.  From a trauma perspective, it’s important to identify and then support the psychological space that one needs to feel safe. 

The reasoning is simple.  Trauma shatters our sense of safety particularly if it involves any type of abuse, physical, emotional, or sexual.  It often results in powerlessness and emotional damage that can blur boundaries by making us excessive in our overcorrection to keep them which cuts off connection.  The alternative can happen, especially with abuse that occurs in childhood, in which we fail to learn how to set boundaries or are prone to appeasing another at our expense. 

Trauma can make us vulnerable to boundary “trespass” when another supplants your needs, physical space, body, time or feelings with their own.  Examples of such crossed boundaries:

  • Someone talking too much and not noticing that you want to leave.
  • Standing too close to you while talking even though you are stepping backwards.
  • A coworker dropping unannounced in your office who begins to mindlessly pick things up from your desk or rearrange items.
  • A friend or new date talking only about themselves and never asking you a question.

As a rule of thumb, never ignore your uncomfortable feeling and don’t push through it just to save appearances.  Setting boundaries doesn’t mean that you have to talk at all.  Staying in these situations tends to reinforce how trauma teaches us to disown our feelings.  You are not invisible.  Safety is above all else with boundaries. 

“As a rule of thumb, never ignore your uncomfortable feeling and don’t push through it just to save appearances.”

Boundary violations in relationships

Possible Red Flags

  • Shifts in your emotions or physical sensations: Do you get a prickly feeling in your neck? Do you want to step backwards or leave? Are you holding your breath?
  • Is there a power dynamic going on in roles, assumptions, position, or action?
  • Are you holding things back that you do not wish to share?
  • Are you feeling “on alert?”
  • Are you behaving naturally as you would at home or with friends? Is your tone unusual? Are you laughing when something isn’t funny? Do you find yourself acting submissively?
  • Do you feel like you’re being manipulated or taken advantage of?
  • Do you feel resentment brewing?
  • Do you feel trapped or uneasy?

When Talking is Not  a Good Idea: Safety First
Another good reason to reconsider talking about boundaries is in a situation in which your boundary might serve as gauntlet for an abuser.  If you are in a relationship in which you are experiencing interpersonal violence, consider the safety of relaying verbal boundaries to someone who is likely to see that as an invitation for violence.  Predators are prone to testing your boundaries.  In such cases, the operative word is safety.  Boundaries are intended to protect you, prioritize your well-being and keep you safe.  Seek help or trust your gut on interactions that generate feeling of unease or fear for safety.


“Understanding your stress response patterns can help you address what stops you from setting boundaries.  Like everything else, boundary setting takes practice.  Don’t be afraid to start slow and start again.”

Strategies to Facilitate Setting Boundaries

The Reset Rule
Another rule of thumb regarding boundaries is the reset rule.  This is particularly useful for those on “auto yes.”  Assume it will take a while to reset that auto-yes to a “no” or “maybe.”  Before we can become adept at boundary setting, we need to address underlying core beliefs that might hinder our ability to recorrect when we find ourselves in the midst of maladaptive behaviors or thoughts.  For many, we believe that because we said “yes,” we can’t then say “no.”  It takes some getting used to the notion that you can say “no” at any point you recall that you want to set a boundary.  Don’t keep travelling on a destructive and unhealthy path just because you started out that way.  To build autonomy, we can accept that mistakes happen, and we get to change our minds.  Sometimes we care too much about how this might look. Would you rather look silly for a few minutes or face all the misery of overwhelm?  Who cares how it looks? Most of the time, others are so preoccupied with themselves to care about our reset.  Let them handle your reset on their time.

The Preemptive Strike: Honing Your Boundary Game
Setting boundaries isn’t easy if you haven’t been setting them.  Then when you start, you’re likely to drop an anvil by overcorrecting which only serves to reinforce that boundaries are hard to set. So start out slow and easy using a “preemptive  strike.” Sure, a war metaphor probably doesn’t do much to reinforce that boundaries can be a naturally occurring extension of self-care, but being strategic can stop you from going overboard in your zeal to stop someone from encroaching on your last nerve.

The strategic maneuver is one in which you extend yourself within predefined limits that you can control. It will feel better than straining to suppress your emotions as someone careens into your personal space.  For instance, you might contact someone with poor boundaries by phone and set a time limit for your call as a starting point to protect you from their unfettered demands or neediness.  It’s a lot easier to hang up a phone than to make a quick getaway by car.  If you start the conversation with “I only have a few minutes and wanted to check in with you,” it’s easier to remind the person when they start getting into their latest break-up that you “only have a few minutes and can’t give them the attention they need.”  Sure, they might still be talking when you disconnect, but sometimes you need interim measures before you become a boundary pro.

Parallel Activities
Another strategic move is to engage in “parallel” activities that shield your nervous system from a full-on attack from someone who is lacking in their ability to respect your boundaries.  This is a particularly good strategy with children and others from whom we do not wish to disconnect.  A parallel activity is any activity you do “alongside” someone that does not involve your full attention to that person. E.g. watching a move or playing a sport.  It is a half-way measure of sorts that allows you to engage in a meaningful way while resting your engagement system (and soothing your anxiety) regarding full frontal engagement.  Parallel activities are particularly helpful for those who identify as having an avoidant attachment style. 

Perfectionism and Boundaries
When we find ourselves not doing something that we later reflect was within our reach, a common explanation is that we may well have been in a stress response cycle.   Perfectionist traits such as “fear of making a mistake” are typical stress responses.  Fear of making a mistake can get in the way of setting a boundary.  We want to get that boundary “just right” or…..(sometimes we never finish that sentence).  One solution is to reframe the pursuit of perfection to a goal of being good at the process of correction.   This is part of shifting from outcome to a process oriented perspective.  In other words, set your “high standard” to one that allows you to get good at correcting. This can provide you with the flexibility you need to set a boundary and develop an implicit understanding that you can “always fix it later.” Yes, this is another way to engage in the Reset Rule.  ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Below are some links to related information regarding boundaries to help you “connect dots” and get the most out of your therapy:

You can find other soundbites related to preparation for therapy here .  Stay in tune with issues related to your well-being and mental health right here in the Urim Recovery Journal updated 2x a week.

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