The struggle is real: creating healthy boundaries in our lives

June 15th, 2020

This article is the compilation of our learnings from 16 global dinners held in 2018 and 2020. 

From London to Lisbon, Tel Aviv to Mexico City, women gathered on computer screens across the globe to discuss what pleasing and boundaries mean to them.

And now, our key takeaways…

Let’s start with this: Many of us don’t even know what “healthy boundaries” means

For some, childhood taught us that our needs do not matter. Whether that meant growing up with parents with mental illnesses, living in the shadow of another sibling, or surviving the trauma of abuse — so many of us emerged from childhood with a narrative that we need to care-take for others in order to get by. Children who grow up thinking that they are not worthy of boundaries can become adults with low self-worth.

Bottom line: most of us were not taught how to create healthy boundaries with people in our lives. And this comes as no surprise — often, our caregivers were not taught this skill, leaving many of us without boundary-setting role models to follow.

Cultural note: Lack of boundaries is a cultural norm in many Latin American countries, with everyone in your family and community “in your business” at all times.

Saying YES when we really want to be saying NO

On the one hand, it can feel really nourishing to say YES (we like to help others and give with gusto). On the other hand, it can also leave us feeling really depleted. We’ve been conditioned to believe that saying NO is bad. Drawing boundaries can feel selfish — we feel guilty for letting others down. So what do we do? We please! Whether it’s staying in the wrong relationship for too long, not speaking up when getting taken advantage of by a boss, or simply never saying the word “no,” many of us struggle to set necessary limits in our lives.

What is preventing women from recognizing and communicating their boundaries? FEAR. We’re scared of confrontation, of upsetting others, and of being misunderstood. We worry that if we“stir the pot” we will end up end up rejected and alone.

Saying NO when we’d sometimes like to be saying YES

Rather than please others, some of us create thick barriers between ourselves and the world around us. We become cold and distant and do everything in our power to protect ourselves from being hurt. While we may come across as strong and decisive, we end up feeling really lonely and disconnected inside.

Ultimately, many of us only discover our boundaries when they’ve been crossed

Whether that meant a friend only “taking” in a relationship, a boss who took advantage of their power, or a partner who broke our trust - many of the women around our tables only identified their boundaries after they were violated. And once that happens, an awareness is created around what we will accept in our lives, and what we will not.

Discovering our boundaries is only the start of a very challenging process. What comes next is finding the courage to communicate our boundaries to the people around us and maintaining (read: re-enforcing) them, day in and day out. This is serious emotional labor. Since many of us equate our self-worth up with our ability to please others, when we suddenly start asserting our boundaries it can feel like we are losing a core part of ourselves. With this comes tremendous guilt, uncertainty and fear. Many of us are scared of how people will react, especially when it comes to the setting boundaries with our families (this is really hard!).

With practice, setting healthy boundaries can be one of the most rewarding things we can do

Setting boundaries isn’t a skill we master and simply move on from. They are a practice that we need to be continually adapting and building upon. As Elizabeth Gilbert notes, setting boundaries (whether that means not accepting every invitation that comes your way, or telling a loved one you need some space) is like giving a gift to your future self.

So….what can help us create healthy boundaries?

Healthy boundaries require self-worth, courage, and the confidence to know that you’ve “got your back” no matter the outcome. To begin, it’s important to get clear on your priorities. What do you value? What matters most to you (people, causes, actions)?

From there, it’s important to acknowledge that boundaries are coming from all angles. For ourselves, boundaries are internally facing (creating a safe cocoon within ourselves, knowing we are “safe” and at home with us) and externally facing (setting limits for others with confidence and kindness). When it comes to other people’s boundaries- how can we acknowledge and respect other people’s needs and limits?

Important Note

BIPOC women (Black, Indigenous, People/Women of Color) do not know they will be safe if they assert their boundaries. Rather, pleasing and blending in can be a necessary protection mechanism to avoid harm, a way to survive. It is critical to remember that creating boundaries is a privilege — one that is not available to all.


  1. How can we say “no” and still maintain connection?

  2. When you say “no” to someone or something, what does that allow you to say “yes” to? Hint: you just may be saying “yes” to yourself (e.g. your time, your needs, your rest, your priorities).

Written by Sybil Ottenstein and Veronica Marquez in collaboration with our hosts Dee de Lara in Toronto, Julie Beretta in Rome, Mariasu Nicolini and Vanina Gruart in Buenos Aires, euni in San Diego, Rachel Adelman in London, Alana Cookman in Lisbon.

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