The Multiple Levels of Boundaries

Uncategorized Sep 07, 2023

People often ask me about boundaries; they want to know how to set and manage healthy boundaries. Mostly, what they really want to know is how to manage other people. They want to get other people to behave according to their own preferences. 

Well, here’s the thing, GOOD boundaries are not about managing other people. They are about managing yourself. But how do you do that? Boundaries are usually set verbally and then managed physically.

The first level, in healthy boundary setting, is to get really clear about the life you want to live and the person you want to be. I know that may sound strange, but this clarity about your personal vision will automatically help you determine your boundaries. 

For example, let’s pretend you are looking to find a romantic partner and will use some dating websites to attract potential partners. If you post that you are a vegetarian and are against killing animals, some potential partners will automatically eliminate themselves. In a similar way, when you post your religious preferences, or even your sexual preferences (such as no sex till after commitment), these boundaries are about YOU and how you choose to live. You can even be as specific as saying, “I’m a person who likes lots of communication, such as daily texting.” Or, “I picture myself with a loving companion as the two of us have daily dinner discussions about philosophy and politics.” Again, all of these are clear statements about you and how you want to live your life. You are actually setting a boundary. 

Perhaps you are starting to recognize that the way you want to live your life; your boundaries, are based on your values and beliefs, your preferences.

The second level is determining who is responsible for what. Sometimes we mistakenly believe other people are responsible for behaving in a way that makes us happy. No, we are responsible for making ourselves happy. Taking responsibility for creating your own happiness is a form of self-care and self-love. So, look at your life and ask yourself what is missing that could make you happier. Now, ask yourself how you could get more of that. Clearly stating what you want, or don’t want will help you get more of what you want.

Many people hesitate to specify their preferences, believing it will turn some people off. And it’s true! It will tend to repel the very people who will not support you and your lifestyle choices. That’s a good thing! You will gradually attract people who are aligned with your values.

This natural alignment process doesn’t have to be confrontational. The third level of good boundary setting is learning to state your preferences in ways that are non-blameful and not critical of others’ beliefs. For example, you don’t need to say, “I think killing animals is morally indefensible, heartless, and cruel. Instead, as I did above, you might simply say, I am against killing animals.” Your preferences are the basis of your boundaries. As Brene’ Brown says, “boundaries are what is ok or not ok with you.”

So, what about situations where you are already in a relationship, but you were not clear about your preferences before you got into the relationship? How do you now establish some boundaries? Again, it starts with getting clear about the person you want to be and the life you want to live. For many people, it’s possible that before they got into the relationship, you didn’t realize you even had boundaries in some areas, until you ran up against another person’s differences.

So, for level four, within a relationship, it would be most helpful if you could have numerous conversations of curiosity about what each of you value in life. What is the personal vision each of you carries about your best life? For example, a woman may have a high value on having a beautiful home, but her husband may have an equally high value on saving money. He wants to set a boundary about spending, while she feels strongly about the quality of furnishings in their home. You can predict that they will have some conflicts. If each resorts to defensive anger and negates the validity of the other’s position, they will polarize in a desire to prove the other person wrong. 

On the other hand, level five is when they are able to accept and respect each other’s differing values and vision. Now they might be able to work together to set boundaries that satisfy both of them.

By the way, money tends to be a common area where people’s values and preferences differ.

Here's another example, perhaps he has a large and close family, but she is uncomfortable around them, and their “uneducated” ways. He values spending time with them and wants to use the annual vacations to visit his family. But she wants a “cultural” vacation, with trips to NY, the museums, and Broadway shows. In this situation, some people fall into patterns of trying to prove the superior value of their preferences and the shallow reasons for the other’s choices. When they begin arguing, she may want to “set a boundary” about how he speaks to her. (I’ll explain how to do that later.) Their real issue is not about how they are talking, it’s the underlying conflict of their lifestyle visions.

Here's another even more common conflict. One person comes from a family that believes the way to communicate is to argue and defend their position while trying to prove the other person is wrong. While the second person has a high value for calm and peaceful, non-confrontational conversations. This second person may be especially tempted to try to “control” the first person’s style of communication, perhaps by labeling them as mean or bad.

This takes us to level six of boundary setting, beyond clarifying the life you want to live, it will be important to realize that boundaries are not for managing others. Instead, after self-clarification, this level is about self-mastery of your own reactions and behavior.

When someone is speaking to us in ways that feel like an attack, we all get hurt and angry and it’s natural to want to lash out and retaliate. I’m sure you can justify how much the other person deserves a tongue-lashing. But it’s never helpful! It’s always damaging to the relationship. Those angry words create scars on the heart. And no matter how much you apologize, you can never erase the hurtful things you’ve said. Those words are never forgotten, although, with lots of positives, they may eventually be forgiven. So, it’s especially important to manage your own tongue and the things you say. If I could give you one magic skill that would improve all your relationships, it would be this: Never say hurtful things!

So, for healthy boundary management, learn to master your own reactions. Develop the skill of learning how to say what you mean, without being mean. Instead of lashing out, learn to say, “I’m feeling hurt and angry, and I don’t want to contribute negativity to this situation, so I’m going to take some time out and calm myself. When you choose to speak with calm and respectful tones, I’ll be ready to listen.” Then walk away and congratulate yourself for developing some self-mastery! (By the way, you did not control the other person, you gave them a choice.)

Of course, don’t use your time-out to think of all the ways you’re going to get back at them. Yes, you could be sneaky and say snarky things, or be passive-aggressive and pretend you’re being nice, when you’re actually getting in a few jabs. But that’s not going to build your relationship. So, ask yourself, “Do I want to find ways to build this relationship, or do I just want to get even? Or do I actually think there are so many lifestyle conflicts that we may need a professional to help us address them?”

If you want to build the relationship, then the next level, number 7, is to get curious about what caused them to act that way.  It’s your opportunity to walk in their shoes, and peek inside their head. It’s your time to be curious and feel empathy. It’s important to know that this step is not about finding their flaws, so you can blame them for their behavior. It’s about looking at them without being judgmental, just curious. Were they simply having a bad day? Were they feeling threatened in some way? What triggered them into their negative behavior? Is this a pattern? Perhaps they think you’ve been critical and now they’re feeling defensive? 

Next, to go to the deepest level, number 8, while still being curious and non-judgmental about them, now look at yourself and ask, “Have I ever felt that way, too?” How did I behave when I felt like that? When you realize that you are both human and both have some of the same negativity within you, it’s time for some forgiveness, for yourself and for them.


Level 1 – Personal vision

Level 2 – Determining responsibility

Level 3 – Non-critical statements

Level 4 - Curiosity

Level 5 – Negotiating conflict

Level 6 – Master your tongue

Level 7 - Empathy

Level 8 – Forgiveness

If this piques your interest about how to set or manage your boundaries, you can respond and I’ll send you a link to schedule a complimentary call.

Also, Email me or DM on socials (Instagram, Facebook) to express your interest, and I’ll notify you when I create a new boundaries course.


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