How to set polite boundaries.

Boundaries are not a new concept dreamt up by insubordinate millennials. They’ve been around for centuries, but many would have you believe the opposite.

Boundaries are not a new concept dreamt up by insubordinate millennials. They’ve been around for centuries, but many would have you believe the opposite. In reality, boundaries are essential to the development and maintenance of healthy relationships and, quite honestly, a healthy life. Unfortunately, it’s a skill many of us aren’t taught. Quite a few of us grow up in a world where the most is expected from us at all times. Our attention, our undivided support, our aid. Although a lack of boundaries starts within the home (and is usually a generational problem), it can easily spill over into our school and work lives

Without boundaries we find ourselves taking on too much. The fear of saying no to our friends, family, and boss is just too much of a scary thing to handle. So, despite our own limitations, we become the ‘yes’ man. 

“Having healthy boundaries means knowing and understanding what our limits are.” Dr. Gionta. 

Why do we need boundaries? 

Boundaries serve many functions, but first and foremost they enable us to recognize and stick to our own limitations. They tell others how we want to be treated, what’s good and what’s not, therefore protecting us from harm or mistreatment. 

They also create a healthy separation both physically and mentally between yourself and those around you. Boundaries set aside space for yourself, your privacy, and your own feelings, thoughts, and needs. They enable you to separate work from your personal life, the needs of others from your needs, and your self-care from others. Overall, they allow you to be yourself rather than becoming an extension of someone else. They leave you free to be who you are instead of what others might expect from you. 

Image from Drew Hays

Five Simple ways to set polite boundaries. 

Okay. I get it. It can be hard to know where to start when it comes to boundaries when you’re just starting out. The truth is that there is no simple nor ‘polite’ way to do it. Setting boundaries in itself isn’t a rude or aggressive thing, but it’s how others preserve them that leads us to believe that they’re impolite. This is especially true in my home country where boundaries are few and far between, especially among families and workplaces. 

Be clear about what you want. 

Not everyone will need direct and clear instruction when it comes to maintaining and respecting boundaries. But in my experience, those people are few and far between. I usually find that while some of my family members respect that I need time away from them, or respect that I have different opinions to them, others simply don’t get it.

They see my opinions, specifically in regards to boundaries, as insulting and even disrespectful. 

My mother, for example, would drop everything at a moment’s notice to respond to the needs of another person. She would even jeopardise her own self-care and needs for fear of letting someone else down. “Oh, what will they think of me if I say no? was a phrase that was passed down to me and something that was constantly on my mind. 

For those more difficult to reach, it’s important that we’re direct in what we want to achieve. We need to be able to describe what it is we want and why it’s important to us. Not only will this help open the lines of communication, no matter how different they may be, but it’ll also help you keep sight of why you’re setting boundaries in the first place. It can be easy to give in, but when we have a clear goal in mind, it can motivate us to tough it out.  

If you’re brand new to the concept of boundaries, it might be a good idea to write down what you want, why and a few bullet points on specific talking points. You may even go as far as to rehearse it in the mirror or with a loved one that you trust.

Don’t apologise! 

It can be difficult NOT to apologise. I get it. I’m a recovering over-apologiser. But if, when trying to talk about our boundaries, we use excessive explanations or apologies, we end up watering down the message. 

For example, instead of justifying why you can’t work that extra shift, simply say ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t cover it’ and leave it there. You don’t need to justify yourself, nor do you need to give a reason as to why you can’t. Even if you have no reason and simply don’t want to work that day, it’s fine. You’re allowed to say no, even without a reason to! 

By trying to explain yourself you’re simply reinforcing the idea that ‘no’ is a dirty word. Keep it simple. You have every right to say no, and don’t need to justify it with a ‘valid’ reason. 

This may be one of the more difficult steps in the boundary process. I’m still getting to grips with it. But when I catch myself over-explaining or seeking justification, I have to remind myself that I don’t need to. All I need to do is keep it simple because I deserve to ask for what I need and I’m entitled to say no. 

Don’t take other people too seriously. 

Not everyone is going to respond well to your boundaries. In fact, it’s best to expect some hostility. Usually, those who respond poorly benefited from your lack of boundaries in some form, and now that you’re putting up defenses, they don’t want anything to change. While some might try to manipulate you away from your boundaries, others may just take some time to come around to the idea. 

I’ve found that one of the biggest reasons I didn’t set boundaries was my own internal fear of conflict. I was, and still am to a degree, terrified of upsetting or angering people. This often meant I was sacrificing my own needs, wants and even mental health in order to remain the perfect friend, employee, lover, and even family member. But, it helps to remind myself that when people resist my boundaries, it’s an even bigger indication that they’re needed. 

Remember: You aren’t responsible for how others react to your boundaries. You can not and should not feel like you need to ‘please’ them or correct how they act towards your newfound strength. 

Self-care is a priority.

Think of boundaries as an act of self-care. You’re giving yourself permission to put yourself first, arguably one of the most important mantras of self-care. When we start to put our own needs before those of others, our push to stick to our boundaries becomes stronger. It gives us a satisfying kick and before you know it you’re adept at sticking to your guns. 

If you need time to decompress after a particularly difficult shift in work, yet you’re being hounded to take on another, it’s okay to say no. Likewise, if you need to spend your one day a week off catching up on some prime relaxation time instead of visiting in-laws, that’s perfectly acceptable. Never feel bad for putting your own need for space, rest, and time ahead of what others expect from you. Often their expectations are far too high anyway. 

It won’t happen overnight. Start out small.

Learning to reprogram our minds and how we allow others to treat us won’t happen overnight. If boundaries aren’t something you’ve grown up with, then it might take some time to fully accept and implement them. Don’t panic! Like any good habit, it takes time to adapt to a new way of thinking. Practice makes perfect and the more you practice your boundaries, the more natural they’ll become. 

Not sure how to set boundaries verbally? Here are some phrases you can use.

There are many ways you can verbally set boundaries, but they can be hard to master when we’re first starting out.First and foremost, it’s important to be assertive, not aggressive when it comes to saying ‘no.’ It’s also important to say ‘no’, however you choose to phrase it, with a sense of confidence!

Here are ten phrases for you to practice!

  • I appreciate you thinking of me, but I have to say no.
  • I would love to be able to help you, but I can’t.
  • That’s sounds like such a good idea, but I can’t right now.
  • I’m booked up at the moment.
  • No thanks, I can’t.
  • I need some me time right now, so I’ll have to decline. But thank you for thinking of me.
  • I have something else going on.
  • I have another commitment.
  • I wish I were able to, but I can’t.
  • I’m afraid I can’t.


  1. Great post. I’m a recovering people pleaser and I’m slowly learning to set boundaries and stop letting others take advantage. Daily affirmations telling myself I’m strong and assertive have helped tremendously. I loved reading this post – thanks for sharing.

    Jade MumLifeandMe

  2. Amazing tips! I so read myself here, I am an over apologizer and always trying to not create discomfort for others until some time ago when I felt like I was just doing a disservice to myself. Setting boundaries can be upsetting for some, but what I learned is that others should accept your limits as much as you do theirs. x

  3. I definitely needed to read this. The timing was just perfect! We tend to copy people around us when we are little. I grew up in a house where it wasn’t okay to say “no.” You also mentioned that your mother would drop whatever she was doing and respond to the needs of others. My mother was the same. Now, I’m trying to learn how to set boundaries, protect my own space, and learn to say “no” and try to overcome these imposed beliefs. As you also said, “no” is not a dirty word! Thank you so much for sharing. I loved reading it. x Penny /

  4. You’ve shared some really great tips here lovely which I’ll for sure be using myself! Setting boundaries is so important yet it’s something I’m awful at. I’m working the best I can on that and this blogpost has defiantly come at the perfect time for me. Thank you so much for sharing with us Xo

    Elle –

  5. Learning to set boundaries is really important for our mental health. Saying no without feeling like you need to apologize is something I found really hard to do at my previous job and I must admit that it cost me a lot. All your tips are precious in setting polite boundaries.

  6. This is very informative, some people don’t know how to set them and stick to them.

  7. Great post. Boundaries are SO important but I always say that it’s never as easy as just “cutting people out”. There are some people that you want in your life but perhaps in smaller doses, for whatever reason and those are the sort of people you’ll need to set polite boundaries with.

  8. Be Clear About What You Want always and communicate it, without fear or hesitation.

  9. These are all really great things that I should remember! Specially self care should be priority!

  10. Boundaries vary quite a bit from person to person, but it is important to have them, even if only a little. And it is just as important that we respect the boundaries that others have in place.

  11. For what it’s worth, I thought you made some very clear and potent points here. Often in therapy work, isn’t our perception key to how we handle our experiences? Here, there is an example of viewing boundary-setting as self-care. Of course, that’s what it’s about, but somehow knowing that, it takes on a different meaning than merely upsetting others.

  12. Yes — great advice! I think it’s so important not to apologize for setting boundaries too as (for some hearing them) it can be seen as an opening for negotiation. This is great reminder to be consistent and clear.

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