4 Simple Steps to Effective Boundary Setting

How effective are your boundary-setting skills?

Boundaries are guidelines, limits or rules that we create to identify safe ways of interacting with others. They are informed by our culture, environment, beliefs, attitudes and past experiences. We are constantly establishing, negotiating and defining boundaries with every human we come in contact with, from our families and friends to our boss and colleagues to the stranger on the bus.

The ability to maintain healthy boundaries is not only crucial for healthy relationships, but it is also a key component in personal safety. For some, ourselves included, this can be a real challenge and something we feel that women, in particular, can benefit from drilling and practicing.

Though boundaries span emotional, physical and psychological realms, we most often focus on physical boundaries when training in self-defense.

In a nutshell: you are the boss of your body. You get to decide who touches you -- when, where and how. And if someone disobeys your rules, you have the right to enforce them.

In our workshops and events, we work on two different risk levels of boundary setting  -- dealing with an unwanted touch and then also stopping someone who is getting too close. We practice the lower-risk scenario because not every behavior deserves a punch in the face, frankly, and we often need to set boundaries with people we choose to stay in relationship with (e.g., someone we are dating who is moving too fast, but who we want to continue seeing). We practice the higher-risk scenario because fighting is a last resort, not necessarily our go-to response. If we can avoid a fight, create distance and increase our personal safety by using our voice and body language only, that is a huge success. And if we can’t, we can also employ our physical skills.

In both of these scenarios, there are four key steps to enforcing our boundaries most effectively:*

1) Name it.
2) Direct it.
3) Repeat it.
4) Enforce it.

In the lower-risk scenario, the steps might look something like this:

“Your hand is on my knee.” - Name the behavior.

“Get your hand off my knee.” - Direct the behavior.

“I said take your hand off my knee.” - Repeat the direction, if the person did not initially comply.

Physically remove the person’s hand from knee, and/or remove yourself from the situation. - End the behavior.

In the higher-risk scenario, body language and tone feature prominently in our response.


An example of body language boundary setting in a higher-risk scenario.

An example of body language boundary setting in a higher-risk scenario.

 In the photo above, Jarrett is demonstrating how to "build a wall" to stop an approaching person who is displaying varying degrees of aggression and compliance. 

In higher-risk situations, there are additional elements that go along with the four steps:

Body Language

Step forward into a stance with feet staggered, weight on the balls of the feet, hands in front of your face in universal “stop” position, arms bent, elbows down.


Give short, clear commands using action words (e.g., Stop!, Go away!, Back up!, Go Back!, No!) from a deep-belly voice.


Begin the process before someone is close enough to touch you and maintain the stance and repeat the commands until they have moved away from you.

In all communication, including these two examples, our message will be most clearly received when there is congruency between what we say, how we say it and how we look when we are saying it. Everything about us is part of our self-defense, including how we look, how we move, how we sound, what we say, and the fundamental energy and intention behind each of those.

Of course, simply telling someone to go away does not always ensure they will. And if the situation escalates and we need to create the opportunity to escape, that is where our physical skills -- punches, elbow and knee strikes, kicks, defense techniques, etc. -- come into play.

We practice all of these principles -- and so much more!!! -- at our training events. Yes, we hit stuff, but we also move, talk, listen, yell, laugh, and do all kinds of deeply personal and challenging work in a really supportive (and FUN) environment.

Want to bring us in to work with you and your community, or connect us with a decision maker at your school, organization, business, corporation, or gym? We'd love to chat with you about how we can best serve your tribe, so send us an email to start things off. 

Be safe and be well...


*Boundary-setting curriculum from Home Alive.