Boundaries and Limit Setting in Relationships

Linda Graham, MFT looks at the “how” and neuroscience of boundary setting in relationships. 

Developmental psychologists have found that the human brain is capable of distinguishing between self and others by six months of age.  The capacity of theory of mind  takes that development further as we mature.  More important for taking our place in the world as independent, resilient human beings, by four years of age our brains are capable of recognizing and accepting that other people may be having thoughts and feelings different from our own.  Your thought, belief, impulse, feeling, or reaction to a topic, event, or reality may be completely different from mine at the same moment – and vice versa.  And that’s okay.

Theory of mind allows us to develop and maintain an inner subjective reality  – a sense of self – that is separate from other people’s opinions and expectations of us.  It allows us to be ourselves and other people to be who they are, regardless of our needs or projections.  We each have our own inner subjective reality, whether we’re fully or only fuzzily in touch with it.

Theory of mind is essential to the brain’s capacity to differentiate our experience from anyone else’s experience.  It is a form of mental clarity that leads to relational intelligence.  If I get irritated at missing a flight and assume that you are, too, rather than noticing that, in fact, you’re not irritated at all – you’re already talking with an agent to get on the next flight – I may miss an opportunity to skillfully negotiate our next steps.

This capacity to differentiate our own thoughts, feelings, reactivity, and responses from another person’s helps us step back from assumptions, rules, and expectations about how we and others should feel or behave.  Stepping back from “should” is essential for responding flexibly – reminding us that different options are available and that they are valid, a sine qua non of resilience.

Setting limits – trusting that we can set boundaries, regardless of another person’s reactions – also allows us to initiate communication and take risks in relationships that otherwise we might not perceive as safe.

We learn to avoid either responding aggressively to protect ourselves or acquiescing completely to another person’s needs when they do not reflect our own needs.  This experience supports the brain’s capacity to stay open to learning and change.

Secure, resonant relationships enhance this capacity of theory of mind; less secure or unempathic relationships typically don’t.  So not everyone fully develops this capacity by age four.  The exercise below uses practice in setting limits and boundaries to strengthen your theory of mind, which strengthens your relational intelligence and resilience.

Exercise:  Setting Limits and Boundaries Boundaries and You by Ann K. Wexler, PhD

  • Ask a friend to help you in this exercise of finding the sweet spot in setting a limit or boundary, not tapping into aggression or collapsing into being a doormat.  The point of the brain training here is for you to be able to differentiate your needs and views from another person’s and to assert them skillfully, not reactively.  Settle into your own mindful empathy before you begin.
  • Identify one limit or boundary you’ve been reluctant to set: an earlier curfew for your daughter on school nights; a limit on interruptions from a coworker; saying no to a brother-in-law who expects to camp out in your living room rather than stay in a hotel when he and his family visit.  Your friend plays the role of the other person.
  • Clarify in your own mind how setting this limit reflects and serves your own values, needs, and desires.  Then try to understand the values, needs, and desires of the other person.  Jot down notes if you wish.  Notice any common ground between the two of you; notice your differences.  Notice your own experiences; come to a sense of grounded-ness and presence in your body.
  • Initiate the conversation about limits with the other person.  Begin by expressing your appreciation for their listening to you.  State the topic; state your understanding of your own needs and of theirs.  Check to see if your understanding of their point of view is accurate.  Coach the friend in the role of the other person as needed, but keep the focus of the exercise on setting the limit, independent of the other person’s reaction.  Refresh your empathy by tuning into what you are experiencing in the moment and what the other person may be experiencing; refresh your mindfulness to be aware and accepting of what is happening.
  • State the terms of your limit, simply, clearly, and unequivocally.  You’ve already stated the values, needs and desire behind the limit, so you do not have to justify, explain, or defend your position.  This is your limit.   Reiterate the terms of your limit as many times as is needed for the person you are talking to – your role-playing partner – to understand and accept it.
  • In this exercise, you role-playing partner does accept the limit.  Notice how you experience this success: notice any changes in your view of yourself in relationship and in your view of your skills in relational intelligence.

The Neuroscience of Setting Limits and Boundaries

Theory of mind is a complex mental capacity that involves the pulling together of functions of the focusing (self-referencing) network.  The same brain structures we use to construct our own sense of self – the prefrontal cortex, the anterior cingulate, the insula, and the hippocampus – allow us to create a mental representation of another person’s self, or at least some aspects of their experience.  This process is known as mentalizing.  The focusing network integrates information we pick up about the other person from brainstem-based resonance.  The reading of emotional meaning by the right hemisphere and the cognitive understanding of the left hemisphere lead to an empathic articulation of the other person’s experience.

Mentalizing involve more than thinking about; it means being able to generate a clear cognitive understanding of the other person’s reality as different from our own.  As you practice various techniques to strengthen the prefrontal cortex, you may notice the capacity for theory of mind growing as a result.

(Excerpted from Bouncing Back:  Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being, Chapter 9: Developing Relational Intelligence.  New World Library, 2013).



Linda Graham, MFT

Linda Graham, MFT

Linda Graham, MFT is the author of Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being (New World Library). Linda specializes in relationship counseling in full-time private practice in Corte Madera, CA. She offers trainings and consultation nationwide on the integration of relational psychology, mindfulness and neuroscience.

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