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Setting Boundaries

If You Find Setting Boundaries Hard, You Are Not Alone
Man looks in a mirror

If You Find Setting Boundaries Hard, You Are Not Alone:

I am a bit of a search engine geek, which means I like finding out what kinds of questions people type into Google. Search engine numbers reflect collective concerns: things we humans struggle with and are trying to find answers for. The numbers below show how many individual people type a phrase into google (on average) in one month in the UK alone (figures from Keywords Everywhere and last updated Jan 3rd 2023):

  • Setting boundaries – 1000
  • How to say no politely – 880
  • Setting boundaries in relationships – 480
  • Setting boundaries at work – 170
  • Setting boundaries with parents – 170
  • Setting boundaries with friends – 110

By comparison, only about 20 people per month ask google “how to ask for what you want”. Is it the case that many of us are so concerned with how to say no politely to requests (or demands) from others, that we don’t stop to consider what we actually want? The best approach for working with these concerns is very individual and depends upon the circumstances. For example it might be that you need:

  1. Practical support to address difficult circumstances.
  2. Therapeutic support for healing trauma.
  3. Educational support to build empowerment and skills.
  4. A combination of all of the above!

Below is some information on each of these approaches, along with some practical tips and suggestions about setting boundaries. The therapies outlined below are all offered by Rose C Jiggens, a Somatic Therapist and educator working online and in London UK, who also wrote this article! If you have arrived here because you have difficulty setting boundaries, take time as you read each section to notice your responses. Perhaps you can identify better the root causes of your own experiences, which ultimately will point the way towards creating change.

Setting Boundaries: Practical Support Addressing Difficult Circumstances

The context in which we are having difficulty setting boundaries, is important to consider before doing anything at all. Sometimes there is a wisdom in our reluctance to set boundaries as doing so might have adverse consequences. This includes when we are in abusive relationships, toxic workplace cultures and other violent systems or power imbalances we might be immersed in. In these situations, the priority will be assessing what can be done to limit harm and build safety. Moving towards greater safety may require covertly setting boundaries without explicitly saying we are doing so. Examples of covert boundary setting might include:

  • In abusive relationships: learning how to browse safely on the internet to find supportive resources.
  • In toxic workplace cultures: accessing spaces which can give us a container of time and supportive information e.g. practical advice about harassment.

Setting Boundaries: Therapeutic Support to Heal

Difficulty setting boundaries in the present for adults, often has is roots in the past when setting a boundary would have had adverse consequences. The somatic memory of this lives in the body: a feeling of danger maybe recalled from the past when a boundary is required in the present, even if the current situation is perfectly safe. Not setting a boundary may have been an essential survival skill, neural pathways can recall and repeat the survival strategy, even if it’s evidently maladaptive to the present situation.

As reflected in the search engine figures above, it can be hardest to set boundaries with parents, family or in close relationships. In close relationships we might need to learn how to set limits around what we are willing to allow or to give. The difficulty setting these limits can arise because other parts of us may fear the consequences of setting a boundary. E.g. our ‘inner child’ may fear the disapproval of a parent, or we may abandon our self to avoid abandonment by someone we desire to be in relationship with.

If you have a trusted friend or therapist, you could try experimenting with sentences that express limits and boundaries you would like to express but find difficult. Practice saying them out loud and noticing what happens in your body, e.g. does your stomach or jaw tighten? Do you feel smaller? Noticing what’s happening in your body might begin to give you access to the part of you that’s afraid to say no. Below are some examples of sentences that set limits in situations of giving and allowing:

  • I will come and see you but only for two days.
  • I am not willing to come and see you at this time, I can offer time talking on the telephone instead?
  • You can come to visit, but only if you stay in a hotel.
  • I am not able to receive your visit right now, but maybe in a few months when my busy work phase is over.

Somatic and talk therapies can help heal the survival strategies that often lead to difficulty setting boundaries. Through a combination of talking and nervous system healing, you can come to understand and heal the survival strategies which no longer serve you in the present.

Transforming Touch® uses co-regulating touch (or visualisation) to guide your body back to a place of feeling safe, focusing on key areas of stress physiology such as the kidney adrenals and brain stem. Bringing attention to our skin can remind us of the boundary of our body. The addition of touch to therapy reaches places which talking alone cannot: strong containing protocols support a felt sense of safety within which this can take place.

In Trauma Sensitive Breathwork you can learn self-regulating skills that build greater resilience including:

  • Learning to interrupt survival strategies with a well timed breath.
  • Exploring and expanding your no through experimenting with posture and breath.

Here is a simple boundary setting enquiry you can try right now: take some breaths in and out through your nose that are deliberately shallow then after a while say “no” a few times out loud. Then take some more breaths but this time focusing on breathing slower, deeper and into your belly if you can do that. Then say “no” out loud a few times again. How did it feel each time to say no? Was it similar or different? 

There is no right or wrong way to feel in this short practice and you may notice nothing at all. But what’s happening in our body when we say no will have a big impact on how it feels for us to say no. With support and through enquiry we can learn to notice how it currently feels to say no; we can also experiment with how it might feel better – or even really good – when we say no.

Help With Setting Boundaries: Building Empowerment and Skills

Sometimes its the case that we don’t need therapy; what we need is an educative approach that builds empowerment and skills.  I teach an embodied (using touch) consent practice and theoretical model called The Wheel of Consent, which can thoroughly overhaul your boundary setting skills. I can’t share the touch practice with you here as you need to experience it, but here is a little bit of the theory you can apply right now.

Bring to mind an example recently of when someone (another adult) asked you if you want to do something recently. For example a friend who said “do you want to go for coffee?”. Think about who the requested activity was for, was it:

  • For the person requesting, e.g. they want to go for coffee because they need some advice from you.
  • For you, e.g. your friend has discovered a cafe with cats, knowing you love cats they thought you might really like to visit there.
  • For both of you, your friend wants to go for coffee with you if you really want to do that too!

Asking this simple question – who is it for? – is the starting point of bringing clarity to relational exchanges. When we don’t know who it is for, it’s hard to know if a limit or boundary is needed. For instance, if we know that our friend wants to use the coffee meet to ask for some advice, then we may want to express a limit on how long we spend giving advice.

Difficulty setting boundaries arises not only because we find it difficult to do, but also because many of us find it hard to ask directly for what we want! If a request is not clear and direct, then no space is made for boundaries to be expressed. So to begin your journey of better boundary setting, you might start asking the question “do I know who this is really for?”. You might also consider developing your capacity to ask for what you want: through developing an embodied sense of asking for what we want, we are empowered to co-create relationships founded in clarity and integrity.

Learning these skills often isn’t easy, which is why the Wheel of Consent was developed to help you learn how! If you want to know more you can read about my private Wheel of Consent sessions. I also teach the Wheel of Consent in groups online and in London UK with my colleague Rupert J Alison; check out my workshops page or sign up to my mailing list to hear about new dates as they are released.

You might also like to read the Wheel of Consent Book or watch these free videos by Dr. Betty Martin whom I trained with and who primarily developed the practice.

How Family Constellations Can Help with Difficulty Setting Boundaries.

A constellation is a good place to start to understand the origins of difficulty setting boundaries in a wider intergenerational or organisational context. Sometimes the origins of the pattern begin with an ancestor who lacked choice, their experiences can ripple through the generations and impact the present. Or else as in this constellation The Power To Transform, holding back power (including the power to say no) can become a family pattern due to things that happened a generation or more ago.

Family constellations offers theory that can support understanding why we might overstep our own limits and boundaries. This includes reflections on the exchanges that take place between people, reflections on why we might try to save others at great cost to ourself and reflections on why it can be difficult to take our place in the world. In a constellation these reflections unfold experientially as we explore the whole system within which our issue primarily resides.

For now though here is a systemically informed way of looking at the exchanges that take place within a relationship: think about a relationship you are in and consider it like a game of table tennis. When we are in relationship things get batted back and forth: whether they are expressions of love or insults there is still an exchange. What kinds of things bat back and forth in this relationship? Who usually serves first and are turns taken with serving? Once there is a serve, does a volley follow? Or does the ball quickly fall out of play? Has someone (or both people) put down their bat?

Applying this simple metaphor, can help expose the essential nature of exchanges taking within a relationship. You can apply it to who initiates contact (e.g. through texts and emails), how you converse (where a serve is starting a conversation) or who arranges nice things to do together. Equally the game can be exchanging insults, who typically serves first then? Not serving can mean we are not taking our full adult place in relationships, or that it is difficult to find space to do so within this particular relationship. Realising that someone has put down the bat can indicate a no covertly expressed, a lack of volleys can indicate where we are missing one another altogether.

If you want to learn or experience more family constellations, here are the relevant links on my website:


1. Ancestors: how does the past shape you?

Shed light and gain perspective on everyday issues with constellations

Ancestral Healing Using Family Constellations

2. Healing your inner child: who are you?

Embodied therapy and learning for healing your inner child

Trauma Sensitive Breathwork & Transforming Touch

3. Embodied delight: what's your pleasure?

Heal your relationship with pleasure using the Wheel of Consent®

Receiving and Giving: The Wheel of Consent®

4. Soul work: what's your purpose?

Unite what you do best with the people who you can best serve

Soul Energy Optimisation: for practitioners