Setting Limits in Relationships: Why We Need Them and What They’re Not

saynoPeople often are at a loss when it comes to setting limits. Many hate setting them, others over use limits and still others think they’re setting them yet aren’t. So what’s the low down on limits? Why do we need them, when do we need them and what a limit is not.

First off, limits are absolutely necessary for healthy relationships—they are your set of operating instructions that help others know how to treat you. If you have no limits then you will eventually become sad, frustrated and resentful in your relationships. We teach people how to treat us and limits are one way we do that. If you have none than you teach others that they can treat you however they’d like and you’ll always be there. Sending someone the message that you’ll always be there no matter how they treat you is a dangerous message.

Setting limits is necessary when:
1.    We don’t like how someone’s treating us.
2.    We find ourselves getting resentful about someone’s behavior and angry that they’re not stopping it.
3.    When someone else’s behavior is negatively impacting our life and state of mind.
4.    When we’ve repeatedly complained, yelled, cried and/or begged for change yet it doesn’t happen.

Hoping and wishing for change, seldom produces change. And while setting a limit does not guarantee that change will happen in the way you want it to happen, it does however, allow you to teach others how to treat you. Setting a limit also sends you the message that you’re worthy of having you’re back.

People often get confused about limits. The bottom line is limits are action steps. They are not threats, complaints, pleas or requests. Yelling and screaming at someone is not a limit. Refusing to speak to someone is not a limit and nor is giving someone the cold shoulder or acting like you’re angry. If the only thing you’re doing in response to someone’s poor behavior is talking about it—to him or her or to others—chances are high that you are not setting a limit. A quick tip for thinking about limits is to think in terms of: “If you continue to do–or not do (fill in the blank), then I will do (Fill in the blank).” For example, “If you ride your bike before you finish your homework, then I will take your bike away for a week. If your child rides the bike prior to completing the homework, then you follow through and take the bike. If you don’t follow through with the limit then you did not set a limit—you made a threat.

In life and relationships, limits are necessary. Setting a limit is not mean, unfair or cruel unless you set them in such a way that they are unfair or cruel—that of course is not about limit though—that’s about your approach to them.

For more information on how to set a limit, what to do when the limit you set isn’t working and how to tell the difference between when to set a limit versus simply make a request, join me in my upcoming teleclass “The Art of Setting Limits”.

Challenge: Pay attention to the role limit setting plays in your life. Remove threats and complaints from your life practices and instead ask for what you want or set a limit when it’s necessary to do so.


  1. Kstar says

    I’m really bad at setting limits. This is something I need to work on. How do you set a limit without patronizing the other person (the example in here was clearly a parent-to-child exchange)?

    I have been having a hard time with a friend who’s behavior fluctuates dramatically and who is awful at communicating. She suffers from chronic depression, which adds another layer or challenge. I realized recently that I am part of the problem– if I want to be respected, I have to establish clear boundaries.

    We got in a horrible fight a few months ago, but have made up. She attacked my character and harped on details and examples that had nothing to do with her. I got super defensive (admittedly my bad) and she shamed me and threatened me covertly. Once I cooled down I recognized that even though the details were sketchy, her overall message was valuable. I expressed this to her, apologized for my erratic response, and gave her some tips for how to communicate better (next time I’d rather you did this). She was receptive, but she never fully took responsibility for her role in the argument. I accepted that her pride was wounded and that she maybe needed some time to let things sink in. I didn’t want to keep harping on the details, so I let it go.

    Her behavior since then has been all over the map (from uncharacteristically nice, to mean-spirited again, to avoidant, to affecting pleasantries, to withdrawn). I finally reached out after missing her birthday and asked her kindly, but directly, what she needed. She sent an email back days later saying she has changed and has been meaning to talk and that she’d explain soon. I told her I respected that and to take the time she needs. I told her I’d support her and that I encourage her to talk to me if necessary, but respect she might need space too.

    She did reach out again via email and she was very nice and receptive. She also said that she didn’t have anything she was “burning to discuss” even though in the last email she said she had a lot on her mind. I respect that she doesn’t have to share anything with me that she doesn’t want, but I am also just getting mixed messages and am at a loss for how I am supposed to react.

    I am going to try to see her for her birthday, and I realize NOW is the time to set these limits. If we end up getting together this week, I want to be armed with mature and reasonable responses in case she acts inappropriately again. I want to be ready, so that I don’t get angry, but I want to be firm in expressing my own needs too.

    I don’t really like interacting with an erratic person that may disrespect me at the drop of a hat or that may have an emotional outburst unexpectedly. But I have also known this friend for over 20 years, I recognize she has depression and that she may need support, and I want to tie up any loose ends so there are no elephants in the room as a result of our last confrontation. I want to know that I did everything I could on MY end, at least. And that includes setting some new boundaries.

    I think in writing this I am already feeling better and am getting some ideas of my own. But do you have any advice?

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