Four By Four Protecting Your Physical Boundaries

Four “Levels” of Boundary Setting Behavior:

Today I’m going to be providing scripts for setting physical boundaries. Before I start, I’ll go over the four different levels of boundary-setting behaviors, and four common sorts of social situations where people will be expected to set boundaries. This information will also be used when we talk about material, mental, and emotional boundaries. We all have to set boundaries in multiple places in our lives, and depending on our circumstances, we might set them in one of four ways: 

Softest: Avoid setting the boundary:

Avoiding is when we set the boundary by refusing to do the Thing or ignoring people who tell us not to do the Thing.  For instance, you might avoid when invited to a party where someone you strongly dislike was also invited. You might lie and say you were sick, turn off your messages and just not go, or go to the party and whenever that person is in the room, go to a different room.  Avoiding includes such behaviors as lying, breaking promises, walking away, pretending you can’t hear someone or see them, and simply choosing to be silent and allow someone to think you have agreed with them. It is usually but not always non-verbal.

The advantages and disadvantages of “avoiding” boundary-setting techniques:

Avoiding is the least confrontational of all boundary settings. This can be very useful when you are just learning to set boundaries, or when you are setting a boundary with someone who has significant power over you or who you are afraid would attack or retaliate if you set a firmer boundary. In some situations, avoiding is the only safe choice, especially when someone has a history of violence (physical or emotional). 

However, there are significant disadvantages to avoiding as a boundary setting technique. One of the biggest is that by avoiding you haven’t dealt with the underlying pattern of behavior that is causing the boundary crossing you’re attempting to deal with. Another is that you may develop a reputation for being untrustworthy. This happens when you lie to avoid or when you allow people to think you agree with them, or have agreed to do something for them.

Finally, avoiding as a primary form of boundary setting has a tendency to make the people who use it feel helpless and reduces their self-esteem. They begin to feel that they are weak and ineffective at setting boundaries and as a person, and this has the opposite effect from what we’re seeking when we set boundaries. 

soft: “Asking” to set the boundary:

When we ask to set a boundary, we will use words like please, excuse me, and other polite words. We will typically use a soft tone of voice, and also phrase what we say as a  question. For instance, I might say, “Hey, could you not leave the dish on the table? Please put it in the sink.” That’s a soft ask boundary setting.

Asking is still a non-confrontational boundary setting technique. It has the advantage that it is non-threatening, tends to improve relationships overall, and is generally perceived as polite and respectful even when the person we are attempting to set a boundary with has more power than we do in the situation. 

However, asking does have disadvantages. Some people hear an “ask” as optional and will not honor it. Others see asking as weak and will increase their attacks on your boundaries after an ask. If you are in a position of authority and need something done now, an ask may not get the job done. 

Firm: “Telling” to set the boundary:

When you tell to set a boundary, you will use a firm (but not usually loud) voice, much like someone uses to train a dog, where you speak from your chest rather than your throat and don’t lift the voice into a question. You may use “please” and similar polite words, but unlike “asking”, it’s clear you’re expecting the person to do what you say. For instance, you might say, “I expect that report on my desk tomorrow.” or “You need to pick up that trash, now!” and nearly anyone will be able to understand what you want them to do. 

Telling can be a confrontational boundary, depending on your power relative to the person you’re telling to do something and other factors including cultural factors.  It has the advantage of being clear and generally unemotional. If you have more power in a situation than the person you’re telling to do something, you are likely to get a quick response. 

There is a gendered aspect to telling. Generally, most people (including women) are more willing to accept a man telling them to do something than a woman. Women who tell people what to do risk being labeled as “pushy” or “bossy”. In addition, if you are telling someone who thinks they have more power than you do (whether or not they do) to do something or not do something, it will be perceived as a challenge to authority. 

Firmest: Demand to set the boundary:

Demanding is very firm, sometimes loud, and usually with your voice emphasizing that you expect the person to do what you say. This emphasis can be loudness, or very clear, precise speech with a lot of intensity. You are unlikely to use “please” or similar words. Instead, you are issuing a command. “Get out of my house, NOW!” or “You. will. not. speak. to. me. that. way!” are both very clear demands. 

Demanding will often get the job done very quickly. If you are in an emergency situation and need to take charge, demanding is a good way to go. It is also very useful after you have already asked and told the person what your boundary is and they have ignored you. The demand re-emphasizes that you expect your boundary to be honored. 

However, if you use demanding as your go-to way to set your boundaries, you are likely to ruin a lot of relationships. Demanding is a very confrontational boundary-setting method. You are gathering your inner resources in a sort of primal threat display, emphasizing that crossing that boundary is a very bad idea. Most of the time, demanding should be saved as a last resort. 

Microfiction: Enthusiastic Consent

Beyond firm: Calling in the troops

When you are setting boundaries, especially physical boundaries, it is possible that you are setting it to protect yourself from a significant threat of some sort. If you have worked through boundary setting techniques from softest or soft to firm, and are still dealing with the same behavior, it’s time to ask for help. At this point, enlist a friend, family member, partner, bystander, or professional to assist you in enforcing your boundary. 

For instance, when you have asked, told, and demanded that your boss stop touching your hair at work, it’s time to call human resources, or if HR is unresponsive, perhaps a lawyer. If someone keeps sending you texts with sexual content after you have repeatedly set boundaries with them, it’s time to alert authorities. 

Having backup offers significant advantages. You have someone supporting your boundaries, and the show of solidarity can enforce that the boundary is firm better than you can by yourself. However, sometimes your backup can act inappropriately and make things worse. In the case of law enforcement, this can be extremely dangerous to everyone involved, so always think carefully before contacting law enforcement. 

Four Types of Situations for Boundaries and Four Types of Boundaries

Situations where we need to protect our boundaries: 

  1. PUBLIC: Where the boundaries we are setting are with people that at most we know casually, and who are usually strangers. This includes online interactions with people you don’t know.
  2. WORK AND SCHOOL: This includes all institutions where there is a set of rules and a hierarchy of who is in charge. In these situations, you are typically there to do something important or essential to your life. 
  3. FRIENDS AND FAMILY: Includes blood kin, chosen kin, friends, metamours, extended family, and all of the interconnected relationships that can be upended or dismantled by conflict. This includes online relationships if they are important to you. 
  4. PARTNERS: Includes sexual and romantic partners, including everything from first dates to spouses. 


  1. PHYSICAL: Includes how close someone can come to you, casual touch, intimate touch, and sexual touch. 
  2. MATERIAL:  Includes how much people can be expected to give or loan someone (time, money, influence, power). 
  3. MENTAL: This includes the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of people, and imposing them on one another. 
  4. EMOTIONAL: Includes your feelings and the other person’s, and the spaces between them.

Physical crossings: (moving into your physical space)

Now we’re getting to the meat of this topic. From here, I’ll be providing you scripts for various situations you may find yourself in where your physical space is being invaded. As noted above, this includes the distance you want someone to keep from you, whether or not you want to be touched, and whether you want to be touched intimately and sexually (as well as how). 

How To Apologize When It Matters: Own, Apologize, Repair

Protecting physical boundaries in Public:

The person causing the boundary crossing is likely to be a stranger, and you’ll have to weigh how much danger you think that stranger might be to you. Be aware of potential allies and potential people to cause you more trouble. Look for exit routes.

  • AVOID: Simply move out of the way. For example, change seats or move to the other side of the elevator. Turn your body perpendicular (sideways) so that you can see the person but you are not face-to-face (like a capital T). 
  • ASK:  “could you please move over a bit? I’m feeling a bit crowded,” “Excuse me, could you move your bag so I can sit please?”
  • TELL:  “Step back. You’re too close” or “
  • DEMAND:  “Back up!” or “Back off!” Try to catch the eye of a sympathetic bystander
  • CALL IN THE TROOPS: If the person is threatening assault or is likely to assault you, engage bystanders to help you, and if necessary, call law enforcement. Remember that law enforcement does not always make the situation better.

Protecting physical boundaries at Work/School:

The person causing the problem could be an authority like a boss or principal. They could also be a co-worker, fellow student, or customer. In either case, it might cause serious problems for you if you don’t pay attention to “the rules” of your work or school. Those rules could be written or unwritten. Know who is really in charge and what the rules really are before using any of the confrontational methods of setting your boundaries. Also, stay within the bounds of the law. 

Modify these suggestions to comply with your rules at your job or school. 

  • AVOID PEERS: Move out of the way. Put on headphones. Stand and “herd” them out of your workspace with an excuse. 
  • AVOID AUTHORITIES: Move in such a way that you feel less on alert. One way is your body sideways. Or you can put a desk between you. 
  • ASK A PEER OR AUTHORITY: “Do you mind if I change seats?” or “Can you come around in front of me? When you look over my shoulder I get nervous.”
  • TELL A PEER: “Get back to your own desk.” or “Stop kicking my seat.”
  • TELL AN AUTHORITY: “Sir/Ma’am, I need you to move so I can work.” or “Sir, take your hand off my shoulder.”
  • DEMAND WITH A PEER:  “I said, stop crowding me!” or “If you don’t keep your hands off me I’m talking to HR!”
  • DEMAND WITH AN AUTHORITY: One more warning “Sir/Ma’am, I need you out of my space. If you don’t give me some space, I’m going to HR.”
  • CALL IN THE TROOPS: Go to HR or the administration of the school, church, or whatever first. If that doesn’t work it might be time to pursue a legal solution or look for a new job, school, or church. 

On Boundaries: Scripts for Setting Your Material Boundaries

Protecting physical boundaries in Social/Family situations:

The person crossing your boundary is well known to you. They are also close to several other people you are close to. Damaging this relationship might cause ripples through other relationships. The people in this group are going to be Elders, Peers, or Youngsters. When it’s a youngster, I’ve added an education piece:

  • AVOID ELDER OR PEER: Move to put more space between you and the other person, excuse yourself to the restroom or your bedroom or another private space for a moment. Strike up a conversation with an ally and turn your back to the person. 
  • AVOID YOUNGSTER: Move them off of you. Put something in your lap to deny them lap space.
  • ASK ELDER OR PEER: “Can you please move over?” or “Would you please stop tickling me?”
  • ASK YOUNGSTER: “Please only tickle people who have told you it’s okay to tickle them.”
  • TELL ELDER “Pops, I mean it. Stop tickling me”
  • TELL PEER: “Move out of my space.”
  • AND TELL YOUNGSTER: “It’s not funny to keep doing things after people have asked you to stop. Stop now.”
  • DEMAND ELDER: Move Pop’s hands off you. Give him/her a look as privately as possible. Say “I respect you. I am telling you respectfully not to do that now (or ever)”. Make each word very distinct. Or, “Knock it off, Uncle Joe! Do not touch me like that!”
  • DEMAND PEER: “I’m done. Get out of my space,” again with each word distinct, or “Stop it! I didn’t give you permission to kiss me!”
  • AND DEMAND YOUNGSTER: “You need to listen when people tell you not to touch them. Go (to time out space) for a few minutes until I come to get you.”
  • CALL IN THE TROOPS: Fortunately or unfortunately, In most family and friend situations, the “troops” are other members of your group. Talk to allies among your friends and families about the pattern you are facing with the other member of your group. Ask them to support you in standing up to him or her or to help you decide what your next step is. If you have no allies in your family or friends group, it might be time to find “found family” or new friends.

Sometimes family members and friends are not supportive when you set boundaries with other members of the group. You are going to want to balance your need to set a firm boundary with your desire to retain those relationships. Sometimes you may need to “kill” the relationship with the boundary crosser. (See: “Marry, Shag Kill: A Relationship Metaphor“) You’ll want to make sure you keep as many of the rest of your relationships as possible, so think things through. 

Microfiction: Diana, Shots, and Glass

Protecting physical boundaries in partnership:

This Is someone you’re romantically or sexually involved with. These are a special case because you are likely to be alone with the person. When we are talking about violations of physical boundaries, we may be talking about domestic violence or sexual assault. Your safety is key to your decisions. 

  • AVOID: Move away. Use body language by closing off, facing away. THIS IS OFTEN NOT ENOUGH. Many “sharks” will pretend that they don’t understand body language and facial expressions, and keep going. (Autistic people who genuinely don’t read body language are generally very good about asking for consent verbally)
  • ASK: “Can we please not do this right now?” or “I need to do some stuff, honey. Can you please give me a bit of room?”
  • TELL: “No.” or “I don’t want to be touched right now” or “I don’t want sexual touch right now, just cuddling.”
  • DEMAND: “Get your hands off me!” or “I need you out of this room NOW!”
  • CALL IN THE TROOPS: Call a trusted friend or relative to assist, or call the authorities. Domestic violence and sexual assault situations can be life-threatening.  Do what you need to do to feel safe, whether it’s to fight, run, hide, or talk your partner down. (See “The Four “F”s of Fear” for more.)

Your physical boundaries are the easiest for you to define. Decide how close is too close, what touch is too much, and practice setting boundaries in all areas of your life. You’ll soon find that your life is significantly better, and you have more skills to set more boundaries. 

You Might Also Like:

On Boundaries: No Is a Complete Sentence (on your right to set boundaries)

Microfiction: Bluetooth’d (about using technology to protect your physical boundaries)

The Awesome and Terrible Thing About Being High Functioning (about how your boundaries shift with your ability to function)

Purely Political: Social Implications of Anti-Choice Laws (about the boundary of bodily integrity)

On Boundaries: 13 Ways Gaslighting Crosses Boundaries (about the relationship between boundaries and gaslighting). 

How the “Wellness” Industry Promotes Eating Disorders

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