Do you sometimes have trouble saying “no”, or expressing what you really want? Don’t worry—you’re definitely not alone.
Many people struggle to communicate their needs and express personal limits with others. Setting boundaries sounds so simple yet it can be quite challenging to execute if you’re not accustomed to doing so.
If you do have difficulty setting boundaries, you might find yourself either drained from not being able to say no or feeling isolated because you haven’t shared what you need from others. Also, if you tend to be inconsistent with your boundaries (sometimes it’s “yes,” sometimes it’s “no”), then you’re likely sending mixed messages and leaving those around you confused about how to treat you.
Boundaries teach others how to treat us and communicate what we find to be acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. In some ways, setting boundaries is also about honouring the relationships around you, whether it is with family members, friends, partners or coworkers. Rather than expecting the people in your life to read your mind (and then feeling resentful because you’ve pushed your needs aside), tell the person how you feel.
How to set boundaries
First, identify the behaviour or action that has affected you, and briefly describe how you feel about it; then outline what boundary you want to put in place.
1. Share how you feel with “I” Statements:
“When you _______ (identify the behaviour), I feel _______ (name the emotion)”
“When you speak negatively about me in public, I feel disrespected.”
“When you look through my phone without my consent, I feel violated.”
“When you start working on your laptop during the kids bedtime routine, I feel alone and more stressed.”
“When you talk to the client before telling me, I feel caught off guard.”
2. Outline the boundary or make a request:
“I need you to…“
Example: “I need you to stop making comments about my weight”, “I need you to respect my privacy”
or “Could you please_________”
Example: “Could you please keep negative comments to yourself?”, “Could you please help me with the kids every night before you start working on your laptop?”)
or “I would appreciate it if _____________”
Example: “I would appreciate if you could ask me how long it would take before setting the deadline with the client.”
3. In some situations, you may need to state a consequence:
“If you continue to ______ (the behaviour), I will ______________ (your plan to protect the boundary)”
Example: “If you continue to speak negatively about me in public, I will remove myself and leave the room.”
Things to keep in mind when setting boundaries
Be short but specific when describing the behaviour, leaving little room for interpretation. Use simple language and don’t over-explain yourself.
Use a neutral, respectful, and firm tone
Avoid blaming or criticizing statements (“You” statements)
You are not responsible for how others react towards your boundaries
If there is an unpleasant reaction, remind yourself the other person is entitled to how they feel and try not to take it personally
Follow through with your boundaries and back up your words with action; if you are not feeling ready to act on a consequence, don’t put it out there until you are
Expect that you will have to reinforce your boundaries and be prepared for pushback
If you’re not sure about what your boundaries are in the first place, you may need to work on building self-awareness and understanding your priorities. Connecting with a therapist can help. They will help you gain clarity on what your limits are and why and get support in strengthening your boundary criteria for different areas of your life.
How to say no
Sometimes we just need to say no in simple terms, without identifying the emotion. Here are 6 ways to do it.
1. Polite refusal: Be gracious yet firm
Example: “No thank you. I prefer not to.”
2. Insistence: Emphasize your position with strength
Example: “No, I feel really strongly about changing the direction of this project.”
3. Be a Broken Record: Repeat the same sentence over and over.
Example: “No, thank you, I won’t be joining you all tonight”; “No, thanks, I won’t be joining you tonight”; “No thanks, have fun, I won’t be joining you all tonight…”
4. Partial honesty. If you don’t feel safe enough to be fully assertive, provide a version of the truth
Example: “I’m not able to come out tonight because I made other plans.”
5. Full honesty: Be 100% direct
Example: “No, I’m not interested.”
6. Buy yourself time: If you’re unsure of your position and don’t want to answer yet, ask for time.
Example: “I’ll have to think about that one and get back to you tomorrow.”
At the end of the day, setting boundaries is really about taking care of yourself and honouring your self-worth. You deserve to be heard!
Victoria Ho is a Registered Psychotherapist in our Toronto clinic
and sees clients across Ontario over video.