3. Trying to get people to admit/own up to something or recognize that the limits are for their own good.
This approach creates a control struggle around autonomy inviting argument, debate and resistance/counter force. It is experienced as emotional force: trying to control how the other person thinks or feels — and can also be humiliating.
4. Saying too much, justifying, over-explaining and being invested in convincing the other person that what you’re saying is reasonable or right.
This approach seems insecure, relinquishes power, diminishes credibility. Allows an opening for opposition or argument. It is associated with needing validation, fear of the other person getting mad, or the misconception that logic works when emotions are at play. Setting limits effectively requires coming from a position of strength (different from dominance/force) — being grounded and emotionally separate from the other person.
5. Being unprepared — including not factoring in what you already know about how things will realistically play out.
This sets up preventable failure. Or having a plan but not consistently doing what you say you’ll do. Sabotages credibility. Also, intermittent reinforcement increases problematic behavior.
Essential ingredients of effective boundary setting:
- Tell the other person what you are going to do, not what they should do. You’re only in control of what you do, but what you do can limit the other person. Think ahead, troubleshooting in advance to anticipate predictable resistance/reactions — incorporating this information into your plan.
- Be firm but dispassionate, clear and concise both when boundaries are established and when enforcing. Introduce limits at neutral times and then calmly, without fanfare, in the relevant moment. No tone, no struggle, no explaining. Minimal effort. Effective consequences stand on their own.
- Make it about you and your limits — NOT about them or what’s best for them. Stay in your own lane. This works because it’s argument-proof and can’t be refuted.
- Offer up that you could be wrong. Being “objectively” correct isn’t related to success here. Making it about your opinion or simply what you’re comfortable with or not puts you in charge without imposing anything. Allowing the other person to hold onto their viewpoint prevents a control struggle and is respectful. Easy.
Examples of effective and ineffective limit setting:
1. Your teen wants to go to an unsupervised party.
Teen: (mad) “It’s ridiculous — I’m 16, why do you have to know who I’m with always? I’m not doing anything wrong. You obviously don’t trust me.”
Mom: “I do trust you. But I don’t know what your friends are up to.” (Engaging and trying to convince.)
Teen: “Oh so you don’t trust my friends either.” (eye roll).
An extended debate ensues.
Mom: “As a parent I have to respect what I’m comfortable with, right or wrong, I’m just not comfortable with you going to an unsupervised party.”
Teen: “Why do you have to be so paranoid?”
Mom: “Maybe I do worry too much/am old fashioned but, as a parent, I have to do what I think is right in good conscience/can live with.”
2. You spouse, teen, or anyone sounds irritated upon contact:
Parent or spouse approaches Cody…
Cody: “WHAAAAAT…” (irritated, annoyed)
Parent or spouse: ”Why are you always so disrespectful/in a bad mood? I’m pretty nice to you. You don’t hear me answering like that.” Argument ensues. (Guilt trip, provocative)
“Forget it, I’m not going to tell you.” Cold shoulder. (Passive-aggressive, creates ongoing tension, negative vibe continues longer.)
(Neutral tone) “Oh sounds like you’re in a bad mood/having a bad day. Text me later when you’re around and it’s a better time.” Walk out/hang up.
3. Finding yourself pulled into a deteriorating conversation with your partner:
“Why are you always yelling?”
“Stop talking, I can’t take it.”
“Why are you denying being mad?”
Walks out — without saying anything. (Provocative, passive-aggressive)
“I’m taking a break from this conversation. We can continue later.” Calmly walk out. (Trusts instincts and avoids engaging but provides reassurance that you’re not bailing or abandoning.)
“I’m not comfortable talking now. I’ll come back/Let me know later when you want to connect.”
4. Co-worker who asks for help a lot or engages you in unwanted conversation:
Co-worker: “Hey — I got this email …”
Linda: (Engaging but being unfriendly, not saying much.) “Hmmm…” (Too indirect, still depleting, doesn’t solve the problem.)
Linda: “I’m on deadline right now.” or “I don’t feel well today.”
Co-worker: “Oh that’s ok, can you help me afterwards tomorrow?”
“I’m at my capacity limit and need to focus my time/energy on my own work.”
“I can’t really concentrate in these conversations because I’m distracted by having to do my work.”
“I’m not going to respond anymore because I have to concentrate on my work.”
“Sorry — can’t help. I need to focus on/spend all my time on my own work from now on.”
5. Intrusive or needy family member/relative/friend who thinks you’re on call.
Calling or texting repeatedly, the intrusive person asks, “Why aren’t you answering my texts/calls???”
Sam: “I’m busy.”
Intrusive person: “Where were you before?”
Sam: “At the gym.”
Intrusive person: “Oh so I guess you have time to exercise then.”
Sam: “Well I need to be healthy…”
Intrusive person: “Well so do I but….”
“When I don’t answer just know it means I’ll get back to you when I can.”
“I’m limiting screen time, text, email, phone so it may take a while for me to get back.”
“I’m actually off my phone at work now so I won’t be responding then.”
Boundary setting is challenging. Most people have difficulty and, without a strategy, resort to repeating the same tactic when unsuccessful, trying harder, or giving in. Another common obstacle is feeling it’s mean or selfish to set limits, but it’s actually hurtful not to. Boundaries protect relationships — allowing us to put our own oxygen mask on first, rather than be disingenuous, set ourselves up to become resentful, and then want to escape. With the tools to be successful, you can now take charge.