Boundaries for People who Struggle with Boundaries

Pulitzer prizewinning author and racial civil rights activist Alice Walker has been quoted as reminding us that “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any”.

Maybe some of you can relate with me when I say that I haven’t always felt I was in a place of power. I haven’t always known how to take care of my own energy and maintain my own emotional space as purely mine. Without taking on emotional weight that isn’t mine to bear.

I used to constantly worry about managing how other people felt; I worried about how they might react to me – on ANYTHING. It was a constant burden to manage my tone, manage my thoughts, to internalize everything and rarely ever just speak my truth (even though my truth wasn’t that scary…and I’m talking about everything – from my tone in how I would order a coffee to taking on the full burden of how all relationships were going).

If this sounds completely foreign to you, then I’m genuinely happy for you (we need more empowered people like you around!), and I encourage you to stick around and read this post for the sake of understanding the other proportion of the population that does totally relate.

In this post I’ll share some of my personal experience, walk you through a visualization exercise, and then I’ll suggest a framework you can use to enhance your use of healthy boundaries. TL;DR types – read the “Walking through an exercise together” section first before jumping to TL;DR.

My personal experience

I didn’t grow up learning that I deserved to have any boundaries. This is common for child abuse survivors, because those kids learn that no part of themselves is privy to being respected. I was no exception. I learned that boundaries did not apply to me and that the weight of everything that happened to me—and to those most close to me—was dependent on me and was my full responsibility. Not accurate and not healthy, and I didn’t know any different.

But this same issue of boundaries also applies to people who are inherently empathic or otherwise “tuned in” or highly sensitive to other people and their emotions and energies. Unless a naturally empathic person has been raised with guidance on how to choose when to tune into others and how to maintain their own space within themselves, they also become overburdened with others’ emotions. This happened to be a double-whammy for me, since I’ve also always been naturally highly empathic.

As an adult, I never came across as if I lacked confidence, particularly in any workplace. I couldn’t afford to. I’ve always been a doggedly strong soul, determined to overcome obstacles. But internally, I felt like a second-guessing mess. All. The. Time. I’d rehash everything over and over in my mind. I’d hold back at work. I’d be relentlessly merciless on myself.

Holding back on sharing my thoughts or asking questions for fear of sounding like an idiot. Berating myself harshly for missing something, not thinking of something, or otherwise not being perfect. On the odd occasion that I’d reached an internal limit and didn’t hold back, I’d instead end up crying. Which I hated doing at work because it would be perceived as “emotional” or unprofessional or not in control. So I’d resume my restraint and self-censure.

My actual work delivery was excellent, and people knew I was reliable, hardworking, and smart. But was all the rehashing and second-guessing and self-imposed constraint serving my contentment with my career? Definitely not. Was it serving my health and overall happiness? Not at all. I could change industry and workplace and work environment, but my experience would be the same. I’d be unhappy, exhausted, and underappreciated.

The same thing would apply to personal relationships. You can change the environment and context, but if your approach within yourself is the same, the pattern will repeat across these tiles of your life. It doesn’t have to stay like this. That’s where boundaries come in.

Walking through an exercise together

Note: Even if you’re not sure how visualization works for you, just see what it feels like internally to read through this.  

Imagine you’re standing on a beach (or a desert), surrounded by sand. Now grab a stick that you see lying nearby, and draw a circle (or other shape!) around you in the sand, so that you’re in the middle of the shape. Make sure there’s enough space around you in the shape so that you can move around comfortably. This is your space. The outline of the shape is your boundary.

Now you see someone is walking toward you. The person approaches and speaks to you, standing outside your shape. How does that feel? Is the shape the right size? Redraw the shape to be the right size if you need, so you can stand in the middle of the shape, feel comfortable with where the person is standing, and still be able to interact with them clearly.

This detail of interaction is important. There’s a difference between a boundary and a barrier. A boundary is an agreement you make with yourself to have the space you need to be yourself, to be well and to be respected, but not cut off from interaction.

Let’s think a bit more about this distinction. Say the person steps inside your shape. Uh oh! They just stepped inside your boundary! Take a moment to notice how this feels for you. You have the option of doing nothing and letting them run amok inside your shape. They’re messing up the sand, they’re in your face, you can’t just move around and maintain your own space. Maybe it doesn’t seem so bad…maybe they’re a generally nice person…

And then another person shows up and they step into your shape as well. And then another. Now how does it feel? What happens if more people show up and step into your shape? This isn’t good.

You may be thinking, wouldn’t it just be easier to make my shape enormous so it takes up the entire beach? Or even better, maybe I should just build a barricade so no one can even get into my shape! It’s true, one of the advantages of putting up a barrier is that no one can ever get to you. But that’s also the biggest downfall; a barrier doesn’t just keep people away, it also isolates you entirely.

With a boundary, you can decide you want to walk to a different part of the beach or desert and redraw your shape around you at any given time. You can make your boundary a bit wider or a bit smaller based on who the person is. With a barricade, you’ve walled yourself in and now you’re stuck. And who knows what’s on the other side of that barricade now. It’s increasingly scary to leave it.

Barriers feed inertia. Boundaries allow for possibility.

So now what?

Okay, let’s take a breather and go back to when it was just you in your shape. Phew! That feels better. Now let’s say the first person shows up again and stands just outside your shape. You already redrew the shape to be a size that you’re comfortable with. Now the person steps inside your shape. This time, you walk up to the person, no matter how nice they are, and you point out the shape in the sand and ask them to step back out of it. And they do. Now you have your shape back and they’re more mindful of where the shape is in the sand.

Far easier said in a metaphor than done, right?

So how do you do this in real life, when you’re hard on yourself and other people have expectations, when you have all these responsibilities, and it’s not always so clear as a drawn shape in the sand?

The first step is getting to know what size that shape should be. What is your boundary?

If you’ve never really had one, it’ll take some time to figure this out.

How to do this:

  • Remember how I asked you how it felt when you drew that shape the first time? And then when you redrew the shape to be more comfortable, and then when the person and all the other people stepped into your shape?
    • Your unconscious mind knows where your comfortable boundaries are.
    • So as you interact with people in your life, as you go about your workday, notice how it feels internally. Notice when it feels like someone is stepping inside your shape.
    • Make a mental note of it, and keep feeling into it.

The second step is learning to approach the person who stepped inside your shape

How you approach someone who oversteps a boundary takes courage and practice. It will probably feel terrifying and/or completely foreign at first.

Here’s my advice on how to start thinking about approaching people who have overstepped a boundary:

  • Initially, don’t worry about reacting right away. Take your time, step away from the situation and think of the key things you’ll say to the person (yes, you will need to talk to them).
  • Do some grounding, some square breathing, bring yourself fully back into your present.
  • When you do speak with the person, I suggest addressing the specific situation that happened, and not the overall behaviour of the other person. I suggest not making it about them, or about you. Keep things factual and provide a solution.

The third step is to keep doing these steps! Be persistent

You can do this. You don’t have to get it perfect the first time, or second time or anytime soon.

As the adage goes, you would never, ever reprimand a toddler for falling over as s/he learns to walk, would you?? Of course not!! So absolutely no self-punishment as you learn to approach the people who step inside your boundary. Less self-punishment, more self-encouragement.

The more you practice this, and in more situations, the easier it will become. Eventually you’ll find that you rarely need to point out the shape in the sand, because you will carry yourself with the confidence that the shape is yours, and you know you can maintain that space.

Troubleshooting boundary creation and maintenance

Should I have a boundary for everyone? Maybe I don’t need a boundary with some people.

There’s a difference between a boundary and having your guard up. You can have intimate platonic, familial or romantic relationships where you allow people to be close to you.

But you always need a boundary. There should always be some uncrossable lines, because frankly, there are. No one has the right to murder you, right? Doesn’t matter who they are. Allowing a loved one to overstep healthy boundaries will have the very same impacts to your well-being as allowing anyone else into your shape. Boundaries are healthy and you can still have intimate relationships and have boundaries.

It doesn’t feel very nice to point out a boundary. I don’t want to be rude.

Pointing out boundaries can be done in a friendly, professional and/or loving way. Having boundaries doesn’t mean you’re not nice. The two are not mutually exclusive.

In fact, amazing people who have energy and emotional availability to keep giving of themselves are the very people who are great at setting boundaries, because they’re not constantly depleted or overrun by others. It’s an investment in yourself.

It’s going to feel awkward at first. You may put your foot in your mouth a few times at the beginning. It will not feel natural at first. Keep bringing yourself back to thinking about the sand exercise we did together, ground yourself and persist.

It doesn’t feel like me at all to be direct to someone! I would rather just withdraw.

Withdrawal is a choice like any other; here are a couple things to keep in mind.

Withdrawing doesn’t mean any boundaries are respected. In fact, withdrawing tells people that you have no boundaries and they can do whatever they want because you won’t do anything about it.

Withdrawing feeds a vicious cycle of learned helplessness. Unless you’re in prison (which most of you likely are not), you have a choice every day. As a friend once aptly said to me, “People treat you how you let them.”

I’m not here to persuade you to have boundaries. Your happiness/contentment/self-respect is a very personal choice, and it has to come from you. These are all just ideas and it’s up to you to adopt the choices that will best serve your well-being.

You didn’t really give me specific things to say to people to tell them I have a boundary. Why not? I don’t even know where to start.

True, I didn’t give you specific things to say, though the framework I shared (Step 2) has worked well for me. The creation of a boundary has to come from you.

If you start or already have a regular meditation practice, you’ll find it’s much easier (yes, easier) to learn how to create and maintain boundaries.

Why would meditation have any effect on boundaries?

Meditation does a couple of key things that help with boundaries.

Firstly, meditation develops your body-mind connection muscle so that you increase your awareness of thoughts and other sensed information. This increased awareness means that you’ll have a far easier time with Step 1. You’ll be better attuned to when someone respects you, when someone oversteps, and how it all affects you.

Secondly, meditation enhances your ability to observe something happening without immediately getting caught up in the spin cycle. With meditation, you’ll find you’re able to observe that someone is overstepping without your being pulled into a state of either withdrawal or defensiveness.

But do I have to meditate in order to have better boundaries?

You don’t need to meditate. In fact, I suggest a shift in thinking toward what you choose to do, in general. You can choose to learn how to create and maintain boundaries. You can choose to do other things like meditate that improve your ability to do that. It’s all just choices.

Where I learned how to create boundaries

My friend’s point a few years ago that “People treat you how you let them.” really hit home for me, and I was ready to hear it.

A regular meditation practice supported my awareness of my then-underdeveloped boundaries.

A desire to have a happier, healthier life served as my motivation to push myself when it felt terrifying to do Steps 1 and 2.


A few helpful resources are below. I’m not being compensated to refer to these; use what is helpful for you.

  • There’s a great article on MindBodyGreen (a wellness website) 
  • Chakras: Awakening and Healing the Energy Body by Anodea Judith


Boundaries provide comfortable space that allow you to be your best, healthy self, fully respected, while they also allow the opportunity for new possibilities in your life. Barriers create inertia and isolation.

If you haven’t already, go back and read the visualization exercise (“Walking through an exercise together”). If you’re serious about learning how to create boundaries, it will serve you to walk through it.

Process to help you start figuring out how to create and maintain your boundaries:

  • Step 1: As you go about your day, notice how it feels internally as you interact with people. Notice how it feels when someone oversteps/invalidates. Notice how it feels when someone respects/supports.
  • Step 2: Decide how to approach someone who oversteps. Ground yourself before talking to them. I suggest addressing the specific situation that happened, and not the overall behaviour of the other person. I suggest not making it about them, or about you. Keep things factual and provide a solution.
  • Step 3: Be persistent. You can do this. You don’t have to get it perfect the first time, or second time or anytime soon. You would never, ever berate a toddler for falling over as s/he learns to walk, would you?? Of course not. So absolutely no self-punishment as you learn to approach the people who step inside your boundary. Less self-punishment, more self-encouragement. It’ll get easier the more you practice.

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