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Mastering Personal Boundaries: The How-to Guide for Building Better Relationships

Updated: Dec 28, 2023

This week, 'Therapy Begins with Tea' steeps on the 'how' of boundaries -- setting, communicating, and enforcing them -- and gives you tips on how to reinforce boundaries using the 'green,' 'yellow,' 'red' framework.


Therapy Begins with Tea is a weekly newsletter based on the themes that come up in my sessions as a therapist who specializes in imposter syndrome, attachment styles in romantic relationships, and our psychological relationships with money. Each week consists of a 'steep' in thought reflection, an accompanying body based check-in, and tea card intentions for the week to come.

'Steep' in Thought (3-5 min)

Boundaries RECAP

Last week's 'steep' in thought explained what boundaries are (and aren't); this week, we're talking about the 'how' of boundaries -- how to set, communicate, and enforce them.

Boundaries, remember, are the limits of the behaviors we accept -- from ourselves and others -- in order to have fulfilling relationships; they are our own terms of engagement.

How Do I know to set a boundarY?

Our boundaries come from our relational needs, like trust, safety, autonomy, and reciprocity. Processing our emotional responses cna help us learn what needs are being met versus ignored. Sometimes emotions need to be acknowledged so that we can soothe ourselves; they help us understand our own behaviors. Other times, they signal the need for a boundary.

How CAn I Communicate A BoundarY?

Sometimes boundaries are intrapersonal -- they remind us of what is acceptable behavior for, and to, ourselves. Other boundaries are interpersonal. Look at the examples below:

"I need to be included in financial decisions."

"I trust you and I want you to have fun with your friends. I just need you to communicate more about what's happening instead of not hearing from you for hours without checking in."

Discussing communication in early-mid dating: "I think my threshold is 3 days in terms of communicating/checking in with each other."

"I can't talk to you any longer about this. Let's regroup tomorrow."

Okay, I've set a boundary. How do I enforce it?

Setting boundaries can be difficult enough, but enforcing them is often where people struggle the most. And that's because it is up to us, not to anyone else, to enforce our own boundaries. Remember, they dictate our responses to others' behaviors, not what other people do or say. That can be difficult & scary when we're feeling disempowered or afraid of rejection. Sometimes it means detaching ourselves from social situations that we'd otherwise want to be a part of. Enforcing our boundaries requires a lot of intentional thought about what we're willing to do to maintain the boundary for ourselves.

The full body check-in below is an exercise adopted by Melissa Urban to gradually set 'green,' 'yellow,' & 'red' boundaries.

Full Body Check-In (2-4 min)

As always, we start with a mindful breath. In through the nose, filling not just the lungs, but also the belly. Out through the mouth in a relaxed sigh. Repeat a few times to center yourself.

The degree to which you enforce a boundary depends on 1) the boundary itself and 2) the intensity & frequency of the boundary violation. The context for the boundary examples used today is a family member who makes judgements about your ____ (body, job, life choices, identities). Can you think of a context where you want to set a boundary or a situation where you had trouble enforcing a boundary? Use that scenario or the one below to practice.

Imagine the scene in your mind. Use your senses to crystalize the picture.

GREEN (set the boundary): "Even if it's out of love, I don't want to hear comments about [my body} anymore."

Imagine yourself setting the green boundary. What does it feel like? How do you feel it in your body?


After setting the green boundary, the same person crosses it again. Internally, how do you react? What feelings & thoughts come up? When you're ready, imagine responding with a yellow boundary like the one below.

YELLOW (restate the boundary and share what you're willing to do to enforce it): "I don't want to talk about [my body] or hear comments about it. If it continues, I'm going to have to leave the room."

Check in with yourself. What comes up when you share what you're willing to do to enforce it? Where do you feel it?


Despite multiple reminders, the person crosses your boundary again. What comes up? When you're ready, imagine responding with a red boundary like the one below.

RED (most firm, enforce the boundary): I've told you that I'm not accepting comments about [my body] and you keep doing it, so I'm going to leave the room now."

What do you feel? Where do you feel it? What is it like to have to enforce the boundary yourself?


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