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Setting Boundaries

Setting boundaries is an ability that many people struggle with. By definition, it refers to interpersonal relationships and how far you are willing to let things go. Many people struggle with this skill, especially those who are empathetic and kind. Yet these are the same people who are most in need of mastering the art of setting boundaries.

The skill of setting boundaries is applicable to all areas of life. It is important in work settings, intimate relationships, friendships and family. Most people in our lives are good at maintaining their own boundaries and understanding where they naturally occur. There is no need for the empathetic person to reinforce these limits because they are not being crossed. The problem arises when an empathetic person encounters someone who does not understand boundaries, or limitations.

For the empathetic person, this can become a challenge of immense proportions. They want to help those who seem to be in need, and will often turn their own lives upside down in attempts to help others. Doing this occasionally is ok. Being an altruistic person is a great quality to have. However, this is not something that can be maintained in a chronic situation. For the empathetic person, this can create anxiety, stress, and distress if they begin to own other peoples problems.

In the work place, the empathetic person may struggle with setting boundaries but this environment is probably the easiest place to start saying no to others. This is possibly because the relationships at work are the least personal in our lives. When coworkers or supervisors constantly ask us to do this or that, the empathetic person wants to please or hopes for recognition in their career. Again, it can eventually create a situation where the empathetic person is taking on the work of others, getting burnt out, or simply overwhelmed. It is a good idea to start saying no to additional requests and to start delegating responsibilities to others.

When the relationship is closer, for example friends or family, the empathetic person will find it more of a struggle to initiate boundaries after a relationship has been established. It is often easier to let things be as they are, then to try and redefine long established patterns and expectations. Setting boundaries in this situation can be even more important for the empathetic person because these close relationships have the potential to be chronically draining. The empathetic person feels a responsibility to help or save those in need, especially if there is an instilled sense of family responsibility.

What I consider the hardest type of relationship to set boundaries in is the intimate relationship. This type of relationship provides support, love, and affirmation while running the risk of rejection if the empathetic person holds firm to newly imposed boundaries. Setting boundaries with an intimate partner requires the strength to stand alone, against your main emotional support.

The good news is that even after years of chronically weak boundaries, the empathetic person can implement these new boundaries if they are determined enough. It is a good idea to start by being very clear with the individual. The empathetic person should initiate a formal sit down where they explain that things need to change. Discuss how you are feeling overwhelmed, underappreciated, tapped out, and at the end of your limits. Make the new boundaries very clear, explain how they will be reinforced and what the consequences will be if they are crossed. The most important part of setting and reinforcing boundaries is consistency. 100% consistency is the key to ensuring that these boundaries are maintained. Failure to implement the specified consequences even once, can be a recipe for failure.

This is termed intermittent reinforcement, and the best example of how this works is a casino. If you walked in a casino, and lost every time you played a game pretty soon you would decide your efforts were not worth it and give up. However, when you walk in and win a little bit of money every once in a while it is enough to reinforce your behavior. Thus, you continue to feed money into the casino. Setting boundaries is the same. If you maintain your boundaries consistently eventually they will be accepted. However, if you give in even once you are reinforcing the behavior.

Mastering these skills is very important in life, but especially important for the empathetic person. The skills will take time to develop and practice to fine tune them but remember that they are possible. You do not need to be at the mercy others who take advantage of you.



Setting Boundaries

Michele L. Brennan, Psy.D.

Dr. Brennan attended Rutgers University, and graduated with a Bachelor's of Arts in Psychology. She also completed a Master of Arts in Psychology at Pace University. Upon completion, she began a doctorate program at Argosy University completing a Master's of Arts and Doctorate of Psychology in Clinical Psychology. Currently, she is an adjunct instructor for a community college, co-founder of the non-profit organization Little Hands International, and developing her own psychology clinic. Trained in the Practitioner-Scholar model, Dr. Brennan works with clients using empirically supported techniques such as CBT, ACT, and BFST. She specializes in treating anxiety, depression, and adjustment disorders.

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APA Reference
Brennan, M. (2014). Setting Boundaries. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 28, 2020, from


Last updated: 25 Aug 2014
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