Managing personal boundaries


There is one area of personal development that can make or break your self-esteem and your ability to have healthy relationships: it’s the ability to set and implement healthy personal boundaries. Personal boundaries are the imaginary lines we draw around ourselves to maintain balance and protect our bodies, minds, emotions, and time from the behaviour or demands of others.

I was talking to someone about this recently after attending a Conference and then a dinner afterwards, when my internal voice had said “head for home; you need to preserve energy for tomorrow”. I likened it to a weighing scale, where we balance our own needs against the needs of others. and try and hold an awareness of both.

Some people suggest that it is a foundation of good self esteem that allow us to set appropriate boundaries They provide the framework to keep us from being used or manipulated by others, and they can allow us to confidently express who we are and what we want in life. Without healthy boundaries or with very weak boundaries, we struggle to have healthy relationships. You give up a part of yourself to be available or accommodating. Or you become so entangled with another person and their needs that you lose your own identity. This undermines your integrity and leads to a loss of self-respect — and probably the respect of those around you.

What makes it at times difficult to draw boundaries? Balancing our own needs with the needs of others certainly; maybe also fear?. The fear we won’t be loved, that we aren’t good enough or deserving enough just as we are, that if we give into that extra hour (when we really wanted to go home) we will have let someone down?

Types of boundaries

Boundaries 3Boundaries reflect more than our need for physical space. They include any aspect of our interactions with others, including our relationship with ourselves (for example avoiding self-sabotaging activities) and our environment (protecting ourselves from noise; as I get older and am out having meals at a busy restaurant, I sometimes struggle to hear all of what people are saying!).

Boundaries reflect our core values, our respect for ourselves and our need for safety and protection. They include being able to say no and mean it, or saying yes and meaning it. They are a way we define ourselves separately from another.

They include material boundaries (whether you give or lend things like books, money, clothes), emotional boundaries (separating your own emotions and responsibility for them from someone else’s), physical boundaries (your personal space, privacy; do you handshake or hug?!) amongst others.

Some of the challenges

I don’t know anyone in my circle of family, friends and work colleagues that doesn’t struggle with them sometimes trying too hard to “do the right thing”.

We probably all recognise some of these challenges:

·         Saying no when you mean yes or yes when you mean no

·         Feeling guilty when you do say no

·         Acting against your integrity or values in order to please

·         Not speaking up when you have something to say

·         Not calling out someone who mistreats you

·         Allowing yourself to be interrupted or distracted to accommodate another person’s immediate wants or needs.

·         Becoming overly involved in someone’s problems or difficulties

·         Not defining and communicating your emotional needs in your closest relationships

When you hit these challenges over personal boundaries, its powerful to observe that these act of compliance, self-denial, or neediness chips away at your own self-respect, let alone the respect that others have for you.

Personal Reflections

In a professional context, I feel I am fairly comfortable about setting boundaries. I have been in business as a free lancer for over 15 years, and have got accustomed to intuiting the situations on where to apply boundaries and when to be flexible about them. These days it’s the small things that I struggle with; sending out a set of dates to  a client for a meeting or coaching session, and you spend 3 or 4 times chasing them to get it booked; you meet someone for a potential new piece of work and follow up afterwards, only for a Boundaries 4read receipt and no response, sometimes for weeks; having to continually chase invoices is a small bug bear periodically. I do often go above and beyond the stated objectives of a piece of work, but accept it’s my responsibility if I do this, and in most pieces of work I do it feels important to get right, as the work is important.

The one time the boundaries creaked and broke in work in the last couple of years was when Sally and I took on a joint project for a national organisation; I knew really from the first contracting meeting that it was going to be difficult and felt that the scope was probably too wide, that they wanted too much from the work. Over the next couple of weeks it kept getting wider and things changed every other day, and we realised that whatever we did wasn’t going to be right; a lesson in learning to listen to early intuition. It remains the only project in the last 10 years that we haven’t finished as amidst a lot of soul searching we pulled out in the first month.

On a personal and family basis, setting boundaries comes up with relationships and how you work things out as a family; from as parochial a decision as who gets to watch what they want on TV of an evening, to decisions about pocket money and holidays; it feels like we get more of these right than wrong, and usually things go awry only when we haven’t been able to hear what each person wants from that night out, a family meal, a holiday or whatever; it’s when they haven’t given voice to the boundaries and you find out half way through they didn’t want to do that thing that its hard.

I didn’t come from a family history of clear boundaries, which is probably the reason they have become so important to me. I used to do a lot of people pleasing, and ended up at lots of meetings and events that if I had had the courage, I wouldn’t have gone to. I hope with age and experience, I (a) know my own mind more and (b) am also able to state what I’m prepared to do and the limits of this

Setting boundaries

Boundaries 2A few thoughts on setting boundaries:

  • Statement of the obvious, but important to recognise that having personal boundaries is OK. It doesn’t mean you are selfish or unloving. It is both completely acceptable and absolutely necessary for healthy relationships to trust your instincts and feelings about what you do and don’t want in your life. No one knows better than you who you are and what you desire
  • It’s worth sitting down and think about your boundaries and if and how you might be accepting situations that are really unacceptable to you. Make a list of things that people may no longer do to you, say to you, or do around you. Decide how you need physical and emotional space
  • Work on the courage to talk to the people involved in crossing your personal boundaries and kindly remind them where they are. Let them know you have spent some time thinking about what is important and acceptable to you and what isn’t. There may be some defensiveness and push-back from those involved: however, they’ll get used to your new boundaries over time. It may be that some people in your life may fall away as a result of your outlook and demand for respect
  • It may take some time to train yourself and others around your limits. Continue to reinforce them so that you are taken seriously and respected. Practice saying no when you are asked to do something you don’t want to do
  • Remember that respecting boundaries goes two ways. Examine your own behaviour and words to see where you might be crossing another person’s boundaries. Work to change those behaviours so that you are reflecting the respect and support you want for yourself
  • There’s a difference between healthy boundaries and rigid boundaries. The goal is a healthy relationship with those close to you, balanced by a sense of understanding, mutual support, and give-and-take. There may be occasions when you choose to bend your boundaries or allow someone to cross the line: when someone is hurt or sad, needs extra support, asks for an exception with respect and kindness

All in all, creating and holding onto personal boundaries is a lifelong developmental and complex thing to do, and often easier said than done. A dollop of  self awareness, listening to intuition, and learning to state our needs as well as balance the needs of others means that we can all get what we want more often than not.


Rupture and Repair

Rupture and Repair

How good are we at dealing with frustrations or fallouts with others around us? I came across an article from a fellow Coach about the whole idea of “rupture and repair”; something which originated as a concept in psychotherapy but is pertinent in all our relationships. It also took me back to the psychotherapy training I did a few years back, where the idea of rupture and repair was seen as being central to relationships. The dictionary definition of rupture is “to cause something to explode, break or tear” and is a good description about the dangers of fallout. Rupture is when something happens in a relationship where there is a misunderstanding, a frustration with someone that irritates us, or perhaps a loss of trust due to something someone has done. The repair element is self-evident; the steps that happen to deal with a rupture from one or both parties to heal that rift or bring back that trust that was lost.

It’s equally relevant to all of us as people, and certainly comes into play in lots of the work I do with coaching clients who are facing difficulties in relationship with someone inside or outside of work. I own my own challenges with even the prospect of rupture, having struggled with conflict from an early age, growing up in a family where there was a good deal. I have learnt over the years to face it much more often, but have to steel myself to do it; perhaps to be fair though it doesn’t really come naturally to any of us? I can’t think of many people that welcome the idea of rupture….and some who will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid it.

So, whatever your philosophy and approach to the idea of rupture and repair, however carefully we tread around others (and them around us) we can’t avoid having to face the idea of falling out and the skill and courage needed to make things whole again.

“Ruptures are a daily occurrence in all our relationships and…our systems only need to receive resonance and reflection on the first try at connecting about 33% of the time to cultivate security. All the rest is optimally rupture and repair” (Bonnie Badenoch)



Ruptures can be big or small, and even overt or covert; it could be a simple misunderstanding with someone or a more fundamental breakdown in trust like finding out a secret or that someone has said something negative about you to others. It’s interesting also to think about how many of these are “mini ruptures” that in themselves are minor irritations but get to the point where we feel we have to say something to the other person-the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

There is always the judgement call as to whether they surface and someone tells the other person, or whether they lie dormant and not mentioned for fear of de-stabilising things. An example (I’m not proud of by the way but by way of showing vulnerability and honesty) is a situation a while back with a good friend who I have known for several years where I felt like I was making all the running in terms of keeping contact. I have a strong core value about reciprocity in friendships where both people make a similar amount of effort to maintain the friendship. What I didn’t know was what was happening behind the scenes for that person who was dealing with a personal issue within their family. I made what I would call an “assumptive close” and ascribed the lack of effort as I saw it to indifference. This came to light when I deigned to risk my precious dignity and pick up the phone to talk to this person!


So, what are the elements of “repair” that we need to fix things? The brilliant School of Life article describes repair as something that “refers to the work needed for two people to regain each other’s trust, and restore themselves in the others’ mind as someone who is essentially decent and sympathetic and can be a ‘good enough’ interpreter of their needs….repair isn’t just one capacity among others, it is arguably the central determinant of one’s mastery of emotional maturity; it is what identifies us as true adults”.  This idea speaks to me a good deal; that one of the most important elements of emotional maturity is our ability to reach out and repair, or to be open when others take the risk with us.

This takes skill and ongoing learning and perhaps some or all of the following skills:

The ability to apologise

There are schools of thought that suggest apologising whatever the circumstances and whether you think you created the fallout or didn’t; perhaps you need a medal or a sainthood to do this! But being able to make a move and be the proactive one to talk through and give a little ground feels eminently sensible and shows emotional awareness, even if you have to give way from feeling wronged.

The ability to forgive

How much are we able to listen to someone else apologise, even if its what I would call an iterative apology and not spoken out loud but by someone’s actions? Are we able to hear it and go back to the place we were before the rupture? If we have apologised but feel it wasn’t all our fault (as it often isn’t: fallouts take two to tango) can we forgive the other person or do we secretly nurse the grievance while overtly communicating it as closed?

The ability to teach and the ability to learn

I would suggest that teaching and learning are two ends of the same spectrum, like the idea that “we teach what we need to learn”. There is something profound in ruptures and repairs about our own learning and the learning of others around us. How do we get to a place where we can hear constructive and well-meant feedback from others? I have been coaching a long time now, but always take some deep breaths before a session with a client where I have to give them some difficult “360 feedback” given anonymously by colleagues.

From a teaching others point of view, can we allow the other person to take away lessons that might be small and incremental and learn the lesson in their own time-or are we going to ram them home when we have the chance?

The ability to discern

For me there is one more key skill to repair; the best description I can come up is to discern. How likely is it that the person you are feeling the frustration with is going to be open to working through with a robust discussion, be able to open up to admitting their mistakes, and take a measure of responsibility? This may sound hard headed but there is an opportunity cost equation at play. If they aren’t and you have tried at least gently, then there is a question about whether its worth the time and effort- and personal pain- to raise the rupture in the first instance: but perhaps also check in with yourself to make sure you have tried at least gently to raise the issue with the person and accept that their learning may not be at the stage where they are able to hear feedback

Overall reflections

I trust that after many years of effort and mistakes that have led to incremental learning (as James Joyce said “mistakes are the portals of discovery”) I have tried to not get so worked up about other people’s behaviour in the first instance: to work towards having a greater acceptance of people’s quirks and idiosyncrasies as I get older, as well as my own!

Perhaps there is also the notion that we need to care enough about somebody to have a fallout, and the people close to us we can afford to take more risks with in the knowledge that repair can and will happen, and paradoxically its often part of having a healthy and robust relationship. Ultimately, there is the learning that we can we climb the mountain of courage that allows us to be humane and humble enough to apologise when we can, to know when its not going to work and to forgive and (slowly) teach and learn.

“When we experience a break in connection followed by repeated attempts at repair until the bond is restored, we build implicit pathways of resilience. We come to know in a visceral way when things break down interpersonally, someone will return to help us come back into relationship. That wired in optimism and expectation makes it much more likely that we will form relationships that have this quality” (Bonnie Badenoch)


Conflict Resolution Models

Conflict Resolution Models


The word “conversation” comes from the Latin root conversari, which means “to associate with”. The prefix con meaning “together” or “with”.  It’s an exchange of ideas and sentiments. As much as we’d all like to only engage in true conversations that are moving us toward a positive outcome, we occasionally don’t: at times like these, there is no exchange. Continue reading

Tips for handling conflict

Tips for Handling Conflict

1. Share negative emotions only in person or on the phone. E-mails, answering machine messages and notes are too impersonal for the delicate nature of negative words. What feels like a “bomb” on paper may feel much lighter when delivered in person. Continue reading

Working with Conflict

Working with Conflict

“The most intense conflicts, if overcome, leave behind a sense of security and calm that is not easily disturbed. It is just these intense conflicts and their conflagration which are needed to produce valuable and lasting results” (Carl Jung)

This section is all about conflict resolution – using courageous conversations and exploring ways of handling conflict.

In my experience of working with teams and individuals (along with my own experience) this is the area that people struggle with most: how to start and work through those difficult conversations, and get to an outcome that works.

Please select the resources you are interested in from the menu on the right hand side.