How Do You Set Boundaries Without Being Mean?

This question comes up a lot. You know where your boundaries are, and you know when someone has crossed them… But how do you tell them that it’s happened without seeming angry? How do you ask them to change their behaviour without causing an argument?

Why is it Hard to Set Boundaries?

I think this is a particularly common challenge for women because, within many western cultures at least, we’ve been socialised to go with the flow rather than rock the boat. Personally, I remember being told that I was ‘bossy’ when I was a kid. I can’t help but wonder what lessons I learned – that I had to be really careful about the ways I expressed my opinions and preferences. That being assertive was not welcome.

Alternatively, perhaps you grew up in a home where there were lots of arguments. Being afraid of conflict at a young age – seeing your parents fighting can be really scary – can lead to fears of conflict as adults too, and you learn to appease and accommodate in all your relationships in order to avoid more arguments.

Whatever the reason, being afraid to assert boundaries can be really damaging. It means avoiding pain in the short term, but by abandoning your needs you’re setting yourself up for exhausting relationships where resentment grows quickly.

So what can you do about this? I want to talk about three possible ways in.

Setting Boundaries Before Breaking Point

Many difficult boundary conversations – you know, the ones that end in tears and emotional responses, feeling that your needs are invalidated because you’re angry and upset – arise because the conversation is simply left too late.

This is the cost of not speaking up as soon as you first notice that something’s up.

And it didn’t really feel like a big deal, did it? It was only a small thing. You tell yourself that maybe it won’t happen again. Maybe you can just ignore it and it’ll go away.

But then it happens again, and again, and every couple of months or so everything builds up into a situation where you can’t stop yourself from speaking up. It’s not a choice any more – you’re at breaking point. The discomfort from That Thing They Keep Doing is greater than the fear of asking for something different.

But the problem is, now you’re upset. You’re angry. You’re emotional. And so the conversation is doomed from the start because you know that your emotional response will lose you credibility. You feel the tears coming and fight them back, out of fear you won’t be taken seriously.

Imagine if you’d have been able to have this conversation right at the start. At the very first inkling. When you weren’t so annoyed. When you could have communicated much more clearly and rationally.

It could have been a very different conversation!

Using Non-Violent Language

First of all, you can look at the language you use. How might you bring up a boundary violation with your partner? How could you ask them to make a change in a way that communicates you’re on the same side, you want the same thing, and that you appreciate their needs too?

Non-violent communication (NVC) has some tools we can use here, and I give one framework in my Ultimate Guide to Setting Boundaries in Relationships post. There are absolutely ways of making clear requests in a non-combative way, which will reduce the chances of triggering defensiveness or aggression in the other person – leading to far more productive negotiations. And don’t be afraid to learn some new skills here. Having difficult conversations is not something most of us were taught in school, but it’s so, so crucial to having healthy relationships.

Exploring Your Relationship with Conflict

The second approach I would suggest is to look at the fear of conflict itself.

Somewhere along the line you learned that conflict wasn’t safe. That it couldn’t co-exist with love and care. Chances are, your desire to avoid conflict points to some areas where you could find some big opportunities for healing some unresolved childhood traumas. And trauma can involve things that felt normal and mundane: growing up in a home where there were lots of arguments, or where you didn’t feel you could express anger without being laughed at or ignored.

This causes problems in adult relationships because disagreement is unavoidable. The only way we can avoid conflict is by ignoring the things we disagree about, and pretending that it’s no big deal. In the long term, this leads to resentment.

So how might it be to be able to experience conflict without feeling fear? Or to experience conflict while still feeling loved? How might your relationships be different if you were able to assert your boundaries, knowing you may risk some conflict, but feeling secure enough in your relationship to be able to handle that?

The first step is to say hello to the fears and emotions that come up for you around conflict. Is there a fear of rejection or abandonment, perhaps? Or something else? It’s important to become more aware of what happens for you in those moments, and gently work with the parts of yourself that feel difficult – rather than trying to suppress or change them.

Journaling and self-reflection can be a great way to start exploring this​.

You could try some of these prompts:

“When I disagree with someone I care about, the thing that stops me speaking up is…”

“My earliest memory of conflict happened when…”

“If I start an argument, the thing I am most scared of happening is…”

“Avoiding arguments protects me from…”

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