Boundaries: The Essential Guide

Boundaries are the lines we don’t want others to cross. When someone brushes against our boundaries, we often feel uncomfortable, angry, or afraid. How we feel is in large part related to whether we’ve identified the boundary previously as well as whether or not we’ve communicated that boundary.

Everyone has dozens or more boundaries for each person in their life, including their partners, coworkers, and the teller at the grocery store. When you clearly know what your boundaries are, then you’re able to clearly communicate those boundaries to others.

Boundaries are not the same as rules. Rules are things we make up to protect our boundaries. This is why it’s so important to understand your own boundaries and why they’re important to you. Through this knowledge you’ll be better prepared to create a life and relationships filled with respect and connection.

Clear boundaries let others know what to expect. They also tell you what to expect. 

Often we don’t establish good boundaries because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, aren’t comfortable dealing with what we perceive to be a confrontation, or (more often in my experience) we don’t even know how to define our boundary. When this happens we risk falling into the anger, yelling, blame, shame spiral. We feel horrible, those around us feel horrible, but worse, they have no idea why we reacted the way we did. So they continue to push our boundaries over and over again. Which quickly leads to resentment.

When we don’t set clear boundaries about what we’ll accept from others and what they can expect from us, we instead send a different message. Those around us do learn a boundary, but it’s often not the one we want. And if others maintain that boundary, it’s done in resentment. Connection is broken and relationships fray.

This is true whether in work, at home, or in any other situation.

Identify Your Boundaries

Having clearly defined expectations allows you to see clearly if someone is approaching your boundary.

Triggers show you where to place your boundary. If you know you often become frustrated or angry in a specific situation, then you know somewhere in there is a boundary you haven’t communicated. A boundary that’s getting crossed time and again.

During a quiet moment, take time to reflect on the situation and explore when you began to feel tense. Specifically what was happening? If you could wave a magic wand and re-live the situation without your boundary being crossed, what would it look like? How would you respond differently in that situation?

  • Notice times you feel tense or angry
  • Identify the specific trigger in the situation
  • Define what you’d prefer the situation to look like with your boundary intact

What are some of the ways you could change the way you respond so that others would clearly know what your expectations are in that situation?

Be aware, maintaining your boundary means you don’t cross it either. If you know something triggers you, don’t place yourself in a situation where being triggered is likely. For instance, if you’re preping for a party and need your house clean, then don’t allow your children to play outside unsupervised on a rainy day (or have a plan to deal with the mud before you agree to let them outside).

Not crossing your own boundary also means that if you have a particular boundary that you don’t want crossed, then you shouldn’t cross it for/on someone else. Crossing your own boundary in the opposite direction sends very mixed messages and can make it a lot more difficult for others to respect our boundary.

The exception to this is if you and older children or adults have clearly communicated with the other person and you both agree that it’s okay. Communication is really such a powerful tool.

Maintain Your Boundary

In order to maintain your boundary you need to know what it looks like and where it is in the first place. As mentioned above, one way to define boundaries is to work backward from your trigger points. A different method is to determine what’s important to you and work from there to create boundaries that encourage those values while discouraging situations that would undermine those values.

If you value open communication and connection, then someone who sends a short email saying, “I need this done by 4” without checking in with you could feel frustrating. You may feel angry and unvalued.

This could be handled by walking over to the person’s office (or calling them if you’re not in the same building) and talking to them.


You: Hey, how’re you doing?

Them: I’m so busy. I just had these reports dumped on me and I need to be out of here by 5!

You: Wow, that sounds like a lot. I think I understand the situation better and can understand how you might feel right now.

Them: Yeah. It sucks. I have to be out of here and they didn’t even check in with me first. I really need this all done so I can leave on time.

You: I get that. When I received your email, I felt so frustrated that you hadn’t checked in with me first.

Them: Oh.

You: I understand how this could have happened, you’re normally so contentious in your communication so I wanted to stop by and see what was going on.

Them: I’m sorry. I was so focused on this mess that I didn’t think and passed it on to you.

You: I understand. I’ll do my best to get this done for you, but I also have extra work today so can’t make promises.

Them: I understand. Thank you.

You: You’re welcome. Next time I’d appreciate if you let me know what’s going on. It’ll make it easier to brain storm ways to make this better and allow us to meet these deadlines.

Them: Yes, I’m sorry I didn’t check with you first.

Once you know what you you really want, then you can create a boundary that’s easy to communicate with others. I’ve found that when we’re not clear in what we expect, we often feel resentful or angry when someone approaches our boundary.

Once you’ve clearly communicated your expectation to others, then you can let go of resentment and anger because you know you’ve done your best and the boundary pushing is about the other person not you.

A Boundary Can Only Be Changed By the Person Who Makes it

If someone pushes and pushes against your rule, they aren’t changing where your boundary lies. If they break your rule, they still haven’t changed your boundary. The only person who can make those changes is you.

It’s up to you to decide if you want to change your boundary, or if you want to reinforce that this is your line and you don’t want someone to cross it.

If you want to reinforce the boundary you can re-state it along with possible consequences and a way to move forward.

Maybe you want to rethink the boundary. For instance, if I’ve been working full-time hours for more than a day or two, my children would not be able to respect my rule to stay out of our shared office space while I’m working. I would need to either stop working or readjust my rule so I could meet the needs of my family and business at the same time.

At work a boundary might include all communication needs to remain respectful and disciplinary discussions need to be done in private. Maybe you also want warning about the discussion so you have time to prepare.

Boundaries or Walls

A boundary is a rule, a line. It isn’t a wall to hide behind. They are not designed to keep others out, but rather used to strengthen relationships. Like the Robert Frost poem, Mending Wall “Good fences make good neighbours.”

Healthy boundaries lead to a more fulfilled life; they do not restrict friendships, relationships, or the way you live your life.

Boundaries are a definition of who you are and what you hold important.

Walls block people out or use over-sharing as a way to prevent others from knowing you well. In parenting, building walls might look like assuming your child is trying to be bad, so you shut them out instead of seeing things from their point of view. Building walls may look like asking your child to join you when you want them to, but refusing when they ask you to join them. Building walls cuts people out and prevents deeper relationships from developing.

At work a wall may look like you insisting everyone in the office does things your way and runs it by you first. This may include accusations that the other person isn’t listening to your suggestions when you’re not part of the team involved.

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Unhealthy and Healthy Boundaries

When you don’t protect your boundary, you often feel unhappy, angry, alone. The more this happens the harder it can be to define and maintain your boundaries.

Unhealthy boundaries include taking responsibility for someone else’s feelings. This is often seen when a someone is unhappy or angry and the other person tries to make them happy again. Both people end up frustrated and the situation often gets worse. In adult relationships, including at work, when someone is used to others trying to make them happy, then they expect everyone to make them happy.

A healthy boundary is to stop.

A healthy boundary recognizes that you are responsible for your own emotions, and only your own. It is not your job to make someone else happy. You can help them process their emotion, but it is up to them how long they’re unhappy.

Another unhealthy boundary is when you absorb the feelings of the other person. For instance your colleague becomes angry about something, and soon you’re angry also and nothing gets done or the work continues with under currents or accusations of hostility.

A healthy boundary allows you to value your own emotions as separate from other people. Your colleague can be angry or sad about something, and you can view their situation with curiosity, without taking on their emotion.

An unhealthy boundary is when you take on someone else’s problems as your own.

For instance, your co-worker missed a deadline and is upset. There are so many ways to approach the situation, but if you take responsibility for either helping them finish or pushing to make the next deadline, then you cross both your own personal boundary as well as their less defined boundaries. It’s perfectly okay to guide them to figuring out how to do better next time, but then leave it to them to take action.


You: That really sucks. I missed a deadline once and felt horrible. Do you want to talk about it?

Them: I’m just so frustrated. I thought I’d have lots of time but I messed up.

You: You thought you’d have lots of time?

Them: Yeah. I had daily deadlines to keep on track. But then I took on the extra work Jane handed me and things went sideways.

You: Oh that sounds so frustrating!

Them: Yeah it really is! Next time I won’t take on someone else work until I’m finished my own.

You: It sounds like you’re pretty clear on what happened and how to prevent it in the future?

Them: Yeah, I think I am. Thanks for talking about it.

A healthy boundary is recognizing how to offer support vs taking on the problem as your own.


Boundaries are meant to be flexible, to work with you and for you. They’re based on your values and help you create stronger relationships with friends, family, and coworkers.

You can tell when you aren’t maintaining your boundaries by how you feel around certain people. Most of the time maintaining healthy boundaries requires clear communication and that’s it. Sometimes outside mediation is needed.

I help people define boundaries to create stronger communities and relationships. If you’re interested in working with me, please schedule a free 30 minute consultation and we can discuss your goals to determine if we’re a good fit for each other.


For over a decade Sarah Langner has helped women connect with their families. As a Connection Coach she helps women strengthen the relationships that matter to them so they can live happier, more fulfilled lives.

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