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S2 EP219 – Are You Confused About Boundaries in Relationships?

Episode Summary

Many people confuse boundaries – which are a way of taking loving care of yourself – with controlling behavior toward others. Discover what a boundary is and what it isn’t. 


Hi everyone! Dr. Margaret Paul here with the Inner Bonding Podcast. Today I’m talking about the issue of boundaries in relationships. Many people are confused about what a boundary really is and what it looks like to set an appropriate boundary.

My clients often explain to me how they set a boundary. They tell me something like:

  • “I set a boundary. I told him he has to stop putting me down in public.”
  • “I set a boundary. I told her she has to be on time from now on.”
  • “I set a boundary. I told him he has to stop being critical of me.”

This is NOT a boundary. A boundary is not about telling another person what to do. It is about telling another person what YOU will do in the face of the other’s continued unkind or undesirable behavior. While it is hard for most people to accept, we cannot control another’s behavior. What we can control is our own response in the face of others’ behavior.

My client, Marilee told me in one of our early sessions: “I set a boundary. I told him that he couldn’t speak to me that way anymore.”

My client, Jackson said to me in one of our early sessions: “I earn the money. My girlfriend doesn’t work but loves to spend the money I earn. So I set a boundary. I told her that she had to stop spending so much money and racking up credit card bills.”

Both of these people are confused about what a boundary is. They think a boundary is something they set for someone else, but they are wrong.

A boundary is something you set for yourself.

For example, if Marilee had said to her partner, “I’m no longer available to being spoken to like that, and every time you speak to me in a disrespectful tone, I will disengage and end the conversation,” she would have been setting a boundary.

The boundary she would have set for herself is that she would leave when her partner is treating her disrespectfully. For the boundary to have power, she would need to act on it every time her partner treated her badly.

Do you see the difference in these statements? If Marilee says to her partner, ‘You can’t speak to me like that anymore,” what power does THAT have? In reality, she has NO CONTROL over how he chooses to speak to her. What she DOES have control over is what she does in the face of his unloving behavior.

If Jackson says to his girlfriend, “You need to stop spending so much and racking up our credit card bill,” what might be the result? His girlfriend might go into resistance to being controlled by him and spend even more money. If Jackson were to set a boundary, he would say something like, “Your spending is over the top. It’s no longer okay with me. If you keep spending like this, I will cancel your credit cards.” Since Jackson earns the money, he would then be able to control how much he made available to his girlfriend.

Of course, for Marilee and Jackson to set a boundary for themselves, they have to be willing to lose their partner. In any relationship, in order to take loving care of ourselves, we have to be willing to lose the other person rather than lose ourselves by continuing to feel used or abused by the other person. It is not easy to commit to take loving care of yourself and risk losing your partner. But often loss of self leads to depression and relationship disconnection. Is it really worth it to lose yourself?

In a caring, loving relationship, you can make reasonable requests of your partner and your partner will want to do all he or she can to meet your requests. But in a dysfunctional relationship, your partner might ignore your requests, just as Jackson’s girlfriend repeatedly ignored his. That’s when you need to accept that the caring is getting lost in the power struggles and control issues. To get yourself out of the unloving system that the two of you have created, you may need to open to learning and explore what boundaries you need to set for yourself.

We train people in how to treat us. If we allow others to use and abuse us, then they will often continue to do so. Since others may be treating you the way you treat yourself, you might want to explore how you are treating yourself that may be leading you to feeling used or abused in your relationship.

Before Marilee could set a boundary for herself, she needed to reach a place within where she felt good enough about herself to know that she didn’t deserve to be treated badly. In learning and practicing Inner Bonding, she learned how to love herself rather than continue to abandon herself. Within a few months of doing her inner work, she was able to set her boundary and act on it each time her partner was disrespectful. By no longer being available to being treated badly and by treating herself with respect, her partner slowly started to treat her with more respect.

Jackson also did his Inner Bonding work and reached a place where he was willing to set the boundary and act on it. The next time he received a big credit card bill for his girlfriend’s spending, he cancelled her cards. The result was that she left the relationship and Jackson had to come to terms with the truth – that she was in the relationship for the money and not because she loved him. He realized it was better that he discovered this now before losing a lot more money. He also established another boundary for himself – he was no longer going to give his credit cards to his girlfriends.

When I spoke to my client Lynne about what it means to set boundaries, this is what she said about an issue with a friend: “I like this way of describing who is responsible for setting boundaries. I struggle with trying to define my limits, especially with my email friend with whom I have crossed my own boundaries for a long time. I don’t know how to start over with new boundaries and decide what is okay and what is not. It’s easier to just take an extended break and put the thing on hold, although I do feel guilty about abandoning my friend.”

Lynne was currently unwilling to let her email friend know what she was available for and what she was not available for, so her wounded self decided to just take a break. But so characteristic of the wounded self, she then judged herself for abandoning her friend. But in reality, she was abandoning herself by not setting the boundary and then guilting herself for it. I let her know that the term ‘abandonment’ means leaving someone she is responsible for, such as a child or an old person she has agreed to care of, or herself, since she is responsible for herself. But she isn’t responsible for her email friend. Her intent in taking an extended break was to control, avoid, and protect, rather than to be loving to herself and to her friend.

As I’ve often said, one major cause of anxiety, depression, guilt, and shame is self-abandonment, and certainly making herself responsible for others’ choices and feelings is a form of self-abandonment.

Sometimes my clients are confused about the concept of others often treating us the way we treat ourselves, and I explain that it’s not a black or white situation. We certainly are not in control over how others treat us, but we might influence them by how we treat ourselves. When I was caretaking and not respecting myself, I was often treated with disrespect, but that rarely occurs now. When it does, I disengage and let the person know that I’m not available for disrespectful and unloving behavior.

Joyce wrote the following question to me in one of my webinars:

“Hi Dr. Paul. One of my biggest struggles is being open to giving and receiving love, but also setting boundaries. I want to be loving, not controlling, but I don’t want people to say or treat me in ways that I don’t like. How to reconcile?”

What I told her is that “Of course you don’t want people to treat you in ways that you don’t like. Who would want that? It’s painful when people treat us in unloving ways.

“However, the real issue is to come to terms with what you can and can’t control. I got the feeling from your question that while you don’t want to be controlling, you believe that setting boundaries gives you control over whether or not others treat you in ways you don’t like.

“This is the false belief you need to come to terms with. It sounds like you believe that a boundary is something you set for someone else, rather than something you set for yourself.

“If you tell someone, ‘You can’t treat me that way,’ what good is that going to do? They could respond with, ‘Yes I can. I can treat you any way I want.’ Then what?

“The fact is that you have no control over how someone else treats you, but you have total control over how you treat yourself, and how you respond to the way others treat you.

“If you are going to set a loving boundary for yourself, then, instead of saying “You can’t treat me that way,” you will say something like, “I don’t like being treated this way, and if you continue, I will leave this conversation (or get off the phone, or leave the house, or leave the relationship). This is what you do have control over – what you choose to do in the face of another’s unloving behavior.

“You will be able to open your heart to loving others when you know that if others treat you unlovingly, you will take loving care of yourself by either moving into an intent to learn with that person – if you think he or she will be available to learning with you – or lovingly disengaging and then compassionately managing the loneliness and heartache that are always there when someone is unloving. When loving yourself is a higher priority than controlling others, then you will be able to give and receive love.”

The art of setting boundaries is tied in with fully accepting your helplessness over others. As long as you believe you can control another person, then you will not accept the truth – that you are powerless over another’s intent to be loving or unloving.

However, you are not at all powerless over whether YOU choose to be loving or unloving to yourself and others. When your intent is to be loving to yourself, then you will naturally be unavailable for others’ unloving behavior.

The thing that makes this so challenging is that it is very hard for all of us to accept that we have no control over another’s intent and their resulting behavior. We want so badly to be able to get a person who is being unloving to us to open and to be loving, because we don’t want to feel the pain of their choice. This is why it is so important for you to learn to compassionately manage your very painful feelings of loneliness, heartbreak, grief, and helplessness over others. Without knowing that you can manage these feelings, you will either try to control others or not allow yourself to give and receive love. Neither of these choices will lead to joy or to a loving relationship.

A boundary is about telling your truth and taking action on it. For example:

  • Saying to a partner who judges you in public: “I’m no longer willing to be with you in public when you put me down. The next time you do that, I will announce to everyone that I’m unwilling to be put down by you anymore. Then I will leave and take the car home.”
  • Or, saying to a partner who is always late: “I’m no longer willing to be late to events because of you being late. The next time you are late, I will leave without you. If you continue to be late, then I will just plan on taking separate cars.”
  • Or, saying to a partner who is very critical: “Your constant criticisms feel awful to me. From now on, when you are critical, I will tell you that it feels awful and leave the room.”

Then, of course, you have to take the action you have said you would take. If you do not take the action, then what you have said is a manipulation rather than a truth. A boundary means nothing until you are willing to take the action.

The tricky part of this has to do with your intent. If your intent is to control the other person rather than take loving care of yourself, then your statement and action is just another form of control. If your desire is to take responsibility for yourself, then your tone of voice will be calm and matter of fact – just letting the other person know what you will be doing or are doing. If your desire is to control the other person, then your tone of voice will be angry, blaming, and accusing, and your energy will be hard and closed.

We cannot hide our intent – it will always come through in our energy and our tone of voice. However you might try to mask an intent to control, the other will always pick up on it and probably react to it with his or her own controlling behavior.

You are coming from a place of personal power when your intent is to take loving care of yourself rather than control the other. Since you cannot ultimately control another, trying to will leave you feeling frustrated and powerless.

The challenging part of this is taking the loving action on your own behalf. In order to take loving care of yourself, you need to be willing to let go of the outcome regarding how the other person will feel and behave. If you are focused on controlling how the other person will feel in the face of your actions, then you will not be able to take the loving action. If your focus is on the other person, such as, “He will feel hurt and angry if I leave the party,” or “She will be furious with me if I leave without her,” or “He will feel rejected and tell me I am running away from conflict if I leave the room when he is critical,” then you will be unable to take the loving action.

Only if you are bringing empathy and compassion to yourself will you be able to act on your own behalf. Compassion for yourself means that you are willing to take full responsibility for your own feelings rather than trying to get someone else to do it for you, or rather than trying to control another’s feelings or actions. It means that you are willing for the other person to be upset with you rather than continue to be treated unkindly.

If you tolerate unkind treatment, you are letting others know that it is okay to treat you badly. By learning to take loving care of yourself in the face of others’ unkind behavior through practicing Inner Bonding, you will find that, more often than not, others will respect you and treat you better.

Boundary issues can occur around others being invasive with you, or you being invasive with others. The issue of invasiveness can be a difficult and sometimes subtle issue.

We are being invasive when we tread upon another’s physical or emotional space without being invited. Sometimes we think we are being kind when we are actually being invasive. For example, my client Polly decided to clean up her husband Brad’s office and move the furniture around as a surprise for him. Brad was surprised – but not pleased. Taking it upon herself to move his furniture was invasive and Brad felt violated rather than cared for. On the other hand, Polly feels invaded by Brad when they get into bed at night and Brad grabs her breasts. It’s obvious to Polly that he is using her breasts for his comfort, and the neediness of it makes her cringe. He is not giving to her – he is taking from her, and it feels violating rather than caring or sensual to her. 

If our parents were invasive with us, we might not realize when we are being invaded.

My mother was highly invasive in terms of being judgmental and telling people what to do. She was constantly telling me how to live my life, what was right for me, what I should do differently, and what was wrong with me. Since she had been doing this my whole life, I didn’t realize that it was invasive until I started doing Inner Bonding and tuning into my feelings. Once I started practicing Step One – staying tuned into my feelings – I realized how much I disliked her judgments and invasiveness. Through practicing Inner Bonding, I finally learned to stand up for myself by letting her know that I was not available for her opinions unless I asked for them. It was not easy for her to stop, but each time she tried to tell me what to do, I would hold up my hand and quietly say, “Stop.” She finally stopped.

As a child, Madeline’s father was sexually invasive – giving her slobbery full-mouth kisses, telling her dirty jokes, and frequently grabbing her butt. This behavior continued into her adult life. It was only after starting to practice Inner Bonding that she realized that this was highly inappropriate and invasive. She had always hated it but thought there was something wrong with her for hating it. Her Inner Bonding work gave her the courage to speak with him about it and put a stop to his sexual invasiveness.

While on the phone with Sally, one of my older clients, her call waiting kept clicking. Finally, she interrupted her session to answer the call. It was a very needy friend of hers ostensibly calling to check on her to make sure she was okay. Sally had told her friend that she had a session with me at that time, but her friend, not really caring about interrupting Sally, was being invasive out of her own neediness.

Invasion as a boundary issue can be as minor as interrupting you while you are on the phone, standing too close to you, or hugging you when you don’t want to be hugged, or as major as theft or physical or sexual violence. Invasiveness can be verbal, physical to your being, or physical to your belongings or space. When someone wants what they want from a self-serving place, and they disregard what you want or feel, they are being invasive and violating your boundaries.

I’ve discovered an interesting thing about invasiveness.

The caretaker often has overly loose boundaries regarding being invaded but is generally quite careful of not invading others’ boundaries. The caretaker tends to see themselves as unimportant and others as important. The taker generally has strong or rigid boundaries regarding being invaded, while often unconsciously being invasive with others. The taker tends to see themselves as important and others as less important. Both of these types – aspects of the wounded self – need work regarding invasiveness: the caretaker needs stronger personal boundaries, while the taker needs to be more conscious of not being invasive with others. Both need to be doing their Inner Bonding work to develop a loving adult who sets appropriate boundaries against being invaded and is conscious of not being invasive with others. Both need to learn to regard themselves and others as important, rather than one or the other.

My client Ann told me in a session, (quote) “My mother was quite invasive last night. It began quite benignly when she asked me about my relationship. But her anxiety gets the better of her and she ends up giving me unsolicited advice of what she thinks I should do, based on dogma. It was quite sad and hurtful.”(Unquote)

“Ann,” I said, “I’m wondering if your inner child feels sad and hurt because you don’t stand up for her. You don’t speak your truth to your mother. I know it’s hard, but what if you just said to her, ‘Mom, please don’t give me advice unless I ask for it, and if you keep doing this, I will get off the phone.’ How would you feel saying that to her?”

“I love that,” Ann said. “That seems so much better than feeling obligated to listen with some level of respect and allow her to finish. I going to try to carry this forward with me.”

“Why do you feel obligated?” I asked her.

“I’m afraid of hurting her,” she said.

“I understand that” I told her, “but aren’t you making her inner child more important than yours? Aren’t you allowing your inner child to feel hurt due to you not taking loving care of her?”

“I never thought of it that way, but I think I’ve been doing that with people my whole life – making their inner child more important than mine. No wonder my inner child is sad and hurt! And angry! I didn’t realize that she is angry at me for not taking care of her and making others’ feelings more important to me than mine. I thought she was angry at my mother, but now I see that she is angry at me!”

As Ann started to speak up for herself and set loving boundaries, her inner child stopped feeling sad, hurt, and angry. And, surprising to her, her relationship with her mother actually got better!

Boundaries are important, and I hope you now understand what a boundary is and what it isn’t – and that you have the courage to set loving boundaries for yourself.

I invite you join me for my bi-monthly masterclass and receive my live help, which you can learn about at

And, I invite you to heal your relationships with my 30-Day online video relationship course: Wildly, Deeply, Joyously in Love.

And you can learn so much about loving yourself and creating loving relationships from my new book, “Lonely No More: The Astonishing Power of Inner Bonding” and from our website at

I’m sending you my love and my blessings.

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