How to Set Personal Boundaries

Lori McIssac Bewsher

personal boundaries, setting boundaries, self-care, relationships, mental health, counselling, therapy

Setting personal boundaries is a familiar topic in counselling sessions. Whether it is with a partner, friend, colleague, or extended family member, relationships often become strained when we feel our own needs are being neglected to meet the needs of others.

Consider the following scenario:

Cindy is exhausted. In addition to working full-time and parenting three young children, she has found herself in an emotional battle with her siblings regarding the care of their elderly mother.

To care for their mother, Cindy and her two older siblings have been taking turns doing daily visits to help with medication, meals, and occasional outings. Cindy has expressed numerous times that this arrangement is not working for her. With her children’s busy schedule and the extra hours she’s had to put in at work, she is nearing her breaking point. She wants to hire caregivers to support their mother. Her siblings disagree and are insisting that Cindy continue her rotation as their mother does not want “strangers” coming into her home. Cindy feels overwhelmed and that she has no choice but to figure out how to make the arrangement work.

How can Cindy navigate this situation while also setting healthy personal boundaries?

What is a boundary?

Just the word boundary can conjure up differences in perceptions and understandings of what setting boundaries actually means. When you think of a boundary, what image comes to mind? Is it a solid brick wall or more like a line in the sand?

If your personal boundaries are too rigid, you risk losing positive connections and opportunities for relationship growth. If you have been mistreated or experienced abuse in the past, you may automatically create firm boundaries in response to a perceived or actual threat to your well-being.

Boundaries can also become too loose, especially if your trust has been violated repeatedly or if you have unmet needs from the past. Sometimes looser boundaries occur when we are seeking to repair hurts from our past and feel compelled to do whatever is asked of us in our current relationships.

Setting personal boundaries may be uncomfortable at times, but they are necessary for maintaining healthy relationships.

What is a healthy boundary?

A healthy boundary acts as barrier that is neither too rigid nor too lose. It provides more of a gentle partition between our needs and the needs of others. Healthy boundaries let us know when we should create some space so our needs can be filtered and responded to appropriately.

Does a particular situation or relationship require a firmer boundary like a brick wall? Or can the partition be lifted and adjustments made so the relationship can be maintained without compromising our own well-being?

In Cindy’s case, she is experiencing symptoms that indicate she is nearing a “breaking point.” Her internal alarm system is telling her she needs to make a change. Her siblings have made her feel that she has no choice but to go along with what they need from her. Cindy is then left trying to balance her roles and responsibilities as a mother, employee, and daughter without compromising herself.

With support and guidance, Cindy can safely explore her priorities and make decisions that are consistent with her own values. She can also learn how to manage her sibling relationships without losing herself in the process.

Setting Boundaries as a Loving Act

When our children are young, we routinely set boundaries for their physical safety. In doing so, we teach them the parameters of where they can explore, and we take care to gradually increase these limits as they become more independent. We teach children how to make decisions to protect themselves while also allowing them to be curious about their expanded surroundings. This is a skill that will continue to be of value as they learn to take their place in the world.

If we do not set personal boundaries for ourselves, we do not learn how to keep the space around us safe.

Have you ever spent hours on the phone with a loved one who is complaining about someone else and you end up wishing you never picked up the phone? What stopped you from ending the telephone call? We are often more concerned about jeopardizing our relationships or hurting the feelings of others so we sacrifice our time or emotional energy to avoid this. However, left untended, this type of scenario is likely to lead to avoidance or resentment that will jeopardize the relationship even further.

If we do not set personal boundaries for ourselves, we do not learn how to keep the space around us safe.

Verbalize Your Concern & Intention

Personal boundaries teach others how we want to be treated. When we are able to communicate our needs in a way that is clear and direct, we can feel confident that we are treating the other person fairly even if they do not agree with our decisions. It is important that our intentions are consistent with our values and are reflective of our personal needs as well.

In our example, Cindy is struggling to set boundaries in several areas of her life which does not leave her with much time for herself. Cindy may need to take a closer look at these relationships and decide how she can best divide her time and offer her intentions in a way that is clear to her siblings. By choosing to better balance her time and relationships, Cindy will be able to manage these expectations rather than simply responding to the demands of others.

Setting personal boundaries may be uncomfortable at times, but they are necessary for maintaining healthy relationships. It is important to remember that by setting a boundary you are living within your values and are able to consistently communicate your wants and needs in a healthy way.


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Author: Lori McIsaac Bewsher (MSW, RSW)
Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

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