Here’s Why You Struggle Setting Boundaries (And What You Can Do About It)


Let’s normalize “no.”

A client put it perfectly when we were discussing why some people kept lingering in her life, even after she clearly communicated “no” and “I’m not interested,” or so she thought. She finally admitted, “I always leave the door ajar.”

The dance of setting boundaries and enforcing them in the face of resistance or backlash has been a big piece of my own journey, as well as with women I work with.

If you struggle with boundaries — setting them, holding them, or communicating them — here are potential reasons why.

You Think All Rejection Is Bad

The initial sting of getting let down or being told no may cause discomfort, but ultimately, not all rejection is bad, and it might serve us to reframe our mindsets. We need to normalize saying no.

A lot of times, we simply fear hurting others and watching people suffer. It’s human nature to prefer getting what we want, and most often we prefer pleasure or comfort to pain, but we should be careful not to project that onto others to our own detriment.

I think back to all the jobs I didn’t get, men who ghosted me from their lives, sales I didn’t close, and people who have told me they didn’t want to work with me. Each instance taught me a new lesson, an opportunity to try something new, or left space for something better to come in, even though I didn’t necessarily realize it at that moment. For each time I was told no, I was redirected to something much better waiting around the corner.

I’ve also been the one to do the rejecting. Recently I got coffee and reconnected with a man I had met in LA while dating around in my early twenties. He was a wonderful guy who courted me and treated me really well. I reflect back now and see that I was incredibly ambiguous, emotionally unavailable, and was in no place to commit to the serious relationship he was ready for. Toward the end, he had asked me what we were doing and I said, “I don’t know.”

He popped up on my LinkedIn, and as it turns out, we’re both now in NYC. We had coffee and he told me about his serious girlfriend and the life they’ve built together. Back when I had rejected him, it ultimately led to him finding his new person and life partner. If I had stuck around and dragged him through that relationship, he perhaps wouldn’t have met her.

Rejection is simply a redirection.

I’m eternally grateful for all the nos I’ve received and for all the people who’ve left my life. I’m positive the life I have now would not be as rich or meaningful if I had forced myself on a different path out of fear of the unknown, or to avoid potentially sitting in some discomfort or not wanting to be the cause of someone else’s discomfort.

You Can’t Hold Sensation In Your Body

Being a human is more vulnerable than we realize. Relationships are messy. People let us down. We let people down. We say the wrong things. The truth can sting. We forget when it’s most important. We run people over. We drop them in their most intimate moments. We say something inadvertently hurtful. We don’t always receive each other fully.

Expressing emotions, speaking the truth, and being able to open for intimacy require we remain grounded in our bodies. Have you ever had a conversation with someone who felt like they were completely checked out and not present? Not only were they not paying attention, but they likely weren’t present in their body, either.

This can happen for a number of reasons. Prolonged, unexamined trauma or PTSD can cause us to dissociate — we quite literally leave our bodies. Chronic pain or illness can make it unpleasurable to slow down and feel the sensations our bodies are experiencing. Or simply having grown up amidst tons of distractions or chaos can cause someone not to have the skills to focus and properly aim their attention. Our realities are not always pleasant places to be, so checking out and not having to feel can be more enticing than feeling anything potentially not good.

If you’re not able to sit with the good or the bad, or anything in the range in between, speaking your truth and setting boundaries is going to prove especially difficult. Setting boundaries requires us to be honest about what we want and need. It requires us to communicate clearly even in the face of disagreement or potential conflict. Not being well-received or experiencing pushback has the potential to leave us feeling uncomfortable in our bodies and wanting to flee that sensation.

Growth happens outside your comfort zone.

If you’re someone who has a fear of conflict or prefers to avoid uncomfortable conversations, start by becoming more aware of the sensations running through your body. Start giving them names and try to notice when you typically get flustered and how that feels. See if you can sit with the feelings and sensations for a minute or two longer.

Meditation is a great place to begin this practice. Meditation quite literally requires the act of remaining still in the face of thoughts that are anxious, uncomfortable, or distracting. Any mindfulness practice will likely do, but it’s worth examining if your boundary struggles are simply an inability to sit in your body while experiencing uncomfortable feelings.

You Don’t Have Enough Outside Support Or Activities

When we become overly involved with or invested in people or relationships, we lose the ability to see things clearly. We might misinterpret the level of intensity that things really are and lose our sense of reality.

When working with clients, I always recommend that they be plugged into some sort of community and have friends outside the relationship if they are actively dating or in a relationship at any stage, be it new or long-term. To have activities and other supportive people in their lives separate from their primary partner gives them something — or someone — else that helps to make them feel good.

Have an armor of people and activities that can help take your attention off a situation.

The more you sit ruminating and trying to process can send you spiraling or pull you into communication that may be overdone or unnecessary.

Set the boundary and walk away.

You aren’t responsible for other people’s reactions; you don’t need to caretake or manage their needs. Having the ability to tend to yourself, your life, and other people and activities will help strengthen your ability to set and keep boundaries.

You Don’t Trust Yourself

A couple of years ago, I was going through an awful breakup. I dated someone in a coaching community and we had a lot of mutual friends — friends each of us had cultivated intimate relationships with. When we split, we had to figure out how to maintain those connections as now-separate people.

I didn’t do it gracefully. It was hard and painful to know my friends were still talking with my ex, a person I chose to disconnect from while healing my heartbreak, and ultimately, I made the choice to disconnect from many of my friends too.

While trying to figure out what to do, I called a friend outside my immediate circle and asked for her thoughts. Should I stay connected and continue to potentially hurt myself, or should I just disconnect and move on? She provided incredible perspective and said, “You know, you’re in a really tough spot, and life is always going to be a series of choices you will have to make. This sounds like one of those hard ones.”

I’ll never forget those words; I think about them all the time. Every day, every moment, we are faced with macro and micro-decisions we need to make. In recovery, they ask us, “What’s the next right action?” Sometimes it’s sending an email. Sometimes it’s booking a yoga class. Sometimes it’s asking for help. Sometimes it’s a snack or a nap.

Our lives are propelled forward by each decision we choose.

When learning to set boundaries and communicate powerfully, start with micro-actions that remind you of your trustworthiness. Place a hold on your calendar and every week, show up for yourself, whether that’s a workout class or reading a book. Remember back to when you had to make a hard decision and it went better than expected. Remind yourself that you can do hard things and get yourself a coach who helps you remember that brilliance when you’ve forgotten.

Setting boundaries isn’t easy. Being honest isn’t always easy, either. The place you have the most power is in the present moment. It’s not in worrying about something that hasn’t happened yet or obsessing over something unchangeable from your past. The present moment is when we have the control and the power to change what happens next.

Surround yourself with meaningful people and communities. Fill your life with activities that nourish your spirit and mind. The best opportunities can come when a door is closed; we can get reinvented when a relationship ends. The experience of being alive is learning to feel deeply — the good, the bad, and everything in between.