Picture Nancy, a woman in her 60s, who has spent her life putting others first. As a wife, mother, and grandmother, she’s always been the caregiver, the one everyone turns to for help. But as much as she loves her family, Nancy is starting to feel overwhelmed and resentful. She’s realizing that her own needs have taken a backseat for far too long.

Nancy’s story is not uncommon. Many of us, especially women, have internalized cultural messages that tell us setting boundaries is selfish. We worry that saying “no” means we’re bad spouses, parents, or friends. As Dr. Joan Borysenko explains, “It’s pretty much been beaten into us all as a core belief and value that it’s not a good thing to be selfish, that selfishness means you are a bad person. And that means it’s hard to set boundaries.”1

But the truth is, boundaries are essential for healthy relationships. They allow us to take care of ourselves while still being there for others. Without boundaries, we risk burnout, resentment, and losing our sense of self.

Identifying and overcoming fears around boundary-setting

For Nancy, the thought of setting boundaries with her husband William and their three grown children feels daunting. She’s afraid they’ll see her as uncaring or even reject her. These fears are valid and common. Nancy was fearful that if she stood up for herself, she would stop being so close to her daughter and husband. That’s a very, very legitimate fear in some family situations.

However, it’s important to remember that true relationships can withstand boundaries. If your family doesn’t want you to speak up for your needs, then exactly what does relationship consist of? Boundaries actually strengthen connections by allowing for open, honest communication.

Nancy has also always been the go-to babysitter for her daughter Melissa’s three school-aged kids. While she adores her grandchildren, providing constant childcare has left Nancy with little time for herself. She’s hesitant to say anything, though, not wanting to let Melissa down.

In situations like this, it is important to examine the benefits for the larger family if different people in the family set certain boundaries. For Nancy, setting boundaries around childcare could actually benefit her grandkids by teaching them flexibility and resilience. It would allow Melissa to develop a wider group for support. It would also allow Nancy to be more present and energized during the time she does spend with them.

Getting in touch with your values and needs

A key step in boundary-setting is getting clear on your own values and needs. You can’t defend your boundaries if you don’t know where those boundaries are. You have to know what you want and what you believe in.

“Will honoring this need or desire bring me closer to the person I want to be? Or will it leave me ultimately feeling unfulfilled or out of integrity?”

Engaging in self-reflection and attunement

For Nancy, tuning into her own feelings and desires means engaging in deep self-reflection. This process can be kickstarted through journaling prompts like:

  • When do I feel most energized and alive? What activities or relationships drain me?
  • If I had a completely free day, how would I spend it?
  • What are my non-negotiable needs in relationships? What am I willing to be flexible on?
  • How do I want to feel in my body, heart, and mind most of the time?

Mindfulness meditation can also be a powerful tool for attunement. By practicing present-moment awareness, Nancy can start to notice subtle sensations and emotions that arise in different situations. She may realize that tightness in her chest arises when she’s about to overcommit, or that resentment flares when her needs aren’t being met.

In therapy, Nancy might explore her values and needs through techniques like the “Bull’s Eye” exercise from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.2 This involves identifying core values in different domains of life (e.g. family, health, spirituality) and assessing how closely one’s actions align with those values. Disparities point to areas where boundaries may be needed.

Differentiating core needs from fleeting desires

As Nancy reflects, it’s important that she distinguishes her core needs from surface-level desires. Core needs are the non-negotiables, the things that deeply impact her wellbeing and align with her values. These might include alone time to recharge, open communication in her marriage, or the ability to pursue meaningful hobbies.

Fleeting desires, on the other hand, are passing wants that may feel important in the moment but don’t necessarily serve Nancy’s higher self. These could be things like wanting to be seen as the “fun grandma,” avoiding short-term discomfort, or fulfilling societal expectations.

One litmus test is to ask, “Will honoring this need or desire bring me closer to the person I want to be? Or will it leave me ultimately feeling unfulfilled or out of integrity?” Nancy’s body can also provide clues. Sensations of centeredness, expansiveness, or relief often accompany core needs, while constriction or agitation may signal a fleeting desire.

Using embodied strategies

For Nancy, boundary-setting is not just a mental exercise, but a visceral one. Years of people-pleasing have left her disconnected from her own physical needs and cues. Working with a therapist on body-based techniques could be transformative.

Nancy might visualize a boundary around herself, like a glass dome or something physical like a rope. Boundaries are often expressed in the physical realm, according to Dr. Patricia Ogden. Nancy could learn to say no while physically pushing her hands away from her body, as if trying to move a revolving door, to connect the cognitive desire with the physical body.

“The body,” says David Brooks, “delivers messages that are an integral part of thinking, in all sorts of strange ways. If you read people an argument while you ask them to move their arms in a “pushing away” direction, they will be more hostile to the argument than if you read it to them while they are making a “pulling in” movement. A brain could not work if it was just sitting in a jar somewhere, cut off from motor functions.”3

In using a rope that circles her, she could imagine saying “no” to someone crossing that boundary. This often brings up unconscious memories that were previously blocking self-assertion.

Imagining us having a penetrable dome or magic armor that can turn to mess allows us to identify our ability to allow people in or keep them out. It is a growth-producing notion that rather than having no “protection,” this awareness allows you to recognize your ability to be a separate self, or a connected self, and when each are desirable. Choice is key.

Communicating needs and boundaries effectively

Once Nancy is clearer on her needs and values, the next step is communicating them to others. This can feel challenging, especially if she’s used to sacrificing her own needs for others’ comfort. However, with practice and intention, Nancy can learn to express her boundaries in a way that is both firm and loving.

Some tips for effective boundary communication include:

  • Use “I” statements to take ownership of your needs and feelings (e.g. “I need some quiet time to myself each day to recharge” vs. “You’re always so demanding.”)
  • Be specific and concrete about what you need (e.g. “I can babysit every other Saturday morning” vs. “I can help out sometimes.”)
  • Couple boundary-setting with gratitude and affirmation (e.g. “I so appreciate our time together and I’m also needing some alone time tonight.”)
  • Offer alternative solutions or compromises when possible (e.g. “I can’t drive you to the airport this time, but let’s look into shuttle options.”)
  • Remember that you are not responsible for others’ reactions. You can only control how you communicate your boundaries, not how they are received.

With time and repetition, boundary communication can start to feel more natural for Nancy. She may find that her relationships actually deepen as she shows up more authentically and models healthy limit-setting for her loved ones.

Seeking support and resources

As Nancy navigates this new terrain of boundary-setting, it’s essential that she seeks out support and resources. This journey can stir up a lot of emotions and ingrained patterns, and having guidance can make all the difference.

Therapeutic approaches

Working with a therapist who is well-versed in boundary-setting can provide Nancy with invaluable support. Modalities like Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)4 can help her identify and reframe beliefs that keep her stuck in people-pleasing patterns. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) offers concrete skills for interpersonal effectiveness and distress tolerance.5

Attending therapy groups or workshops on assertiveness and boundary-setting can also be powerful. Hearing others’ stories and practicing skills in a safe space can normalize the challenges and provide accountability.

Recommended reading

There are many excellent books that can support Nancy’s journey. Some recommendations include:

  • “Set Boundaries, Find Peace” by Nedra Glover Tawwab
  • “The Art of Everyday Assertiveness” by Patrick King
  • “When I Say No, I Feel Guilty” by Manuel J. Smith
  • “Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life” by Henry Cloud and John Townsend

These books offer insights, strategies, and examples for setting healthy limits across a range of relationships and situations. Reading them can help Nancy feel validated and equipped with practical tools.

Support from loved ones

Finally, Nancy can lean on trusted friends and family members as she practices boundary-setting. She might share with William what she’s learning in therapy and enlist his support in trying new communication patterns. She could ask a friend to be an accountability buddy, checking in on progress and challenges.

Most importantly, Nancy can practice self-compassion throughout the process. Boundary-setting is a skill that takes time and missteps are inevitable. By celebrating small victories, forgiving setbacks, and reconnecting with her “why,” Nancy can cultivate resilience and stay the course. With each boundaried “no,” she is saying a deeper “yes” to her authentic self – and that is a gift to her and everyone in her life.


For Nancy and so many others, learning to set boundaries is a brave and essential act of self-love. By exploring cultural conditioning, facing fears, clarifying core needs, and seeking support, it is possible to transform patterns of people-pleasing into authentic, boundaried relationships. This transformation requires vulnerability, intention, and plenty of practice – but the rewards are profound. When we have the courage to honor our limits and speak our truth, we create space for genuine connection and growth. We step into our power and give others permission to do the same. In a world that often tells us to put ourselves last, boundary-setting is a radical reclamation of our wholeness.

For Nancy, this means tuning into her own feelings and desires that she’s long ignored. What does she need to feel balanced and fulfilled? How much time and energy does she realistically have to give? This self-reflection can be challenging after years of focusing on others, but it’s crucial for identifying what boundaries need to be set.


  1. The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine.
  2. Polk, K.L., Schoendorff, B., Webster, M., & Olaz, F.O. (2016). The essential guide to the ACT Matrix: A step-by-step approach to using the ACT Matrix model in clinical practice. New Harbinger Publications.
  3. Brooks, D. (2011) The Social Animal (p. 300). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
  4. Beck, J.S. (2011). Cognitive behavior therapy: Basics and beyond (2nd ed.). Guilford Press.
  5. Linehan, M.M. (2014). DBT skills training manual (2nd ed.). Guilford Press.