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  • Writer's pictureKatie Ray


What are boundaries and why are they so hard?!

It is not uncommon to struggle with boundaries in adult relationships. Boundaries can feel mean. We feel guilty when we set them.  We worry how people will respond.

Boundaries are the mechanism we use to keep ourselves safe and protected.  They help us conserve our energy and resources and give us a sense of agency and control over who we allow into our lives and how we are treated.  If you’ve been parented by someone who was abusive to you, your boundaries were not allowed to exist.  This is a little understood but essential part of understanding trauma and attachment wounding.  Since your boundaries were not allowed to exist, not only did you not learn how to set them, even contemplating the idea of establishing boundaries as an adult will be extremely anxiety inducing.  Fear of conflict or anger can be paralyzing because it has not been safe.  We don’t know what the response will be, and we don’t have the words or know how to do it!

Healing inevitably means learning how to set and maintain boundaries in adult relationships.  This was a skill that was not safe to develop as a child. Safety defenses like staying unseen, quiet, shut down, or dissociative were vital!  Fighting back, pushing back, taking up space, or having a need were dangerous and could lead to more harm.   


Expressing a boundary is inherently a communication of a need. Needs can include things like:

  • Respect

  • Space

  • Time availability

  • Resource availability

  • To be listened to or understood

Often our bodies or emotions will tell us when we need a boundary.  For instance, you might notice cues like tension or tightness in your body.  You might feel exhausted, resentful, frustrated, or angry: these can be bids for a boundary sent to you from your emotional body urging you to pay attention to something that is of benefit to your health.

There’s a lot of pressure to set boundaries the “right way.“  However, I find it most helpful to remember we have a menu of options to choose from and multiple ways we could go about setting a boundary. Boundaries can be set verbally and nonverbally– both count!


We don’t always consider non-verbal boundaries as options, however there are many ways we communicate with our bodies.  In fact, many communication specialists consider non-verbal communication to be the primary and most impactful piece of communication– don’t underestimate it. 

Some nonverbal boundaries include:


  • crossing your arms in front of your chest

  • leaning back and away 

  • retracting your head and moving backwards

  • walking away 

  • tightening your jaw

  • narrowing your eyes

  • avoiding eye contact

  • using your facial expression through frowning, sneering, scowling, or grimacing 

  • not calling or texting someone back (right away or never) 

  • not answering a phone call or turning off your phone

  • Not automatically offering to help


There are situations that may warrant a verbal boundary, particularly if nonverbal boundaries are not picked up on or respected. If a situation does call for a verbal boundary, we want to make sure that we are doing this in a way that is clear and respectful. 

Setting a boundary involves at a minimum stating the boundary or need.

This may sound something like:

"I am not ready to talk to you. I won't be answering the phone if you call."

Sometimes it also requires setting a consequence if the boundary is not respected.

This may sound something like: 

"I am not ready to talk to you. I won't be answering the phone if you call. If you keep calling me, I will need to block your number."


Some relationships are very challenging, especially when you feel like someone can be manipulative or coercive. We can often feel like we need to offer a long explanation or justification to why we we feel we have the right to have a need or set a boundary. While this is logical, in reality what tends to happen with personalities like this is that the more information you give them, the more opportunity they have to knock you off your position. It is typical to feel guilty and confused quickly! Sometimes shorter and simpler is better.

You do not need to explain or justify your need.

There’s a beautiful skill called the broken record skill that can be very helpful in this situation. What this means is we break down what we want to say it to the smallest possible element, and then just state that same communication repeatedly over and over. This might sound something like “ I’m not available to talk today. I’m not available to talk today. I’m not available to talk today. I’m not available to talk today.” You can see how this allows you to stay grounded and centered in your need and does not leave much room for the other person to knock you off of it.


 Changing behavior can be hard. It will bring up feelings of discomfort. Usually when we feel uncomfortable, we can interpret this as something bad is happening. We have a very quick association between discomfort and bad/dangerous and are biologically wired to avoid things that are painful while seeking things that feel pleasurable. This is helpful to know ahead of time because changing behavior will inherently be uncomfortable.

We want to look for these feelings to let us know that we’re headed in a different direction. Different and uncomfortable are good signs. Welcome them. This tells us that we are growing. Growing is not comfortable. When we’re pushing the edges of our comfort zone , we experienced growing pains. That’s what you’re feeling. Lean into that, and plan for it.

We have the benefit of being able to predict how we will likely feel, and we can use this prediction to help us plan for what we might need. Use your support system.  Have accountability partners that can check in with you after you’ve set a boundary and help you hold it. Plan for discomfort in your body. What are things you can do in your body that are going to help you feel more comfortable? Standing while setting a boundary might feel more empowering than sitting with your arms crossed. Try out a couple of different things and see what works best for your system!

You can do it!


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“Trauma is not what happens to you. Trauma is what happens inside you, as a result of what happened to you.” -Gabor Mate Shame is a normal, and sometimes helpful, human emotion.  Healthy shame alerts


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