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Crash Course on Boundary Setting


One of the most talked about topics in therapy is boundary setting. If you grew up in a family with appropriate boundaries in which people knew where they ended emotionally and others began, you probably have no problem with them. You do what family members modeled, it feels natural saying yes and no as appropriate, and you choose to be around people with healthy boundaries.

If your parents and relatives exhibited poor boundaries—prying into each others’ business, taking advantage of each other, always saying yes and never saying no or vice versa, and being bossy—you likely have problems with them too. Not to worry: this is a learnable skill that requires paying attention, having courage, knowing what to say when, and practicing until they trip off your tongue easily.

When someone violates your boundaries, you might instinctively: 

  • Explain what someone is doing wrong or point out they’re not listening to you.
  • Repeat your desire not to talk about a topic or overexplain why you feel that way.
  • Complain they don’t respect you and dredge up old examples to prove it.
  • Tell them you respect their boundaries and ask why they won’t respect yours.
  • Say something mean to hurt them because they’ve hurt you.

Thank goodness for brilliant, syndicated columnist Carolyn Hax who can be read at the Washington Post (and other newspapers) and heard on her Apple podcasts. Here’s her word-for-word, straight-shooter advice when someone brings up something you absolutely don’t want to talk about. Notice how terse and direct it is. 

  • “Via phone: ‘I’ve got to go, talk later,’ click.”
  • “In person: ‘Next topic,” and if someone doesn’t comply, change the subject, and if they [still] don’t comply, leave the room.”
  • “On social media, ignore/delete/hide posts.”
  • “By text, ignore.”

Carolyn’s advice (mine too) is meant to end discussion. It’s to be said in an authoritative tone of voice and a neutral (no smiles to soften your message) facial expression. You want to sound (and look) like you mean business. It might feel weird at first, but you’ll get used to it and so will others. They may be upset, but you’ll be proud!

On a related boundary-setting issue, what happens if you say “no” then change your mind? Read How to Say “No” After Saying “Yes” by Melody Wilding.