Managing Boundaries

Managing Boundaries

Managing appropriate boundaries is taking appropriate action with others when we reach our limit of what is or isn't acceptable. Many of us had poor modelling on how to set appropriate boundaries by our parents and other significant role models. It may be that our boundaries were not respected when we grew up and learned how to be in the world. There are normally very good reasons why we have ended up struggling to manage our boundaries appropriately. 

Defence mechanisms

Most of us are familar with the term "Fight or Flight". According to Pete Walker, there are four responses we may revert to when we perceive threat; Fight, Flight, Freeze and Fawn (aka people pleasing). All of these responses are helpful and appropriate in certain situations. However we may have a tendency to revert to one or two of these as a default, even when they are not appropriate to the situation. 


The purpose of this response is to mobilise ourselves to set an appropriate boundary in an appropriate manner. Being assertive is the healthy way. We are rarely confronted with a life or death situation what would necessitate striking out or yelling, unless our physical safety was actually at risk. However some of us revert to Fight mode out of habit. As a young child this may have been the most successful of the Fs, or maybe we regularly witnessed a parent or sibling regularly utilising inappropriate anger. 


The purpose of this response is when removing ourselves from the situation is more likely to result in survival than putting up a fight. If we are escaping a physical threat then this might be the best way forwards, however running away from someone with whom we have an intimate relationship might jeopardise the integrity of the relationship and be perceived by another as abandonment. Sometimes it is wiser to remove ourself from a situation but this is less likely to be healthy unless we have the frontal lobe (strategic thinking part of the brain) involved in that decision making process. For example; we might need some space to process some difficult feelings that have arisen. Storming out then stonewalling the other person is not healthy. Explaining that we are feeling overwhelmed and need to take some time out before returning to try to resolve is healthy.


If we are unable to fight or flee from the situation then freezing can be a useful strategy for mammals in danger. "If I don't move, then maybe I won't be seen", as in a rabbit in the headlights. This might be useful if we are too defenceless to put up a fight, or unable to escape the situation, or where not reacting minimises the impact of the stressor. If we regularly go into Freeze mode then setting boundaries may well be impossible. I would suggest that this might require therapy to shift that tendency.


People pleasing as a defence might seem innocuous and even an endearing quality, however people pleasing can lead to people being in a codependent relationships. Even outside of a co-dependency, it takes away the choice from the other person. Most healthy people care about the impact they have on another and if we, through our fear of conflict, are unable to communicate when we are unhappy about something then this will lead to unhealthy patterns of communication. Either we end up completely quashing our own needs or we sit on our resentment until it bursts through as a disproportionate response somewhere down the line. In can also fuel a tendency towards passive aggressive behaviour.

Managing boundaries

It is important to note that we usually are not consciously selecting these defence strategies. The subconscious part of the brain is automatically selecting what it has previously learnt is likely to lead to the safest outcome. Therefore, most of these patterns of response are laid down in childhood as blueprints for how to manage  (or not) conflict in our relationships. 

When it comes to managing boundaries; the main issue I work on with my clients is their tendency to people please. Putting others needs before our own can seem a very noble thing to do, however it is often fear driven rather than a selfless strategy. It can lead to being taken advantage of, and it can interfere with the functioning of a healthy, reciprocal relationship. It models unhealthy patterns to our children. In couples work I look at the difference between conflict tendencies; it's common to find a Fight type with a Flight type and the respective differing needs can lead to rapid escalation. In the workplace it can lead to being unable to say no and possibly burn out.


It is possible to assert our needs without resorting to our fear responses. It requires overriding what has for years come naturally and pushing ourselves out of the comfort zone of the familiar. The subsequent learning, that the world doesn't end because we asserted our needs in a healthier way, can lead to a much healthier relationship with ourselves and others.


Culturally we aren't great when it comes to communicating our needs. We tend to find it difficult to own our feelings and use subjective and impressionistic language which obfuscates the conveying of what we really need. There are tools to help structure these difficult conversations. I am a huge fan of Marshall Rosenberg's Nonviolent Communication. Whilst it can feel very clunky and unnatural it really does assist in setting appropriate boundaries with less drama or contention whether in personal relationships or in the workplace. It provides a scaffolding for those of us who were not modelled appropriate communication skills around the management of our boundaries.

Further reading

I hugely rate this book and have recommend it to many clients. Do not be put off by the title; anyone who has ever had a struggle to assert their needs at any time would benefit from reading it. It is very simple but the way I look at it, it's almost as if we are teaching the child in us that it's okay to have needs, seeing as it was us as a child that learned these now unhelpful responses. So simple is sometimes more powerful.

Relationship with self

This is pivotal to boundary setting. If there is zero motivation to assert ones own needs then I suggest that the underlying causes of that may need to be addressed. I don't try and get my clients to be "more selfish"; I aim to get them to be fair. Being fair means bringing ones own needs alongside everyone else's. Nothing more. Most people I work with value fairness so when we look at it that way, it needn't be such a stretch.

Coaching can help us change our behaviours around managing boundaries in our work and our personal relationships. A coaching framework can work brilliantly for shifting unhelpful patterns by educating, sharing tools and setting goals; forging a new, healthy comfort zone.