Personal Empowerment: Set Your Limits

A person always loses power when they fail to set and enforce reasonable limits.

This post is part of an ongoing series of articles on interpersonal coping tools which anyone can use to empower themselves in their relationships. Using the tools is particularly crucial when dealing with individuals of deficient or disordered character. Some of the tools we’ve already discussed include judging actions instead of intentions, staying focused and in the here and now, knowing yourself well enough to be aware of the things unscrupulous characters might use against you, and becoming a better judge of character:

Perhaps no tool of personal empowerment is as important as setting reasonable and necessary limits. There are two types of limits that a person must set in their interpersonal relations if they are to be empowered. First, limits must be set on the kinds of things you are willing to do. Second, you must set limits on the kinds of behaviors you will accept from others.

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When I was doing early research for my first book, In Sheep’s Clothing [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?), a woman came to my office seeking advice about how to handle some problems she was having with her son. I visited with them both together, and key aspects of their relationship became evident within minutes. The mother had just finished making a rather innocuous statement when the son blurted out: “That’s what you say, you cow!” In response, the mother looked at me and said: “See, that’s how he treats me. I’ve told him to stop being so disrespectful or I won’t help him get that car he wants, but he keeps on doing it.” I modeled for both of these folks the ground rules I insist on in therapy — that there be no name-calling, demeaning, antagonizing, etc., and I invoked a “time out” for the session with the proviso that when we resumed, the ground rules would have to be obeyed or there would be another time out. As you might guess, the mother complained that we might never accomplish anything that way. She really didn’t see at that point how “enabling” and reinforcing it was to allow that behavior to repeat itself over and over again — and how ineffective the “threat” of a future consequence (possibly not financially supporting a car purchase) was in modifying her child’s behavior.

I could give literally hundreds of examples, but suffice it to say that people often get themselves into trouble and lose power in their relationships — especially with individuals of deficient or disturbed character — when they don’t set firm limits both on the behavior that they will tolerate as well as the things they are willing to do to maintain the relationship. In the example I cited, the mother eventually confided that she feared that if she stopped doing all that she was doing that her son would think she didn’t really love him and she would lose him. She also confided that she didn’t feel comfortable with really pulling the plug on her financial support of some of his wishes because she felt it was her duty to support him and because she hated to see him not have the things most boys want and that his friends had. So, she resorted to threatening to deny him what she never really planned to withhold. In the end, she ended up with virtually no power in the relationship, and her son continually ran over her.

Some people can’t say “no” easily. Fears of one thing or another (mostly abandonment) keep them from setting limits. What’s more, the more character-disordered personalities, especially the aggressive personalities, don’t take the word “no” for an answer. (See “Understanding the Aggressive Personalities”.) So, there’s almost always some kind of hell to pay when you try to set a limit with them. Nonetheless, a person always loses power when they fail to set and enforce reasonable limits. Setting limits is as important as defining and respecting boundaries (our next topic), and it’s a powerful tool of personal empowerment.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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