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Boundaries are sometimes thought of as aggressive weapons swung by aggro people. Threats like “If you spend Thursday night at the casino one more time I’m out of here!” Or brittle, impossible rules imposed by brittle, difficult people. Rule sets like “Lookit, don’t text me after 10pm or before 9am. Please use my work email address for business and my gmail address for social. If Kevin is invited then use our Mac address, which is linked to our shared calendar. Why is this so hard?”

Those are kind of terrible ways to relate, and they are also not good ways to set boundaries. In fact, those are not examples of boundaries at all. Because a boundary, as life coaches think about the topic, is not a declaration of war, or an ultimatum, or a booby trap ready to spring, or even a demand. It’s a statement of intent. And the intent is not control, but self-care.

Wait, this is not a story about control?

Not at all! Quite the opposite: a boundary is an acknowledgment that we’re actually not the Empress here, and the world is full of other sovereign beings who act in ways that may bring us into conflict. Oof, other people! They can demand all our maturity and hard-won wisdom.

With that wise understanding that, wow, we just cannot make others do our bidding, that in fact the only thing in the world we can ever hope to control—apart from the remote, and then only if we live alone—is ourself, we can create boundaries that just might help keep us safe and sane. Here’s a formula that life coaches like:

“If [X] should happen, I will respond by [doing Y].” <— It’s simple! No overstepping, no threats, no wheedling, no manipulation. With this statement, you acknowledge that other people have a right to do things you may not like, and, drumroll, you have a plan for that.

Thus, it’s not “You better be on time, or else!” and then fume when they’re late. That’s not a boundary. A boundary is “We agreed to leave at 11:30. If you’re not here before then, I’m going to have to go without you.” It’s very respectful. You acknowledge you can’t make others do what you want, and you gently let them know they can’t make you do want they want, either. The natural consequence of their being late is not everyone’s late. It’s their being left behind.

So you can see this kind of self-protection plan works well in those chronic annoying situations where someone else’s bad habits roll downhill on you, costing them nothing. You’re handing the cost of their actions back to them, and you can do it politely, with advance warning. No passive aggression here. No one’s left in their driveway wondering why you’re not responding to texts. This may end all tardiness—or not. It doesn’t matter because control isn’t the goal. You leaving on time is the goal.

More serious boundary examples:

  • “Drink all you want. But if you do drink, I will not drive with you. I will call for a car.”
  • “Date anyone you want, pursue your happiness wherever it takes you. But if you want to date others, I will not date you, for my happiness lies in constancy.”

You know you’ve got a solid working boundary when, if the worst happens, you can walk away. That’s what all these examples have in common. No one can protect herself (or her children, or her property) against everything, but a good boundary is set with the goal of keeping your person and your equilibrium safe.

When do you know you’ve got an iffy boundary or no boundary at all? When you’ve handed your safety and emotional stability to someone else.

Let’s look at a household boundary: “Husband, you can leave the toilet seat up, but if you do, I will …” Um, gee, what goes here, besides impotent rage? Awkward. I can’t think of anything you can insert into that statement that isn’t an empty threat. And walking away certainly seems extra.

If you are thinking That sounds like real life, you are correct, and tell you what else: I never came up with anything I liked better than, “If you leave the seat up, well … I will just put it down my own self.” Gasp, WHAT? Yes, I found a simple unilateral solution, and it works great. It only takes a second. Emotional equilibrium is in my own control, and I am unflapped.

I’ve come to see that even good people don’t always agree with me about what’s important. And sometimes, especially if I’m not fuming, I might decide they’re right after all, and the thing I thought was so important really isn’t—as I did with the toilet seat.

And some things are important. So hopefully your cousin doesn’t actually want to drink and drive, and your coworker wants to be on time and your boyfriend will decide you’re the one for him. But if not, you’ve got a formula for creating a self-care boundary that can be expressed temperately. Kindly, even.

One last little thing about boundaries: You don’t actually have to inform anyone in advance about your boundary, or inform them at all. You can just know what your own boundary is, and deploy as needed.

More resources: I do want to acknowledge that not everyone has the personal power to set boundaries, and not everyone can walk away from danger or difficulty. In the US, the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233) can help with a path to safety.


Image: A Lion from the Menagerie of King Louis Napoleon, 1808, Pieter Gerardus van Os, 1808, Rijksmuseum. Used with permission.

About The Author

Max Daniels is a research-based life coach whose weekly emails make us laugh with recognition and rethink everything we thought we knew. Her new book is Meals at Mealtimes. What a concept!


  • Thank you. Your thoughts and words are very helpful…

  • Wonderful, thank you Max. I should post this on my refrigerator!

  • Powerful ( and timely) thank you!

  • Thanks for your inspiring words. Very timely, I’m going through a situation and this article hit it on the nose.

  • If you leave the toilet seat up, I expect you to keep the porcelain ring as clean as I keep the seat. Just. Saying. Still not really a boundary, but a clearer expectation.
    I think the earlier boundary that worked was – I’m not spending the night in am apartment where…

    • Great!

    • Also, that’s an extremely handsome lion.

  • Such great advice! Would love your thoughts and advice on declining invites to events during COVID. Seems easy to stay safe but I’m running across hurt feelings and judgy folk

    • At this time, safety is more important than judgy folk. It’s not self care, it’s survival. Dune prime aren’t taking it a seriously as others, out refusing to acknowledge the risks to others. And you can always trust when they say “we’ll be careful”. My friend and family just went to a big family gathering because he husband was missing seeing them in person. Although assured that percussions would be taken, there were no masks and no social distancing. My friend & family had to self isolate afterward because of the exposure risk. She was furious. The family out her 3yr old white had health issues when born at risk. You can’t know what risks the people who want to get together are taking; what level of risk they find acceptable. You can set that boundary firmly, politely, with a clear conscience. “I’m sorry, it would be great, but it’s a risk I’m not taking right now. I hope we can get together again once the spread of this virus is controlled”. And that’s that. You need no other justification. Hopefully if there are hard feelings they will blow over or be repaired in the future.

    • Boundaries protect YOU. If judgy people get hurt feelings, your only responsibility is to recognize that THEY chose those feelings.

      • Reminder: no one chooses their feelings; they can only choose how to respond.

    • I say I am not comfortable going out yet, thanks anyway (etc.). Change the subject if ppl persist.

  • I married the guy who looked good after three years of courtship but my gut was saying no ! And my gut was so right. Having not lived with him before we were married because I had a small child. Control of me became increasingly evident and after 13 years I had to leave, break up my family and I lost everything but my soul. He was married again after a three year period of dating and although it was his third marriage, it was big and in the Catholic Church. I had boundaries before my marriage, but I encountered a narcissist who made me stronger.

  • thank you, thank you, thank you

  • This whole toilet seat thing is so silly. The answer is that EVER”YONE puts the seat and lid down after they use the toilet. Period. No gender issues, no arguments. Just put all moveable parts down when you’re done.

    • Nancy, I thought I was the only one with that solution, and it is so simple and fair. It also solves the dog drinking out of the toilet issue!

    • We have always had the “everyone closes everything” rule for our toilets. Boy, was I glade did when I first heard about the flushing spray!

    • It is called respect. And love.

    • I am so happy I don’t have to share a bathroom with anyone. After all the science experiments that showed how much bad stuff is actually floating through the air in bathrooms (and how far it can travel — 10 to 15 feet, anybody?), I’m horrified at the thought that there’s anyone left out there who doesn’t actually close the lid on their toilet before flushing, every single time, no matter what. I’ll repeat the actual words spoken by one of the young science types participating in one of these studies: “There’s poo everywhere!”

      But I digress! Boundaries are great. Even better is actually following through with them and not letting yourself down. That part is harder.

      • You’re absolutely right when you say there’s poo everywhere, including on those toothbrushes hung by the sink. Pointing that out ended the toilet seat issue in my house.

  • Thank you for your excellent words and lovely lion. We purchased a toilet seat that gently returns to the rim with a gentle downward push. No need to bend over. No more slamming of the seat.
    P.S. Writing “Please close me” on the underside of the seat brought about this solution.

    • Oh my gosh, I am finding a Sharpie and doing this right now!

  • “ You can just know what your own boundary is, and deploy as needed.”
    Quietly and calmly. But you have to have your plan in place in advance.

  • Such a perfect gift you’ve given us today; this day when RBG is honored for her lifetime of efforts. I think I ‘ll beging to ask, What would RUTH do?

  • Wonderful article. I love the simple clarity between boundary and control. One had to choose carefully what boundaries one sets and be willing to keep them. As the only female in the house, I gave up on the toilet seat long ago. On masks, it’s easy. I wear one. If you come into my house you wear one. I don’t go to other houses. I stop away from others not wearing them, just as I would step away from someone blowing cigarette smoke my way.

    And I knit anywhere I can. NO KNITTING BOUNDARIES

  • I have been trying to learn this, thank you thank you for saying this in a way I feel!

  • Love your no text hours. My boundary on that is just to have my phone’s Do Not Disturb feature on during those hours. Works great.

    • I do the same thing!

  • I have one for the toilet seat: “If you leave the toilet seat up (or the lid up), our idiot cats will try to drown each other again.”

  • Trying to decide what to do when my sister yells at me at family gatherings. I usually don’t want to leave, because then I don’t get to see the other nicer people who are not yelling at me. Ignore her? Shun her for 24 hours? Yell back? Shock her with a cow prod? Sometimes it’s not that easy.

    • You could always leave the next time it happens. Your boundary is not being yelled at. Perhaps your family will exert some peer pressure on your sister to make her think twice about the next time. If they don’t, they aren’t as nice as they think they are. No one deserves verbal abuse at a family gathering.

    • Depends on what she reacts to, right? And what you can handle. Is first step to say calmly “I’m so sorry you can’t communicate without yelling.” Or “Uncle _____, I would love to catch up with you, but I can’t really chat over the volume of _____. Won’t you come in the other room with me?” Or stand up and make your round of goodbyes and regrets that you have to leave because you just can’t stay where she is yelling at you. If you do it, and leave, it at least protects you, and if they all turn on you, they aren’t really the nicest, either.

  • The toilet seat story reminds me of my mum’s advice to me when my kids were small – “choose your battles”. That was such good advice. It has meant that I haven’t spent my time and energy on fighting them over the position of the toilet lid, but have instead spent time setting boundaries based on how they treat other people and themselves, in the hope that they grow up into kind people who can also confidently set their own boundaries.

    Thanks for setting it out so clearly Max.

  • That was excellent advice!!

  • Thanks for sharing her wise words

  • Thank you for your uplifting words. Our personal boundaries make it easier for us to see ourselves and accept what we see. And those we want to live with.

    • So very important! Thanks for the wisdom

  • I enjoyed this article very much and it will stick with me. Thank you!

  • One thing about boundaries is that you have to commit to doing what you said you would do – leave without them, call for a ride home, etc. If you don’t commit to it, it’s not a boundary, it’s a sentence.

  • My wonderful husband and I share one bathroom. I solved the toilet seat problem without saying a word and even got a compliment from him. I printed out this emoji and taped it to the underside of the culprit toilet seat. Print out a bunch as they do not hold up, but it works.

    • I just noticed that the emoji I used did not appear in my comment. It is the sad face with the tear.

      • I tell you what, Barbara: I am practically MUTE these days without the ability to add emoji {winky face here}

  • Wise words, and so very reasonable.

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