Are You Setting a Boundary or Giving an Ultimatum?

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Boundaries build a foundation of trust and respect that is critical for healthy relationships. Whether it’s with family, friends, people at work or romantic partners, boundaries identify where your limits are and what action - if any - you need to take. Setting boundaries helps you take care of yourself no matter what’s happening around you.

Common Misconceptions

First, healthy boundaries aren’t about getting someone else to change. When we think we can get someone else to change their behavior, we get off track. A boundary needs to describe what you need, without blaming or making the other person feel guilty.

This is where boundary-setting gets tricky. A boundary is intended to protect you physically and emotionally, they can’t be about controlling or manipulating another person.

To keep yourself safe, you need to leave the situation before it escalates because expecting them to stop misses the point. You are 100% responsible for your safety and well-being.

What are boundaries exactly? 

Boundaries are limits you set for yourself. These limits determine what you’re willing to participate in and what you’re not willing to do. Effective boundaries are about your choices not the other person’s. This is why setting healthy boundaries are so important!

Taking full responsibility for your own needs is where you have the most power. You can’t control whether someone respects your boundaries but you can control what you do about it. Click here to read How to Start Setting Boundaries.

Addressing Fears

When you are struggling to set boundaries, it’s usually for one of two reasons: you’re afraid to be seen as selfish or, you’re afraid others will get mad.

If you’re having a hard time setting boundaries, ask yourself why. Confronting the nature of your fears can serve as a reminder not to assume the worst. The people who support your well-being want what’s best for you. They aren’t going to explode if you ask for what you need.

Though, to be fair, when you start establishing your boundaries, you may get some resistance. Even positive change can be threatening to loved ones because not everyone chooses growth. They might fear that your newfound growth will create a wedge in the relationship.

Sometimes, in truth it can. This happens because setting limits changes the game. Say, in the past, friends and family depended on you a little too much but now you’re ready to set some limits and say no. Or, you’re not willing to put up with certain behaviors anymore. They may have a reaction but you’re not responsible for it.

Setting appropriate limits isn’t always comfortable for you or the people in your life especially when they don’t want things to change. Some will react in anger because they don’t understand why you’ve changed. If you get a negative reaction, be patient. Their reaction doesn’t make you or the boundary wrong. 

Boundary, request or ultimatum?

It’s important to know the difference between a boundary and an ultimatum. The following are all the examples of “you” statements that invite defensiveness in the other person":

  • “If you really loved me, you’d stop drinking.” 

  • “Stop yelling at me!” 

  • “You can’t treat my mother like that!” 

  • “You need to get professional help.”

Notice that each statement focuses on getting another person to change. When you’re expecting someone else to change (or insisting that they do what you ask, expect or demand) it’s really an attempt to control the situation. If the other person does what you ask, you won’t have to do anything different. Asking someone else to change is not setting a boundary.

An ultimatum is demanding that someone else change instead of you. Your peace of mind should never depend on what someone else does or doesn’t do. When it does, you’ve already lost.

When a boundary gets delivered as a threat or an ultimatum, the other person will feel controlled and might retaliate in anger. No one likes to be told what to think or how to behave.

On the other hand, making a direct request, is different than setting a boundary. When you ask for what you want, the other person isn’t obligated to say yes. Part of healthy boundaries is being able to accept when someone says no.

Types of Boundaries

Boundaries can be spoken out loud (such as to yourself or to another person) or made silently to yourself. It helps to write out what you need before expressing it to someone else. With unspoken boundaries, you are enforcing the limit yourself. No one else needs to know because you are taking action to protect yourself. 

Examples of Spoken Boundaries

  • I’m willing to talk to you but not when you’re yelling at me (you’re asking them to be calm but if they can’t, you will remove yourself).

  • I’m taking my own car to the event (I’m avoiding riding in a car with someone who drives erratically).

Examples of Unspoken Boundaries:

  • You politely decline an invitation to hang out with people whose drinking makes you uncomfortable.

  • You walk away when your partner is in a foul mood instead of getting defensive.

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Setting Boundaries

1. Identify the need and decide what action to take.

2. State what you need and what you’re going to do.

3. Have a Plan B if the answer you get is no.

4. Remove yourself before a situation becomes unsafe.

Final Thoughts

Healthy boundaries are a powerful way to take care of yourself. When you understand that boundaries are about your own choices and how you express them, it feels empowering. You begin to trust that you can get your needs met rather than getting other people to change. If you hear a no, you can find a healthy alternative. Every relationship you have becomes mutually satisfying with boundaries and it’s time to start!


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