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How to Build Better Boundaries

5 ways to help your clients assert themselves

Helping clients set boundaries allows them to be true to themselves and those around them

“Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”

-Abraham Lincoln

They met at a wedding. She wasn’t attracted to him. She didn’t even like him. But still Barbara gave him her number. Why?

“Because he asked.”

A week passed. He called her up and asked himself round to her house. Barbara was incredibly busy and it was seriously inconvenient. But she said yes. Why?

“Because he asked.”

He came round. He decided she needed to buy herself a new car. She didn’t want one. But she said yes. Why?

“Because he asked.”

She bought the second-hand car he suggested. It didn’t work properly. He told her he would take it away to “sort it out”. She let him take it there and then. Why?

“Because he asked.”

A week passed, then another, before she apologetically called him about her car. But he told her to wait until she heard from him. She didn’t hear from him. She waited, down in cash and with no car.

I asked Barbara how the story ended.

“I mentioned it to my mum and she went ballistic. She went around and got my car back for me. I never heard from him again, thank God!”

But this was just one tiny slice of the submissive cake that was Barbara’s life. Wherever Barbara went, as long as she could remember, liberties were taken, assumptions made, and any attempt at independent decision-making steamrolled. This example was in the past. But what about now?

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Barbara was being bullied at work. Her line manager asked her to do overtime nearly every day, and she seemed to be the only one being targeted. Barbara couldn’t say “no” even when she’d made other plans. Worse still, she would work the overtime without pay. Her manager wouldn’t even log it, instead taking time out herself and taking credit for Barbara’s work.

If other employees worked extra, they got paid. But then, that rarely happened anymore. Knowing Barbara would always say yes, her manager hardly ever asked anyone else. But it got worse.

Barbara’s line boss made jokes about her in front of her co-workers, criticized her publicly, and delivered one brutal emotional knockout after another.

Then Barbara told me something terrifying.

No “no”s – ever

I asked Barbara if she could think of a possible situation in which she would ever say no to someone. How far would someone have to push before they found a hard centre? What liberty would be a step too far?


“Ever?” I asked gently.

A small tear formed and traced a watery line down Barbara’s cheek. She thought long and hard. But she genuinely couldn’t think of a time when she’d ever said, or even might be able to say, “no.” Let alone draw a line in the sand for her presumptive boss.

I had an idea.

“Would you ever be able to say no on anyone else‘s behalf?

A smile slowly emerged. “Yes… if anyone ever tried to take liberties with my niece or nephew… then yes, I think… I know I could be firm on their behalf. For them.”

This is surprisingly common. A client might not stick up for themselves, but you may find they do or have been firm for someone else.

Not all our clients struggle as much as Barbara did with setting boundaries, asserting their needs, or baring their teeth (metaphorically!), but many do have trouble being assertive enough to make their life better.

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The consequences of never stating your needs, ideas, or even demands is a life of frustration, learned helplessness and, for Barbara, increasing despair. Her constant frustrated rumination about all these injustices – without actual resolution – was leaving her at risk of sliding into depression.1

We had to do something.

Here are some strategies to help clients set boundaries and to be true to themselves and others.

1. Decide where the boundaries lie

How far is too far? It’s good to examine this with your clients. Just how much are they willing to take? Of course, we can all be tolerant up to a point. But how much is too much? How will they know when someone is in danger of crossing a line?

Barbara and I listed all the kinds of things that made her feel frustrated. We clarified just what was and wasn’t okay for her. She’d never thought about it in such a concrete way. Because we really talked about what was and wasn’t acceptable, she said she felt she’d more easily be able to tell when people were starting to cross the line with her in future.

‘Crossing a line’ was a metaphor we used a lot during therapy, as she had been the one to start using it. Quite a bit later in trance I even had her visualize her line and imagine herself protecting it.

We can help our clients set limits by first knowing what they are.

We can help our clients set limits by first knowing what they are Click to Tweet

Barbara was always going to be a considerate and fair person. But we discussed what was fair. She described many times where she had felt people weren’t fair to her. I had her imagine those times, and realize in her own mind that lines were being crossed.

It wasn’t until Barbara’s mother pointed out the outrageousness of the liberties the man from the wedding had taken that Barbara even began to see his behaviour for what it was. But looking back on it now, it was blatantly obvious.

We can all afford to cut people some slack now and then, but some clients cut so much slack they tie themselves up in knots.

“I am very forgiving”, Barbara told me at one point. So that’s what we spoke about next: Barbara’s wonderful (in its place) capacity for forgiveness.

2. Realize forgiveness can make it worse

Many of us like to think we have forgiving natures. Forgiveness oils the wheels of the social world. Friends and loved ones make mistakes or act unthinkingly, and when we calm down we see the bigger picture, put ourselves in their shoes, and forgive.

If we look at life simplistically, we can fall into the trap of believing that just because something can be good, it must always be good. A bit of forgiveness here and there is wonderful. But if we continually forgive someone, we deny them the opportunity to develop decency. Always forgiving others, making allowances for their bad behaviour, enables them to be a worse human being.

I spoke about this with Barbara when she told me she had a “forgiving nature”. Because she had good intentions, she was assuming everyone else did too. “I even make excuses for my manager’s actions”, she admitted.

We see this happening in relationships all the time (including work relationships). If we constantly forgive and make allowances for bad behaviour, it ceases to even be ‘bad behaviour’ in the eyes of the person doing it. It becomes normal.

Barbara’s boss had started to feel that taking personal credit for Barbara’s (unpaid) overtime work was normal and to be expected. And if you’re still not sold on the dangers of excessive forgiveness, consider this.

Research has found that people who exhibit aggressive behaviour against their spouses (such as throwing insults; swearing; stamping out of the house; throwing items; pushing, slapping, kicking, or hitting their spouse) were more likely to continue such behaviour if their partner was forgiving.2

This kind of chronic forgiveness can harm the perpetrator of the bad behaviour as well as the over-forgiving victim. People do what other people sanction, explicitly or otherwise.

The fact is, any form of human behaviour can come to seem okay if it is endorsed through forgiveness. The buck needs to stop somewhere.

Barbara looked really thoughtful when I suggested this. She didn’t like to think she might be harming her boss through continual forgiveness. I jokingly said to Barbara that she could forgive herself for having forgiven so many people, but the best way to forgive oneself was to change.

Next we talked about honesty.

3. Practise honesty

We’ve all received a hideous gift from a well-meaning relative and pretended to, if not love it, at least be happy to be within a square mile of it.

“Ah, socks! And fluoro pink ones at that! They’ll be great when I’m… thank you so much!”

Sometimes, being slightly less than in-your-face honest is the kind thing to do. But I reminded Barbara that by being more assertive, she’d not only gain more respect from others, but she could exercise something that she felt was important: honesty.

With what I hope was a twinkle in my eye – anyway, she knew I was sort of messing around – I challenged her:

“Do you like lying to other people?”

She was a bit taken aback and said that no, she was an honest person. Once I had her attention in this way, narrowed onto an idea, I suggested that not being assertive with people was a way of hiding the truth. It might be okay sometimes, but not so much of the time. Now being more assertive was suddenly attached not to self-indulgence or cruelty, but to treating other people better. And that she could get behind.

I used the same reframe with a particular client inside our video therapy members’ community Uncommon Practitioners’ TV. Just like Barbara, Emily was struggling to assert her needs. And just like Barbara, Emily valued honesty and liked to feel she was honest – which was true.

Ultimately, it doesn’t help other people to live under the illusion that their behaviour is okay when it really isn’t.

From that point on I stopped using the word ‘assertive’ and simply talked about ‘being more honest with people’. We need to know how to motivate our clients on their terms.

But how do we actually help our clients become calm and strong enough to communicate clearly what they will and won’t accept?

4. Remember ASSA

Whether your client needs to talk to a boundary-crossing colleague, a disrespectful partner, or a cantankerous neighbour, they’ll need a strategy. First off we can be clear with our clients what true assertiveness means. People who fear becoming angry often assume that sticking up for themselves would equate to ‘making a scene’. But of course, that need not be true at all.

True assertiveness is a form of calm, clear communication, not a vicious verbal assault or a cacophony of wailing shrieks.

I suggested to Barbara she could stop assuming other people were skilled mind readers. So often when we feel upset with someone and don’t voice it, pressure builds. We smile and nod, and assume that person is as sensitive and as considerate as we are, that they ‘shouldn’t have to be told’.

When they don’t read our minds or intuitively know that something is not okay, frustration builds. But we keep hoping they will miraculously come to their senses without intervention.

For some clients, that tension ultimately mounts to the point where, ‘out of the blue’, they blow a fuse and scream and shout (although Barbara never did this). Then what happens?

Because this is so out of character, the liberty taker is left wondering what on Earth the matter is. “What’s wrong with you today?”

I suggested that people can be intelligent in all sorts of ways, yet genuinely not understand why they have upset other people. I’m sure you know people like this. Barbara did too – namely, her manager.

“Yes, my manager is definitely like that. She’s super sharp in all kinds of things, but she throws her weight around because she can get away with it I guess.” Barbara laughed. “And yes, I had been sort of feeling that she would just come to her senses and I shouldn’t need to say anything. You’re right; she’s not a mind reader.”

Barbara was keen to become assertive more with her boss because, in her words, “I really think my boss is killing me.”

So I taught her the ASSA strategy.

  • Alert the person that you want to speak to them: “I want to talk to you about the way you have been yelling at me in front of other staff recently.” Notice there is no blaming or emotional language at this point. Stick to facts. They may play power games and insist you speak to them on their terms: “Yes, I’ll let you know when it’s convenient to speak.” If this happens, you can stick to your guns and keep alerting the person, because even that in itself shows assertiveness. Or you can take back control by saying, “Okay, I’ll make it quick and just say it now!”
  • State your grievance. Tell the person what the problem is. “I’m not happy with you shouting at me.” Tell them why it’s a problem: “It makes me angry and I think it makes you look unprofessional in front of other staff and customers.”
  • Sell the benefits of them behaving better. “In future, if you have something to say to me, it’d be better for you to talk rather than shout, and do so privately. This will make you appear more professional and improve my morale as well.”
  • Agree. Seek agreement to do things differently in future: “Can we agree that from now on, you refrain from shouting and if you ever need to speak to me again, you do it away from other people and you don’t raise your voice?” If they agree, then if ever they renege on it all you’ll have to do is remind them of their agreement.

Barbara could, of course, adapt this pattern to apply to any transgression from her manager. And when dealing with people socially, the whole approach could be rolled into one.

Notice how clear this communication is. You’ve neither passively put up with their behaviour nor been so emotional that they can counter by accusing you of being insulting, yelling, or losing your cool, which would actually sidestep the issue.

This kind of communication can be a powerful corrective to bad behaviour, creating the kind of environment in which it cannot easily grow and spread. Of course, the person might not mend their ways, but at least you have given them a chance to behave better and brought their stepping-over-the-line out into the open. They know that you know what they’re up to.

Barbara wrote down the ASSA strategy and also what she would say to her boss about the poor managerial behaviour. She said just writing it down made her feel better. But it’s not enough to know what to say.

(You can find my ASSA technique worksheet here.)

5. It’s not just what you say, but how you feel

This is so important. When people overstep the mark, it’s natural to feel disgruntled, even enraged, with them. And to some extent, it might be valuable for them to know you are angry or upset. But many people feel frightened when they try to state their own needs. The problem with any kind of strong emotion is that it tends to shut down clear thought and articulate speech, especially when the emotion is intense.

Assertive, clear communication requires presence of mind, and for that we need calm. The moment we start launching insults or yelling or sobbing, we have left the realm of credibility, no matter how strong our case. People assume we’re ‘having a bad day’ or that we have ‘other issues’ because we don’t normally emote like that.

Being visibly emotional is also a marker of low dominance in a hierarchical situation. Unscrupulous types will prey on people they see as emotionally weak.

Barbara was worried she might become so nervous sticking up for herself that she’d weep and run from the room. I suggested that we could do more than simply rehearse what she was going to say. Through hypnosis, we could rehearse how she was going to feel when she said it.

I reminded her of how she’d told me she would be strong for the sake of her niece and nephew. “Yes, there’s no way I would stand by and see anyone take advantage of them!” she reasserted.

I relaxed her deeply, then I encouraged her to hypnotically experience calmly but powerfully standing up for them so she could get used to feeling calmly formidable. The shift in her expression and whole demeanour was really something.

I then suggested to her that when she stood up to her manipulative manager she would also be standing up for everyone in the world who had ever been downtrodden, and she would also be standing up for her right to be the best auntie she could be for her niece and nephew. She could in some way feel she was protecting them as well as herself.

Before hypnotic induction I had asked Barbara to speak to me as though I were her line manager and tell me what she’d say next time her manager asked/told her to do unpaid overtime. She said the words, but she looked meek. So I asked her how her own assertive mother might look if she were saying those words. Barbara smiled, then gave me such a magnificent, firm, unyielding look I was taken aback.

“That feels so powerful, that look”, she told me triumphantly. Sometimes we can borrow resources from those who already have them until they become our own.

Later, as she relaxed in trance, I saw the same look filter through her features. Level, controlled, calm, yet unyielding. I suggested that this look would come to her spontaneously whenever she needed it. That look was now her look.

Barbara experienced being assertive as though she were sticking up for her sister’s children. She got a sense of feeling as her own mother does when she lets people know there is a firm line. And she practised viewing herself from a third-person position and from a first-person position talking in no uncertain – in fact, in very certain – terms to her manager.

I didn’t see Barbara for a month. When she did finally come back, she looked relaxed and bright eyed. I asked about her boss.

“You know, I think deep down she’s scared. She started to ask me to do some overtime, and I was ready. But she didn’t even get to the point of asking, because I had that look on my face. It’s like she’s sensed something has shifted in me.”

Barbara had grown teeth. She was more genuine, more fulfilled, and happier. And no one deserved it more than she did.

And for clients who have sunk into depression as a result of frustrated rumination, or any other reason, our How to Lift Depression Fast course will help you help them. Read about the online course here and sign up to be notified when it’s open for booking.


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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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  1. Rumination without solution seems to precipitate and maintain depression. See and
  2. Associate professor James K. McNulty at the University of Tennessee authored a study entitled “Does forgiveness combined with negative behavior lead to positive outcomes?” (published in the Journal of Family Psychology), which shows that forgiving your partner for bad behaviour doesn’t preserve harmony in marriage – it just reinforces the idea that bad behaviour is forgivable. The study showed that partners who were forgiven for bad behaviour were twice as likely to repeat it the next day.

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