authentic personal power

How to Respond When Setting Boundaries Doesn't Work (Boundaries Series Part 2 of 2)


You’ve recognized your need for change.  You’ve established a boundary and communicated it to the other person.  You may have included a “cause-and-effect” style consequence.  But nothing’s changing.  What’s wrong?

Unfortunately, boundaries aren’t always as straightforward as they seem.  You can run in to several different roadblocks that interfere with effectively setting boundaries.  Here are a few thoughts to consider as you explore why your boundary-setting may not have worked as well as you expected.

Use the broken record method when communicating boundaries.

When you first communicate your boundary, you might receive a defensive response questioning your decision.  This can lead to self-doubt and hedging that makes your boundary less clear.

Instead, reaffirm your boundary by communicating it again.  For example, you might say, “I can understand your perspective and need for help, but I will not be able to take on that volunteer responsibility.” 

You may continue to receive defensive responses from the other person, but your job is to keep communicating that same boundary over and over again, like a broken record.  Hold fast to that boundary in order to protect your needs. 

Remind yourself of your authentic personal power and seek to meet your needs on your own.

Vicki Tidwell Palmer, in her book Moving Beyond Betrayal, uses the phrase authentic personal power to describe the difference between areas in which you have power or control and areas in which you do not.  You can control your own thoughts, actions, behaviors, emotions, and attitudes, but you can’t control the actions or emotions of others.  They may choose not to respect your requests or your boundaries.

Recognize the areas where you are powerless to change others and find ways that you can meet your own needs using your own power.  For example, you can leave the room when an argument with your spouse becomes too heated, or suggest outings other than shopping to your friend with whom you tend to overspend.  Recognizing where you have power allows you to avoid feeling like a victim.

If the outcome is outside of your control because it depends on the actions of someone else, seek creative ways to set boundaries and follow through on consequences to meet your own need.  For example, you could say, “If you choose to come home later than you communicated you would, I will not have dinner prepared and ready for you.”

Follow through on consequences communicated.

A boundary isn’t truly functional unless there is follow-through on the consequences for breaking it.  Often, in a life without boundaries, you’re absorbing the effects of another’s actions instead of allowing them to experience those consequences themselves.

In some cases, consequences are minor and may only have a small impact on the other person.  In choosing outings other than shopping with your friend, you’ll still be able to spend time together: it will just look different.  When you say “no” to a volunteer opportunity, the consequence is that the person who asks will simply have to ask someone else.

But in some cases, the consequences are more significant.  For the addict who continues to act out, they may have to face the consequences of separation or divorce.  These significant consequences often can be difficult for you as well. Be willing to count the cost of these more significant consequences and imagine how they’ll play out, including what you’ll need to reinforce them.  Imagining the story all the way through until the end will help prepare you in case you need to follow through.

It is important to recognize how the consequences you communicate will also affect you and be willing to follow through anyway. If not, your boundaries will be ineffective at allowing you to get your needs met.  For the addict, the most important part of rebuilding trust is to line up words with actions.  In boundary setting, you need to operate with much the same principle.

Get comfortable with saying “no.”

As silly as it may sound, practice saying “no” on your own or with other people.  Stand in front of a mirror and rehearse what you’re going to say in communicating your boundary.  Talk with a friend or therapist and ask them to help you rehearse how your conversation will go.

An added benefit of practicing your “no” with a trusted friend is that you’ll receive support for the boundaries you’d like to set.  You’ll be able to process who the boundary setting goes and having someone to care for you if things don’t turn out as expected.

Be willing to re-evaluate and compromise if needed.

While I often find that the major issue with setting boundaries is maintaining them, the opposite extreme can also come into play: boundaries that become too rigid and unchangeable.  For example, if you decide that your spouse’s late arrival means you won’t make dinner for him or her, what happens when your spouse was involved in a car accident or was caught in an unexpected storm?  It may be worthwhile to reconsider the consequence of the boundary in this situation.

Be willing to have conversations with your loved ones and offer grace in situations that are outside of their control.  Look for places to compromise when your loved ones have a hard time agreeing with or carrying out your boundaries.  What might be a solution in the middle where you could get both of your needs met? Ask what the other individual is willing to agree to and see if that works for you.

Part of revisiting your boundaries might involve acknowledging that you don’t have control over the behaviors and choices of your spouse or of the person with whom you’re setting boundaries.  Since healthy consequences are meant for self-care and not for maintaining control over the other person, your consequences may not lead to change in them.  Boundaries are not meant to control, but are meant to help you receive what you need.

In this case, you’ll likely grieve the loss of an ideal or hoped-for outcome.  If the other person doesn’t respond in the way you’d hoped, you might need to re-evaluate how to get your needs met on your own.  In extreme cases, like in failure to respect boundaries about sexual acting out behaviors outside the marriage, this may mean pursuing separation or divorce.


These general principles are meant to help resolve simple boundary violations or conflicts, but real life can be complicated beyond what these simple solutions can provide.  If you’re facing these more complex boundary situations, consider sitting down with a therapist to discuss how to set boundaries specific to your situation.


Have you run into issues like the ones described above in setting boundaries?  Are you losing hope that you’ll ever be able to have your needs met?  Are you fearful of facing the cost of the consequences you set?  At Restored Hope, I will offer you support and space to grieve as you seek to set boundaries for your health and well-being.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to set up your first appointment at my Ann Arbor counseling office.