Setting Boundaries: Why Is It Hard?

do not cross by steven depolo

by Steven Depolo on

I seem to be asking a lot of questions lately–hard questions that don’t have easy answers, like the post about whether books need romance or at the very least, realistic teen romance. Why is realistic romance important? Now, I’m on to boundaries. This is actually a topic near and dear to my heart because I AM TERRIBLE AT SETTING BOUNDARIES.

I set a boundary. Someone will break it, and I say, “That’s okay. I forgive you. Let me set another one and another and another and another.” This happens for several reasons, I’m sure, but mostly I think it’s because:

1. I think it’s important to be forgiving.

2. I can understand why the boundary was broken.

3. I don’t like confrontation.

Now the big question is: Am I like this because I am a female? Do females have trouble setting boundaries?

Let’s just do an example that we can all relate to at any age, whether we are male or female. Very few people enjoy friends or family who just “stop by” unannounced. So, let’s say you have a family member who constantly stops by unannounced because she is lonely and also battling cancer. (BTW, this is not going on in my life–really just an example) You are close enough that you have mentioned to this person that you do not like unexpected guests and that if she could even call a couple hours before, you could USUALLY accommodate her visit. She nods her head like she understands and then finishes her visit. The next time she visits, there is no phone call. Boundary broken.

So, you set a boundary. She acted like she understood, and then she came anyway. It’s hard to get angry due to the relationship with her and her current situation, but be honest–wouldn’t you feel anger? Yes! Is that okay? Yes! What do we do about this? This is where I run into the problem–what could you do? Do you think it differs for a man or for a woman? Do you let guilt get in the way of setting your boundary?

Most of my boundary problems come when I say: I’m not going to let this particular situation happen again, but then I often don’t follow through or even tell the person about the problem. It’s hard to set a boundary if I don’t speak up. In retrospect, there have been times when I’ve spoken up about issues before with multiple people, and it didn’t seem to matter–the boundaries are still broken. SO, does this mean that people who usually drive you to discuss your boundaries with them are incapable of keeping boundaries anyway? Or does this mean I’m too wishy-washy?

I think it’s especially hard for teenagers today to have boundaries because it is so easy for friends to be on 24/7 with technology. And with some social media platforms, it seems there are NO boundaries.

So what’s your take on setting boundaries? Do you struggle? If you’re good at it, what are some tips for the rest of us?

Margo Dill (427x640)Margo Dill, also known as the Sandwich Lady because she has a 4-year-old daughter and 70-something-year-old parents, is the author of three books: Caught Between Two Curses (YA), Finding My Place: One Girl’s Strength at Vicksburg (MG), and Maggie Mae, Detective Extraordinaire: The Case of the Missing Cookies. Find out more at .


  • You are asking the wrong person here. I used to be like you – twenty years ago. Now I get mad, blow up, make those who have gone too far know it (tactfully, I have learned that art). But I have the confidence now to know when I’m being stepped on.

    It all comes with age (which I’ve got plenty of) and a little shell-building. Eventually you figure out that nobody is going to protect the soft, inner parts of you except YOU.

    Do it.

    • Good advice, Frances. I actually see myself getting better with age too, but I still have so far to go.

  • Ooooh, boundaries…that’s a tough one, and yes, I think women tend to struggle with confrontation more than men. (Mr. Man is always saying, “Why don’t you just TELL her–or him–…” but of course, that’s easier said than done.)

    I’ll ask myself how important the boundary is…in your example, I’m pretty sure I’d let that go because of extenuating circumstances. But someone who consistently ignores a boundary w/no reason to justify ignoring the boundary (except that it suits them), then I’ll speak up. Probably make a joke about it, but still, I’ll get my point across. Though honestly, I think it’s a skill that comes with age…one of the few benefits of getting older and wiser. :-)

    • I think you are right with that too– the choose your battle thing. Some boundaries are bigger deals than others.

  • I have no concept of boundaries. I’m terrible. If there’s confrontation I walk the other way.

  • I don’t know if its a female thing. Sometimes, it can feel like it is…but it can also be more of a personality trait. My guess is that people who are more giving in their personalities – which tends to be more of a female personality trait with our mother-nurturer instinct – are also more prone to not enforcing boundaries. In the example above, the boundary is time/advanced notice. The solution is easily said and hard to execute. Just say no.

    “No you can’t come over right now, but I would love to go grab coffee with you in the morning. What time would you want to go?”

    I have a hard time saying no because I want people to think I’m a nice person. Saying no makes me feel like a mean person. So I read the book “Smart Women Know When to Say No” by Kevin Leman. It has helped me this past year enforce my boundaries without feeling like I’m being a mean person.

    Because of that now, it would be easier for me to enforce the boundary in this case. Plus, I don’t think the example above qualifies as extenuating circumstances. If this has been a repeat visit of the cancer patient friend, then I would say no and suggest an alternative. But, if she/he just learned they were diagnosed and needed support, then yes. But there’s a fine line between holding someone up and becoming a crutch – especially if its at the expense of your sanity.

    • Our sanity is an important thing! Good advice here. You are wise, Geeky Lady, and I would like to check out the book you mentioned.

  • I’m a natural boundary setter, but I’m also a rule follower. I usually dodge confrontation, but I would rather state my feelings than deal with an unacceptable situation. In my job, sometimes parents want to be “friends” and I keep a professional relationship. I try to tell them the benefits of having me as their therapist not their friend. Usually they accept this, but I have had a few families end our relationship when I won’t be their friend. I also think that some people don’t have the social skills to hear our subtle hints. We worry about hurting their feelings by being more blunt, but they may need that honesty to really hear what we are saying. I think in the case of someone dropping by, I would meet them at the door and tell them that I was in the middle of something and couldn’t visit with them right now, but set a definite time to meet or for them to come back. We feel like this is horribly rude, but so is stopping by unannounced. Oprah says “we teach people how to treat us”. (Or something like that) it takes practice! Keep working at it!

    • More wise advice. I think Oprah is probably right.

  • It is admirable that you want to set boundaries and also that you feel badly when they are not respected, particularly by those who are close to you. I think you need to ask why the line was drawn in the first place. To distance yourself, get more work done, protect privacy issues? Your answer will help clarify your purpose and should aid in explanation to the offending party why you cannot spend time with them at the spur of the moment (even though, you add, you would like to.) This line of thinking has helped me in setting boundaries when deadlines are on the horizon.

    • Claire, thanks for chiming in. I do think sometimes it is hard to understand another person’s point of view, like a writer, if you are not a writer. I guess sometimes I think people should just figure it out for themselves but that is probably unfair of me.

  • I do think that women are worse at setting boundaries. I know I get all “if I don’t do it, who will” where my husband gets “if it doesn’t get done, maybe it wasn’t that important.”

    BUT I also think that women push other women. When I set a boundary, I am selfish. I never think about anyone but myself. And on and on. In this household, we lovingly call these Nasty-Grams.


So, what do you think?