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How To Set Boundaries Without Being Mean

With all the awareness of how important it is to know your boundaries and communicate them, one challenge I see a lot in my coaching practice is how to set them without seeming mean or rude.

It makes sense that this would feel hard: in many Western cultures, particularly for women, 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, and 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 a few possible ways in.

1. Reframe Boundary Setting as Creating More Sustainable Relationships

It’s really common to view boundaries as a way to keep people at a distance. If someone is speaking to you aggressively, or in a critical way that feels unkind or unhelpful, you might know that it would be in your interest to say something like, “you’re speaking to me in an unkind way which I find hurtful. I’m going to leave this conversation now and we can pick it up again later if you’re willing to be less critical.”

It might feel rude to say something like this! You might see it as shutting the conversation down and judging the other person, while at the same time knowing deep down that you deserve to be spoken to more kindly. I want to offer a reframe: setting this boundary would allow you to create a more sustainable relationship with the other person.

What do I mean by this? Well, allowing them to continue speaking to you in an aggressive way would probably not be sustainable! It would likely only further erode your relationship, cause arguments and conflict, and leave you feeling increasingly hurt and upset. You might, eventually, shut the other person out completely. By speaking up, you’re telling them how you want to be in relationship with them. You’re offering them an alternative, where you ask for what you need and they can choose whether to meet you in that.

In this way, we can see boundaries as where two people can meet, instead of how we might push people away. Setting boundaries allows us to create relationships that are sustainable, joyful, and energising, rather than draining and upsetting. Of course, conversations about boundaries might result in the relationship needing to change or end – but this is part of the process of having more of the kinds of relationships you really do want to be having.

2. Learn to Set Boundaries Before Breaking Point

Many difficult boundary conversations arise because the conversation is simply left too late. You’re already at breaking point and so it feels impossible to have a measured, considerate, conversation. Instead it feels highly emotionally charged and so is likely to end in defensiveness or conflict. This is the cost of not speaking up as soon as you first notice that something’s up.

This often happens when the boundary violation didn’t really feel like a big deal. It seemed like 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 might fear that 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, at a moment when you felt care for the person involved.

It could have been a very different conversation!

Being able to notice the very first couple of times a boundary violation happens is a really important skill to cultivate. Learn to listen to that very first inkling – and the associated voices that tell you it’s not such a big deal, and it probably won’t happen again. That’s the moment to mention it to the other person.

3. Use Non-Violent Language

Looking at the language you use can help enormously. 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?

Because ultimately that’s usually the case in boundary conversations, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time. If you’re needing to talk to someone about a boundary violation, it’s probably because you do want to stay in relationship with them. You do want to stay connected, and have a relationship that feels mutual and caring. Approaching the conversation from this place can have a huge impact, because then you’re framing it as being on the same side – both wanting a healthy, happy relationship.

(And, if it turns out that isn’t actually what they want, wouldn’t you rather find that out sooner rather than later?)

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.

4. Explore Your Relationship with Conflict

Somewhere along the line you learned that conflict wasn’t safe. That it couldn’t co-exist with love and care. Chances are, if you notice that you tend to to avoid conflict, then there are some areas where you could find some big opportunities for healing – possibly going all the way back to childhood.

The thing is that disagreement is unavoidable in relationships. 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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