Setting Healthy Limits–It Can Be an All-Win!

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Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D. is a seasoned clinician with experience working with adults, couples, families, adolescents and older children since 1976. His aim ...Read More

“Boundaries: Let someone else choose them and they’re restrictions.
Choose them yourself and they’re principles.”
—Author Unknown

Think of limits and boundaries as synonymous or interchangeable, meaning anything that establishes a line of demarcation for what is something and what is another. In relationships a limit is where you establish your personal space from another’s personal space-what is mine and what is yours. Where do you end and I begin? Where do I stop and you start? Like our skin or the borders of a country, boundaries help to differentiate one thing from another. Even what is ours is a mutually agreed upon creation for what is perceived as appropriate, acceptable behavior in relationships for all parties. Some just declare limits to be saying, “No” and meaning it.

Disciplines of every imaginable kind help provide structured limits that enhance the control we have over our behavior. Discipline means a training that develops self-control, character, or orderliness and efficiency. Disciplines come in all varieties: exercise, cleaning, food plans, prayer time, scriptural study, reading, academic study, refining a craft, building a skill, perfecting a sport and the whole range of self- and other- care skills. Each discipline you develop is a key to setting limits by taking greater control of what you do, your actions. The ability to discipline yourself can determine just how much respect you will receive from others.


Boundaries in relationships can be set physically and psychologically. Physical limits include how little or how much personal space you need around you in being with someone, levels of eye contact, amount of time and energy expended, touching and sexual behavior. Psychological limits include tolerance or intolerance for individual differences, feelings, thoughts, beliefs, choices, time alone, confidences and secrets. Where any two individuals set their boundaries is both an individual decision and a couple negotiation. Clearly knowing your values, principles and preferences is critical to be able to draw the lines you feel comfortable.

What’s the point in setting, maintaining and enforcing healthy limits and boundaries? William Golding’s book Lord of the Flies (1954) and Peter Brook’s subsequent 1963 movie provide a scintillating, chilly portrait of what results in a society without rules, laws and authority. This story depicts a band of young boys in their struggle to eke out their survival when stranded on an island. While a conch shell is imbued with the power to speak and be heard, this weak vestige of authority soon expires. The ensuing horrors of anarchy, with accompanying atrocities of cannibalism, violence and random murder, are the inescapable results of a society bereft of conscience.

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Rules bring an ordered structure by delineating acceptable standards of behavior. Although many individualists may complain, act out and flaunt laws, they usually prefer them to the chaos and unpredictable consequences of not having them. The boys in Golding’s island speak up for their preference for adult authority and moral standards of right and wrong, even as they witness the escalating madness that demolishes their world.

Without boundaries our social relationships and society as a whole would degenerate into license, chaos, anarchy and permissiveness. This, of course, has already occurred to some degree given the prevalent lack of limits throughout Western societies. Perhaps that explains the infrequent use of the terms civilization or culture nowadays! Freedom, true freedom, only can occur and only makes sense within a structure, that is, with limits and boundaries.

Given the broad absence of limits in our world, every encounter is another opportunity to check and set limits, with clear consequences for honoring or violating them. It’s refreshing to come across someone who already has excellent limits so you can relax and enjoy the encounter. Limits are a form of structure that preserve responsible, respectful freedom and offer necessary supportive structures for learning and winning. Accomplishing these goals through clear, credible reasoning coupled with assertive, limit-setting behaviors is crucial for a productive, psychologically healthy life.

Limits can be defined by the following six qualities:

  1. Present in your awareness: This is key to set it, change it or let it go.
  2. Protective of all parties: This is important for safety and well being.
  3. Clear and specific: Preciseness with yourself and others is essential.
  4. Fittingly resonate with inner values: It connects with your principles.
  5. Firm and flexible: This sets the firmness or looseness of your limits.
  6. Realistically can be maintained: Be adaptable to maintain realistic limits.

A boundary in relationship encounters is communicating no verbally or in your behavior, and meaning it! When you and I say, “No”, we set a one-word boundary. “NO” is a complete sentence! You and I draw a proverbial line in the sand communicating, “Don’t trespass beyond this point.” If the other person breaks this ground rule you asserted, then you advise him or her of the consequence you will follow through with if they persist in such boundary violations.

A simple format to set and enforce limits is this three-step process:

  1. You or someone else speaks up about a non-adaptive behavior that is violating your boundaries. Three illustrations are calling someone on speaking with their mouth full, stepping on your foot or touching you in unwanted ways.
  2. You state the precise boundaries necessary for continued interaction and relationship. Respectively, the same three examples are making specific requests to only speak when your mouth is not chewing food, immediately get off your foot, and cease and desist in touching you this instant.
  3. You define the consequences that will occur if the boundary continues to be violated. Again, respectively using the same examples, you promise to leave the table to eat privately, physically help the person get off your foot and physically defend yourself and report harassment.

The core to setting effective limits is who sets the limits, when they’re set and to what extent boundaries are set. You set the boundaries, and they are perceived as liberties and felt as pleasing; let someone else set them for you, and they’re perceived as restrictions and experienced as resentments. The longer you wait to set necessary limits, the greater the likelihood someone else will be compelled to institute boundaries for you.

Here’s a useful strategy: you set essential limits and structures fairly early on in order to reap the gains of these desired freedoms and build in safeguards against others needing to set them for you. Take control of your life or someone else will! It’s not about being controlling; it’s about spotting the unset limit, soon acting assertively in setting it and designing what works.

As with all comedy, timing is everything in effectively setting limits. Act too quickly and the other party believes he or she has been rejected or negatively judged, and may develop a suspicious, untrusting attitude. Act too slowly and the other party becomes resistant, persist in asking, “Why?” out of not understanding, and you may become immobilized, especially since a confused animal doesn’t tend to act. Without communicating the threat of condemnation or arbitrariness, you can set limits deliberately out of the need for order combined with practicality.

The crux of the matter with limits is exactly where you draw the line. How firmly or loosely do you ask and insist on your request? Just how firmly or loosely do you refuse and not give in to another’s request? Here’s a five-point scale (adapted from Marsha Linehan) for consciously drawing the line with setting healthy limits and boundaries:

Request firmly, be insistent 5
Refuse firmly, don’t give in
Request firmly, resist no 4
Refuse firmly, resist giving in
Ask, negotiate, counter-offer 3
State unwillingness, counter-offer
Ask tentatively, accept no 2
State hesitancy, give in, and say yes
Don’t ask, acquiesce to no 1 Do what others want automatically

Some situations, people and environments you may choose to lean to one end of this scale or the other for a whole host of considerations. Often it depends on just how invested and important the specific issue is to you. An easy-to-remember handle is to ask yourself, “Just how important is this to me?” Then rate the importance or intensity of the issue on a 1 to 10, with 1 being quite low and 10 being high. The more invested, the higher on the five-point scale you would want to aim in setting limits; the less you are invested, the lower you would aim. The purpose is to consciously set limits, instead of play the waiting game to see if anyone ever does.

Oddly, after setting limits and bearing another’s grumbling, don’t be too surprised if you receive appreciation. After I set limits with my son and the situation was complete, he couldn’t stop hugging and kissing me. I imagine he appreciated my not selling him short. By setting high standards and boundaries, my son knows that I know he could reach higher still. He also knows that I loved him enough to ask for more responsible behavior from him. I suspect this pattern applies to everyone you set limits with. The world may first grumble, and then adores you

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