Why Is it So Difficult to Set Boundaries?

Why do some of us set boundaries and others don't? How does setting them affect us, from a mental perspective? In this article, we'll tell you.
Why Is it So Difficult to Set Boundaries?
Sara González Juárez

Written and verified by the psychologist Sara González Juárez.

Last update: 19 October, 2022

“Don’t even go there.” “That’s enough”. Do these phrases sound familiar to you? They’re expressions you probably use to indicate to someone that they’ve crossed a boundary with you. However, sometimes it’s difficult to set boundaries, despite the fact that it’s really unpleasant when they’re not respected. Why does this happen?

In reality, there’s no one reason. Human beings are complex and social interaction gets blurred at times. Therefore, the first step in learning to set boundaries lies in finding out where difficulties arise.

Boundaries in relationships

Boundaries are metaphorical lines that mark points that shouldn’t be exceeded. Some of them are implicit in collective thinking, such as the taboos regarding murder or incest. However, others must be established in each individual relationship.

For instance, if a person doesn’t like their partner looking at their cell phone, they’ll set a boundary by telling them. Of course, this can have consequences, ranging from acceptance and respect to violence.

You tend to notice the difficulty of setting boundaries when others ignore them, when the consequences of setting them are negative, or when your self-confidence falters.

Woman talking to friend
People with self-esteem problems and fear of rejection have difficulty setting boundaries

The difficulty of setting boundaries

It might seem simple to tell your boss “If you don’t pay me for overtime, I won’t stay and work”. However, once a boundary is drawn, there are consequences. For instance, arguing with your boss, risking dismissal, or the chance that your colleagues will complain that they’ll have to work more.

What makes you afraid to face this kind of scenario? Let’s find out.

1. Fear of conflict

Conflicts, no matter how peacefully they might be resolved, are still situations of tension that are potentially unpleasant, and that not everyone tolerates in the same way. With the expectation of a bad time, some people find it difficult to set boundaries, since they’re really sensitive to arguments.

2. Fear of rejection

The fear of rejection is closely linked to the above and is one of the most common causes of being unable to set boundaries. Returning to the previous example of asking a partner not to check their cell phone, brings with it the danger of breaking up the relationship out of jealousy or of being branded as a liar or overly dramatic.

3. Self-esteem issues

If you don’t respect yourself, it’s really difficult for you to establish boundaries to get others to do the same. Poor self-concept will feed the idea that you have nothing to protect yourself from. You need good self-esteem and self-love, in addition to assertiveness to be able to set boundaries.

4. Poor emotional management

In the end, setting boundaries involves decisions based on emotions. For example, if it bothers you that someone touches you without your permission, you ask them not to do it again.

Therefore, if you have difficulties in managing your own emotions or those of others (through a lack of assertiveness), trying to set boundaries will be a losing battle.

5. The need to please others

Difficulties in saying ‘no’ are often based on the need to please others. This, in turn, ties in with the idea that complacency is the key to being loved and respected by others.

As you can imagine, this isn’t always the case. Indeed, some people lose respect for those who seek their approval. For this reason, people who constantly need to please others will never see their fear of rejection resolved and it’s difficult for them to set boundaries.

sad woman thinking
People with identity problems and the need to please others don’t usually set boundaries.

6. Identity issues

If you’re not clear about who you are or don’t really know yourself in any depth, you’ll have difficulty setting boundaries in some situations. That’s because you’ll be unable to differentiate yourself from other people. Nor will you be able to establish a list of behaviors and situations that you refuse to tolerate in others.

This also affects your personal space, both physical and psychic, since you’re not clear about what you need to regulate your own emotions. It’s a gateway to toxicity.

7. Difficulty making decisions

Insecurity is another reason why you might find it difficult to set boundaries. If you’re insecure, you might be overwhelmed by the number of factors you must consider and feel unable to prioritize them. Therefore, your need to draw a line is in permanent conflict with its possible consequences.

As you can see, the reasons behind having difficulty in setting boundaries are quite complex. In fact, the reasons coexist and overlap in each individual case. However, whatever the case may be, you should make sure you work on your assertiveness. That’s because conflicts in life are never ending life and learning to manage them will act as insurance for your mental health.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Stamateas, B. (2014). No me maltrates: cómo detener y poner límites al maltrato verbal. B DE BOOKS.
  • De la Villa Moral, M., García, A., Cuetos, G., & Sirvent, C. (2017). Violencia en el noviazgo, dependencia emocional y autoestima en adolescentes y jóvenes españoles. Revista iberoamericana de psicología y salud8(2), 96-107.
  • Sahuquillo, I. M. (2006). La identidad como problema social y sociológico. Arbor182(722), 811-824.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.