Updated: Jul 2
“Have the courage to say no.” - W. Clement Stone
Learning how to have healthy boundaries is an important part of mother wound recovery for mother wound survivors, as well as for survivors of other forms of childhood and relational abuse and neglect.
When we haven’t been taught how to set and maintain boundaries by our primary caregiver(s) as children or worse, our primary caregiver(s) violated our boundaries, just the thought of how to go about having boundaries later on as adults can be daunting.
Sound like you? You’ve come to the right place. In this blog post I’m breaking things down into straightforward, easy to understand pieces just like I do for my mother wound counseling clients who are new to having healthy boundaries.
Regardless of the source of your boundary noobiness—whether from mommy issues, daddy issues, both issues, or whatever-it-is issues—I’m giving you the tools you need to cut through the weeds and the overwhelm so you can start creating the healthy boundaries you’ve always needed. Your future self is already thanking you.
Whatever they did (or didn’t) teach you about boundaries, there’s no better day than today to give yourself the gift of a well-boundaried life. Let’s get started!
Not a boundaries noob anymore? Are you looking for something beyond Boundaries 101 or maybe a tad more specific? Promise I won’t be offended if you check out one of these other blog posts on boundaries instead:
Still here? Ok. Let’s get started for real this time.
What are boundaries?
Boundaries are lines. Anticlimactic, I know. There on one side of the line is what’s okay, and then there on the other side of the line is what’s not okay.
The markings on the road: “Drive here, not there.” The queues at the amusement park: “Wait here, not there.” The sidelines on the football field: “Play here, not there.” All of these are examples of boundaries out in the wild.
Like these everyday boundaries that we encounter as we go about the day, our personal boundaries help us communicate to the people in our lives what is and isn’t okay with us. All boundaries really are is a form of communication.
What boundaries are NOT
If you’ve been with us at the Mother Wound Project for any amount of time, then you already know that one of our favorite ways to learn about what something is is to also learn about what that something is not. Let’s do this for boundaries…
Boundaries are not:
Now are there people in your life right at this very moment who will read these negatives into your boundaries regardless? I don’t know you personally, but if my work and three plus decades on the planet have taught me anything I’m going to go ahead and say hell yes.
I can’t emphasize this enough: The people who’ve enjoyed benefitting from your weak or nonexistent boundaries are very often the same people who will view your new boundaries through a negative, woe-is-me lens.
The guilt serves an important purpose, of course. If they can get you to feel bad about your boundaries, you’ll be less likely to enforce them. Your job, of course, is to not let the guilt tripping objections deter you.
Why are boundaries important?
Think about it like this: Do you want to try and drive on a highway where other drivers swerve all over with no rhyme or reason? Or try and make it onto a rollercoaster while mobs of people jump ahead of you? Or go to a football game where the play can go from the field to the stands in a matter of seconds (Hold your hotdog!) since out-of-bounds isn’t a thing?
Chaos, right? Well, when it comes to our personal relationships, the absence of boundaries results in messy chaos, too.
What all good therapists, relationship experts, and social science researchers will tell you is that boundaries are an essential part of every healthy, mutually-fulfilling relationship. In other words, they’re not just meant as rescue remedies for those of us nursing dysfunctional relationships.
Each of us needs to have boundaries in each of our relationships. This includes our intimate partner relationships, our friendships, our relationships with colleagues, our parent-child relationships, our relationships with siblings, etc. In other words, boundaries aren’t important for just a few of us in a few scenarios. They’re actually important for all of us.
Our boundaries help us to know where we begin and end. They also help us to know where others begin and end. In addition to this, our boundaries clarify what’s ours—what we are responsible for—and what’s not ours—what we are not responsible for.
Why are boundaries so tough?
There’s all sorts of reasons why we might be struggling with having boundaries. These reasons include but aren’t limited to:
Healthy boundaries weren’t modeled by our early caregiver(s).
We’re afraid our boundaries will hurt the other person’s feelings.
We experienced boundary violations as children, and so just the thought of boundaries is a trauma trigger.
We don’t want the other person to be disappointed or upset with us.
Saying “no” to our early caregiver(s) was scary or painful due to things like punishment, physical abuse, emotional abuse, rejection, etc.
We confuse having boundaries with being self-centered.
Growing up we got the message that saying “no” meant we were bad.
Our efforts at having boundaries in the past left us feeling rejected when the other person sulked, withdrew from us, or gave us the silent treatment.
We’re trying to avoid feeling guilty later on for needing the boundary in the first place.
We received the message growing up that loving someone meant always needing to say yes.
Other people in our lives pressure us into either changing our boundaries or getting rid of our boundaries altogether.
Which of these do you relate to? What would you add to this list?
How to make boundaries easier
Good news! There’s a lot we can do to set ourselves up for success when it comes to this work—yes, it counts as work!—of learning to have boundaries.
Here’s five of my favorite boundary tips for you in the form of reminders. The next time you’re having a tough boundaries day (we all have them) or you’re looking for some encouragement to help you tackle a new boundary milestone, just circle back to these for a quick boost.
Reminder #1: Boundaries are healthy
No explanation needed. Say this one over and over as many times as you need to.
Reminder #2: Boundaries are acts of self-compassion
It’s 100% true. Our boundaries help us take good care of ourselves because they are innately loving. If we’re tired, we can set a boundary and leave the party early to respond lovingly to our need for rest. If we don’t want to talk to Mom about a certain topic, we can set a boundary that honors our needs (and also avoids the resentment that comes with unspoken expectations).
Reminder #3: Boundaries are compassionate towards others
Don’t just take my word for it. In her newest book, Atlas of the Heart, Brené Brown writes, “Boundaries are a prerequisite for compassion and empathy. We can’t connect with someone unless we’re clear about where we end and they begin. If there’s no autonomy between people, then there’s no compassion or empathy, just enmeshment. This has probably been one of the most significant, soul-shaking learnings of my career.”
Reminder #4: Practice makes perfect imperfection
Just like with any other skill, learning to have healthy boundaries takes practice. And then more practice. That’s just part of the process. While it’s true we’ll never fully “arrive” in Perfect Boundaryville, it’s still okay to celebrate our progress along the way.
Reminder #5: Be gentle and patient with yourself
Anytime we’re working to learn a life skill as adults that we didn’t learn in childhood, it takes a lot of hard work. We can’t forget just how much effort an undertaking like this takes.
As you make this journey towards having better boundaries, be sure to treat yourself with gentleness, patience, and compassion. If what you were learning was so easy, you would have figured it out by now. Give yourself some kindness.
“Which boundaries should I have?” This is the million dollar question, isn’t it? And the hard part (or maybe it’s actually the beautiful part when you slow down and really think about it) is that no one can tell you which boundaries you need to have. At the end of the day, you’re the only one who can know that answer.
Speaking from experience (yes, I looked), there’s no such thing as The Quintessential Boundaries Roadmap book. If there was, somebody would have found it by now, and you wouldn’t be here reading this blog post.
Instead, the reality—as freeing or free-falling as it may be—is that we’re all tasked with determining for ourselves which boundaries we need to have. A boundary that’s right for one person isn’t necessarily right for another and vice versa.
For example, a boundary your sister needs to have with your mom to maintain her mental health may not be the same boundary you need to have with your mom to maintain yours. It’s not that one of you has a “right boundary” and the other has a “wrong boundary.” It’s just that you each need different boundaries. And that’s okay.
The six types of boundaries
Having said this, you don’t need to start completely from scratch, either. Something that helps many of my counseling clients get started with figuring out which boundaries they need to have is knowing the six different types of boundaries. The six types of boundaries are:
What part of your life is being “crossed”? Your feelings are being invalidated? You need an emotional boundary. Your need for downtime is being disregarded? You need a time boundary. To learn more about the six types of boundaries, click here.
How to effectively communicate your boundaries
Like I tell my counseling clients, healthy boundaries are four things: brief, assertive, straightforward, and honest. Let’s take a minute to look at each of these in detail.
I used to write for my high school newspaper. In Newspaper, unlike in AP English, brevity was king. If you were taking your good old time to say something in six words that you could just as easily say in two, cut the excess and say it in two. The same holds true for boundaries.
Instead of a way-too-wordy boundary (that might put the other person to sleep), aim for keeping things short and
to the point. You’re setting a boundary, not giving a speech!
❌ Way-too-wordy boundary: “As hard as this is I’m thinking I’m going to maybe have to tell you as much as I don’t want to that I might not be able to make it to your birthday party.”
✅ Brief boundary: “I won’t be able to make it to your birthday party.”
Both of the above boundaries convey the same overall message—no-can-do on the birthday party—but the second one is so much easier to say and to register.
Healthy boundaries aren’t like a convoluted game of Chutes and Ladders. Up. Down. Over. Down again. Instead, healthy boundaries are simple and to the point.
Here’s the thing: Taking a longer time to communicate your boundary or beating around the bush won’t make your boundary any more comfortable, and these things scream “I’m not sure about this boundary of mine, either!”
❌ All-over-the-place boundary: “I think I might need you to stop talking to me sometimes about your problems that don’t go well with my sister.”
✅ Straightforward boundary: “I need you to stop talking to me about your problems with my sister.”
Like Brené Brown says, “Clear is kind.” Will there be some people who think you’re being “rude” or “mean” just for giving your straightforward boundary (especially if you identify as a woman)? Absolutely. Are you actually being “rude” or “mean” in doing so? Absolutely not.
The tone we use to communicate any given boundary is just as important as the specific words we choose to say. Healthy boundaries aren’t focused on reading the room, compromising, or public opinion. What’s more, healthy boundaries don’t require anyone else’s permission.
Two questions you can ask yourself to check your boundary assertiveness: Am I presenting my boundary as though there’s room for discussion with the other person? Or am I presenting my boundary as something that’s already been decided upon?
❌ Wishy-washy boundary: [said in way that invites conversation or debate]
✅ Assertive boundary: [said in way that communicates “this boundary is not a debate”]
If we all waited for everyone we have boundaries with to agree 100% with our boundaries, then we’d never have any boundaries. Boundaries aren’t a team sport.
When it comes to boundaries, honesty really is the best policy. Don’t wish you could fit your sister in-law’s girls’ weekend into your schedule? Don’t say something fake like, “I so wish I could fit your amazing girls’ weekend into my schedule!”
Remember, your goal isn’t to make the other person feel thrilled or even happy about your boundary. How other people feel about our boundaries won’t always be all sunshine and roses, and that’s not only okay, it’s also to be expected.
❌ Inauthentic boundary: “I’d love to go on a second date with you, but I can’t because I’ll be celebrating my birthday with Billie Eilish in the Bahamas.”
✅ Honest boundary: “I need to decline the date.”
You’ll feel better knowing your boundary was at the very least an honest one. Sometimes the truth isn’t always pleasant, but that doesn’t diminish its value.
3 types of boundary scripts to help you get started
Before we dive in to this final section, I first want to emphasize this: Don’t take the script part too seriously. There’s as many different ways to say a healthy boundary as there are boundaries worth having. Take what works for you and leave the rest.
Boundary Script Type #1: The Boundary Itself
There’s all sorts of ways to say “This is my boundary.” Contrary to popular belief, there are also times when saying nothing at all is the very best way to go about this. All ghosting is not created equal.
Would we insist that a woman has a sit-down for a face-to-face with the man who’s been assaulting her for years so they can go over her boundaries verbally? Absolutely not. That makes zero sense. Her silent boundary isn’t less valid than someone else’s spoken boundary. The same goes for you.
Ways to communicate “This is my boundary”:
“I’m not able to.”
“I can’t make it work.”
“I don’t want to.”
“I need to decline.”
“Now isn’t a good time.”
“I won’t do that.”
“I’m not interested.”
“I can’t do that.”
“That’s not okay with me.”
“I don’t agree.”
“It’s not funny.”
“Don’t do that.”
Boundary Script Type #2: Your Feels*
This one’s entirely optional, thus the *. You certainly don’t owe the other adult any information about how you’re feeling in regards to your boundary with them. Having said that, there will be times when you might want to include this. When that’s the case, you’ve got lots to choose from.
Ways to communicate your boundary feels:
“I hate having to tell you no.”
“I really wish I could join you.”
“Thank you for the kind offer.”
“I’m so bummed out that I have to say no.”
“Having to miss your wedding breaks my heart.”
“I’m sad I can’t come.”
“I wish it worked for me to say yes.”
“This really sucks.”
“It means a lot to me that you thought to ask me.”
“I’m going to miss you.”
Boundary Script Type #3: Your Reason*
Like with your feelings about your boundary, information about your reason(s) for your boundary with another adult is also optional. You certainly don’t owe them this information, but there will be times when giving this information fits the relationship and the situation.
A word of caution: Giving a reason or explanation for your boundary is not the same thing as justifying your boundary. If you find yourself feeling pressured to convince the other person that your boundary is valid, justified, or worth having, this is a red flag worth paying attention to.
It’s one thing to provide the other person with context for your boundary and an entirely different thing to be put on trial for your boundary by the other person. You’re communicating your boundary, not going to court!
Ways to communicate your boundary reason(s):
“I’ll be at work.”
“I can’t stay up that late.”
“I have other plans.”
“When I did this with you in the past, you made fun of me.”
“We don’t know each other well enough yet.”
“Going to that park is a trauma trigger for me.”
“I don’t like talking about that particular topic.”
“I’m not comfortable being around him.”
“I’m not one for loud parties.”
“I can’t financially afford to say yes.”
Putting It All Together
Now the fun part: it’s time to craft your boundary! Using the three Boundary Script Types (1. Boundary, 2. Feels, 3. Reason), simply mix and match to create the overall boundary that works best for you.
Of course you’ll need to have something from #1 since that’s the boundary part (you can’t have a strawberry smoothie without the strawberries), but including anything else in addition to that is entirely up to you. Here’s some examples of healthy boundary combos you could opt for:
“I need to decline. When I did this with you in the past, you made fun of me.”
“I’m so bummed out that I have to say no. Now isn’t a good time. I have other plans.”
“That’s not okay with me.”
“I’m not able to, but it means a lot to me that you thought to ask me.”
Which of these five boundaries is the kindest boundary? All five boundaries are equally kind and equally valid. The wordiest one isn’t better than the wordless one, and the ones that include reasons aren’t better than the ones that don’t. The softer one isn’t better than the more direct ones.
At the end of the day, there’s no one right way to go about having healthy boundaries. What works for one situation won’t necessarily work for another. Remember, the key to healthy boundaries is being your authentic self while also having respect—for others and yourself.
More boundaries resources
Additional MWP blog posts about boundaries:
Our current favorite books about boundaries:
MWP Outside Resources Disclaimer
Here at the Mother Wound Project we love connecting you with more awesome ways to learn and heal beyond just our offerings. If an outside resource we’ve shared helps just one person on their healing journey then that means everything to us.
Having said that, we know we’re not linking to 100% perfect books, articles, videos, podcast episodes, etc. Such things just don’t exist. What we can tell you, however, is that the outside resources we do share are shared because we’ve deemed them to be far more helpful than not. This of course is an ongoing judgement call.
If you find something problematic or hurtful in one of our recommended resources or think we should stop recommending a particular resource please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We greatly value your feedback.
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