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How to Create Strong Personal Boundaries

“I love people who break boundaries and always create something new and fresh,” said Randy Jackson, former American Idol judge. His reference to breaking boundaries in the music industry creates chaos when applied to human relationships.

Personal boundaries set an appropriate distance between yourself and others. They are an extension of the principles you live by and express what you will or won’t do; what you will or will not allow, and what you will or will not tolerate from others. Boundaries protect you.

I recently passed by the customer service counter at a department store where an angry woman screamed profanities at a high school sales clerk who was struggling hard not to cry. I reported the incident to a customer service representative.

“How do you typically handle customers who become verbally abusive?” I asked.

He shrugged and said, “We usually give them whatever they want.”

Public tantrums are becoming acceptable social behavior. Many reality TV stars built careers grounded in their obnoxious abilities to humiliate others. And that is something I believe we need to change. Now.

When you were young, you were taught to show respect. Don’t talk back. Be quiet. Listen. Don’t cry. Be a man. Act like a lady. Many people learn that “being polite” and tolerating abuse are the same thing. As a result, they lack personal boundaries and give others permission to be verbally or physically hurt them.

I used to think it was my spiritual responsibility to listen to shouters and yellers because I assumed they must be feeling upset or angry or sad. I believed, if I listened to them while they were shouting and yelling, they would feel better. I discovered I was tolerating abusive behavior and, if I wanted to end the abuse, I had to change my behavior and how I react to it.

Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly, insists, “Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.” Habits learned in the past can be changed today.

Here are some simple tips that will help you build healthy boundaries, especially when you need them:

Calm down. Most circumstances do not require an immediate response. It is perfectly acceptable to postpone discussion when tempers flare until you feel comfortable to talk it out.

For example, if you feel uncomfortable continuing a conversation with someone, say, “I want to hear what you have to say about _____, but when I hear shouting, I feel ____ and I will _____ (i.e.: walk away, etc.).”

Or “I want to hear what you have to say about _____, but I feel _____. Can we talk about this _____ (i.e.: in an hour? after I come back from class? etc.).

Agree on a time to meet and talk. Arrange a time to discuss an important issue. For example, you can start the conversation with something like “_____ happened and I would really like to chat to you about it. Have you got time to talk about it?”

Use “I” statements. “You _____” statements (such as "You made me feel stupid!") often sound like accusations and prepare ground for battle. “I feel ____ when _____ happens” acknowledges your feelings without holding the other person responsible for your feelings.

Clearly describe the situation, how you feel, and what you need or want. For example, “When _____ happens, I feel _____. I need _____.”

Or, “When I receive email filled with angry accusations, I feel attacked and hurt. I would like to discuss situations like this in person and not through email.”

Focus on the issue. Avoid repeating the same issue over and over again when you are involved in a discussion about a different subject matter. Past issues unnecessarily create conflict. Agree to talk about past issues after you resolve the present issue.

Clarify. Ask clarifying questions such as “I heard you say _____. Is that what you meant?” or “Can you tell me more?” or “How did you feel when _____ happened? Clarifying questions let the other person know you are genuinely interested in what they have to say.

Look for solutions. Just as there are many ways to score a touchdown, there are many ways to find solutions to problems. Where do you agree? Agree to listen to one another. Brainstorming moves us out of problems and into solutions.

Express appreciation. Once you reach a solution, express gratitude and thank the other person for listening.

There will be times when you and another person may not find a solution. In some situations, you may choose to agree to disagree. However, you can agree to mutually-respected norms of behavior when you communicate with others.

Sometime you may have to leave the room if someone shouts at or threatens you. Sometimes unhealthy relationships must be severed.

Sometimes you have to burn a few bridges to blaze a new trail.

Not everyone will agree to treat you with the respect you deserve. Shouting scares me. There have been times I walked away from family members. I’ve walked out of parent-teacher conferences. I’ve walked away from heated discussions at social gatherings. I never storm out of the room without an explanation. I (1) let others know what they have to say is important to me, (2) explain what behaviors I will and will not tolerate, and (3) if others use abusive or threatening words or actions, I leave the room.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “Your beliefs become your thoughts. Your thoughts become your words. Your words become your actions. Your actions become your habits. Your habits become your values. Your values become your destiny.”

You deserve to be treated with respect and kindness. Your personal boundaries dictate how you feel about yourself and how you wish to be treated. It is up to you to establish those boundaries.

How can you create stronger personal boundaries?

As a TEDx speaker, educator, youth advocate, and leadership consultant, Julie Connor, Ed.D., prepares youth to be leaders and adults to be mentors and role models. She provides youth and adults with tools to collaborate, build teamwork, define their purpose, and align attainable goals with their vision and core values. Julie is the author of the award-winning goal-setting book, Dreams to Action Trailblazer’s Guide.

Learn more at


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