How To Set Boundaries at Work and Home

Saying no and setting boundaries is about honouring your needs — but that doesn’t make it easy. Discover expert advice from a registered practitioner.

As we begin to return to more in-person activities and routines and expectations shift, the need to assert our boundaries and make room for self-care is increasingly important. 

If you've ever struggled with setting boundaries in your personal or work relationships, you're not alone. Boundary-setting is one of the more challenging interpersonal communication skills, and there's a very good reason for that. "We aren't born with the ability to set boundaries, and it's not something we inherently know how to do," says Alberta-based Inkblot therapist and social worker Audra Potter. "It's a skill we have to learn." 

Generally, we first learn about boundaries from our families — how the adults in our lives deal with conflict. So if later in life, you have trouble speaking up about your wants and needs, or you have difficulty communicating during arguments, it might be because you weren't equipped with these skills in the first place. "Often we weren't given the tools when we were young, and we don't realize we're lacking those skills until we need them and we don't have them," says Potter.

To help you understand why establishing boundaries can be difficult and how to do it effectively as life pressures increase, we asked Potter to share her insights. 

Boundaries are difficult but necessary

In addition to it being a skillset that requires practice, boundary-setting is difficult for many reasons. Even if you learned about boundaries in a healthy environment, putting them into practice is only helpful if you know what you want out of a situation. Being clear on your needs is the first step to acting in alignment with them. 

The types of big emotions often involved in conflict can also get in the way of clear and healthy boundary-setting. “When [emotions] get big and intense, it’s nearly impossible to be effective in how we communicate,” says Potter. 

But communicating your boundaries is a necessary skill to adopt for any type of relationship you engage with — be it romantic, familial or professional. “Boundaries are basically our rules that we set in relationships, and they help to tell you and other people what’s OK and what’s not OK,” says Potter. In other words, she says, boundaries are like personal instruction manuals. 

“Boundaries help you operate your relationships.”

3 tools for setting boundaries 

Doing boundary work is important in honouring your needs and validating yourself. “When I start boundary work with clients, I always tell them this is work you’re doing on yourself, strategies you’re learning for you,” says Potter. Below are three tools you can use when setting boundaries in all areas of your life.

1. Self-reflection

First, get clear on your needs and values. "If you don't know, you can't set good boundaries," reminds Potter. Learning about your personal values can support you in many facets of your life, including self-care, but they can make all the difference when writing your own instruction manual for others to refer to. "Our values are our reason why," she says. "If we understand why we're setting boundaries because they're connected to values that are important to us, it's easier to stay consistent with them."

2. Use clear and respectful communication

Once you've landed on boundaries that align with your values, you're ready to communicate them to others—and the way you communicate can dictate the tone of the conversation. Boundaries can bring up feelings of guilt in shame in both those setting them and those receiving them, so remaining calm and clear is key. "This means speaking up about your feelings and needs by honouring them with I-statements," says Potter. "I feel angry when you don't call me when you're going to be late." Tools like this, rather than lashing out emotionally in the moment, can help you stick to your original goal: honouring and communicating your needs. 

3. Learn when to take a break

Sometimes conversations can get heated, especially if you feel like your boundaries are being broken. You should know it's OK to pause in those moments to ensure you're still able to communicate clearly and respectfully. "You don't have to stay (in a conversation) if you know you're not going to be able to communicate effectively," says Potter. "It can be a simple statement: I'm feeling that I'm getting agitated, so I'm going to take a break and come back and talk to you when I'm calm." Taking a walk around the block or even going into another room and clearing your head can positively impact the outcome of the conversation. 

And a reminder: just because you set a boundary doesn't mean the other person will give you the response you want. People can choose whether or not to respect your boundaries, but since the work is about you instead of about controlling the reactions of others, setting boundaries can serve as a way to gather the information you need to make choices in those relationships. 

"The point is to control and respect your space," says Potter. "If they continue to disrespect you and walk all over those boundaries, that's information they're giving you. They're telling you they're not someone able to honour and respect your space."

Get comfortable with discomfort 

Learning to tell people what you want — or saying no to people, the horror! — can be incredibly uncomfortable if it’s new to you. A big part of boundary work is learning to sit in that discomfort and not bend your boundaries to fit someone’s reaction to them. 

“These are hard emotions to sit with,” says Potter, who first recommends therapy to anyone who wants to learn how to set and stick with boundaries. “A therapist can teach you about ways to be present with your emotions, to be able to explore those emotions, provide that guidance and support.” 

Find support for setting boundaries with Inkblot Therapy

Boundary-setting is undoubtedly a difficult practice at first, but a registered practitioner can help! Our unique matching survey is one of the many ways Inkblot Therapy offers mental health solutions. We'll connect you with providers best suited to your needs by answering questions about your particular concerns. You can match based on your symptoms, stressors, language, religion and much more.

Inkblot Therapy

Audra Potter

Audra Potter is a clinical social worker and therapist based in Calgary, Alberta. She holds a Master of Social Work from the University of Calgary and a Master in Counseling Psychology from Yorkville University. Her areas of focus include working with adults experiencing mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety, trauma, phobias, borderline personality disorder, transitions, relationship issues, loss and grief, and learning to adopt more effective habits and coping in life. Her approach includes using dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), strengths-based and narrative influences and the use of accelerated resolution therapy (ART).