The Truth About Why Some People Can’t Set Boundaries

It’s not because they are loving, selfless, or kind

Photo: Wang Lunyi/EyeEm/Getty Images

It’s almost impossible to have a healthy relationship with someone who has nonexistent boundaries.

These people are easy to spot. They often love you with an all-consuming intensity. You think, at the onset, that you were always meant to meet. They affirm you, they listen, they want to know your deepest, darkest troubles, and they seem intent on helping you fix them. Your connection with them is instantaneous — until it isn’t.

Out of nowhere, these people disconnect in some way.

They stop answering texts and calls. Eventually, they phase themselves out of your life altogether. They engage in the same type of all-loving behavior with others, and it feels like betrayal. When you speak with them again, they assure you they’ve just been busy, and that they still care about your relationship. Or, if the person doesn’t totally ghost you, they might express passive aggression and jealousy, or they may seem to “blow up” out of nowhere. You may find them acting like they’re best friends with someone they’ve consistently told you they dislike. You may find them committing wholeheartedly to people who hurt and take advantage of them.

When a person has no boundaries, you start to realize that what you thought was love was just a need to be liked — at any cost to their integrity or principle. The honest truth about why some people can’t set boundaries is that they prioritize other people’s perception of them over anything else. This is true of the classic empath and narcissist relationship. The empath perceives the narcissist’s needs as their own and cannot set boundaries; the narcissist takes full advantage of that weakness. For those without boundaries, the way others see them becomes the way they see themselves.

Setting boundaries with people may sometimes deprive them of what they want — but it offers them what they need.

When someone can’t set boundaries, it isn’t because they’re inherently self-disrespecting. It’s usually because they just don’t know how to function any other way. When a person attaches to you too quickly, it’s a safety mechanism. They need everyone they meet to approve of them instantly. They lack boundaries because they lack self-esteem.

People who cannot set boundaries aren’t bad people, even if at times, their behavior seems questionable at best.

In truth, people who lack boundaries are simply people who are scared. People who lack boundaries never learned to separate the needs of others from their own.

A boundary is a limit you place on the behaviors of both yourself and other people. It is the way you communicate what is and isn’t acceptable, or how others should and shouldn’t treat you.

You set boundaries all the time. In fact, the world runs on mutually understood boundaries. You drive a certain distance from the vehicle behind you because you understand that if they were to stop short, you’d greatly reduce your chance of an accident by doing so. When you’re speaking to someone, you keep a comfortable distance from them. If you have to tell them something private, you would lean into their side. You wouldn’t speak an inch or two from their face because it’s uncomfortable.

To set healthy boundaries with others, you must be able to set them with yourself.

Unspoken boundaries govern the world around us. When these boundaries are broken, or blatantly disrespected, people tend to become angry, aggrieved, and outraged.

There are micro-boundaries woven throughout society, and only those who are keenly aware pick up on them. Others have trouble connecting and sustaining healthy relationships unless they understand what these boundaries are.

Ultimately, boundaries are a healthy and important way of building your autonomy, your safety, and your dignity.

To set healthy boundaries with others, you must be able to set them with yourself. To set a boundary with yourself is to honor your own limits.

It is to decide how much you want to work in a week, and then stick to that agreement. It is to choose what time you need to wake up in order to get to work on time, and then honor that. It is to recognize which people you would like to spend time with, and which you wouldn’t.

If you are someone who cannot honor your own boundaries, you will probably find it almost impossible to set them with other people.

If you’re not used to setting healthy boundaries, you will set them in unhealthy ways. Even people who seem to make absolutely no distinction between themselves and others will snap once they’ve been pushed too far.

For a person without boundaries, a breaking point can look like a passive-aggressive comment. It can look like sudden “ghosting,” panicking, yelling, or completely cutting a person off.

When people get to this point, it’s because they cannot be pushed any further. Their survival instinct starts to kick in.

It’s important to remember that these people are not so much angry at the other person as they are angry with themselves. Setting boundaries with people may sometimes deprive them of what they want — but it offers them what they need.

Setting boundaries is hard. That’s why it’s important.

For the people around you to function as their best selves, they need to have a clear understanding of what you will and won’t tolerate. When you don’t set boundaries with other people because you’re afraid of what it might mean for them, you end up holding everyone back. You don’t give others the opportunity to grow and adapt to comfortable and healthy social norms, and more importantly, you don’t set a standard for what’s permissible to you.

Some people can’t set boundaries because they don’t yet care enough about themselves to preserve their sanity and space. You communicate self-respect by imposing boundaries on disrespectful behavior. We teach people how to treat us by showing them how we treat ourselves.

Author of 101 Essays That Will Change The Way You Think and six other collections. Visit to shop for books and more.

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