The 6 Step Boundary Building Exercise

AdobeStock 88982785 e1558728481460

What can protect you from toxic people, keep painful memories in their place, keep you safe and strong, and help you manage your feelings?


Truly, boundaries are amazing. And good ones are a cornerstone of mental health.

When you grow up in a household that has healthy boundaries, you naturally have them yourself as an adult. But unfortunately, many of us don’t start out with that advantage.

If you grew up in a household with Childhood Emotional Neglect (your feelings and emotional needs weren’t met enough), or if you had a parent with a personality disorder, you may be especially challenged in this area.

Without strong but flexible boundaries, you may be overly vulnerable to criticism or insults from others, you may struggle to manage your feelings internally or prone to emotional outbursts, you may find yourself worrying too much, dwelling on the past, or not keeping yourself safe enough.

People with Childhood Emotional Neglect often have an overly rigid Internal Boundary, which blocks off their emotions too completely. So they can come across to others as excessively unflappable, or even emotionally bland.

If one of your parents had a personality disorder, your Internal and External Boundaries may be overly porous, or too flexible, resulting in emotional outbursts and difficulty managing your feelings.

The hallmark of a healthy boundary is strong but flexible.

As adults, one of the best things we can do for ourselves is to understand boundaries and work on building them for ourselves.

The Four Types of Essential Boundaries

  • Physical Boundary: This boundary is the easiest to visualize and understand, and has been the most studied. Research indicates that the average American requires about two feet of personal space in front, and 18” behind them to be comfortable. Jerry Seinfeld made this boundary funny when he featured the “close talker” on his show. But actually, the physical boundary is more than just space. It can be violated by people whose touch is unwelcome, or by someone who feels physically threatening to you. Your boundary tells you when to set limits and when to protect yourself, by making you feel uncomfortable.
  • External Boundary: This boundary must be strong but flexible. It serves as a filter that protects you from insults and injuries that come from the outside. When you receive criticism at work; when your spouse tells you she’s angry at you; when a driver calls you an obscene name, or when your sister calls you “selfish,” this boundary kicks in. It talks you through what the other person said or did to you and helps you sort out what’s real feedback that you should take seriously, and what you should reject.
  • Internal Boundary: This is the boundary which protects you (and others) from yourself. It serves as a filter between your feelings, and what you do with them. This boundary helps you sort through your intense anger, hurt and pain, and decide whether, and how, to express it.
  • Temporal Boundary: We all carry our past experiences within us. And we can often tend to dwell on them in a way that is not helpful. On top of that, old feelings often attach themselves to current experiences and emerge when we least expect them. This is why people blow up over burnt toast, for example. It’s also easy to give the future too much power over us. Spending too much time thinking about, imagining, worrying about, or dreading the future can cause anxiety and prevent us from living in the moment. Your temporal boundary senses when you’re going too far back or forward and pulls you back.

I know what you’re thinking: “OK, that’s great. Mine are not so good. How do I make them better?”

Here’s an exercise to help you create and strengthen your boundaries. First, choose one of the above four types that you’re going to build. Then follow these steps:

The 6 Step Boundary Building Exercise

  1. Close your eyes, and count to ten in your head, while breathing deeply and calmly.
  2. Imagine yourself surrounded by a circle. You are in the exact center, surrounded by the exact amount of space that you feel most comfortable with.
  3. Turn the circle into a visible wall. That wall can be made out of anything you like: clear or opaque plastic, bricks, smooth cement or something else. It can be anything you want, as long as it’s strong.
  4. Although the wall is strong, you and only you have the power to flex it when you want. You can remove a brick or soften the plastic to allow things inside the wall or out of the wall whenever you need to. You hold all the power. You are safe.
  5. Stay inside the wall for a minute. Enjoy the feeling of being in control of your world.
  6. Repeat this exercise once-a-day.

Now there’s one more important key to using your new boundary.

Eventually, your boundary will operate naturally. But in the beginning, you will have to consciously use it. It helps, especially in the beginning, to try to anticipate situations in which you will need, and can practice using your boundary.

Let’s say you’re going to visit your parents and you know that, at some point during the visit, your father will make an offhand comment implying that you have disappointed him (because he always does).

For this challenge, you’ll need primarily your External Boundary, to filter out your father’s comment and disempower it. You may also need your Internal Boundary if you want to manage your own response to his comment. So right before you go, sit down and follow the above steps to get your External and/or Internal Boundary firmly in place.

At your parents’ house, wait for your dad’s comment to come. If it does, immediately picture your boundary around you, filtering for you. The filter asks,

What part of this is valuable feedback that I should take in, and what part of it says more about the speaker?

Your boundary tells you this:

None of this is valuable. Your father’s comment is all about him, not you.

And there you are. You hold all the power. You are safe.

Childhood Emotional Neglect can be subtle and invisible, so it can be difficult to know if you have it. To find out Take The Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. It’s free! And to learn much more about CEN see the book, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.

A version of this article was originally posted on It is republished here with the permission of the author.


Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
Fred - June 18, 2020 Reply

Thank you so much Jonice for this, and all your other, offerings.
I’m wondering about the thing you wrote that “People with Childhood Emotional Neglect often have an overly rigid Internal Boundary, which blocks off their emotions too completely. ” and that “If one of your parents had a personality disorder, your Internal and External Boundaries may be overly porous, or too flexible” and I’m really curious if this is a consistant pattern? I have always had too porous boundaries and am working hard on strengthening them, but I never thought that my dad might have a personality disorder. But after I read this I’ve been thinking, and it could absolutely be the case. Is this something I should consider more, given my porous boundaries? Thank you again, for your books and this website and all that you offer.

    Jonice - June 18, 2020 Reply

    Dear Fred, I encourage you to see a CEN therapist from my list to discuss this. It’s important to get a professional opinion from someone who gets to know you in detail and depth.

Mary - April 29, 2020 Reply

In the example given, shouldn’t you speak up to your father or said person and explain your hurt and feelings around their comments? How long are you supposed to keep taking the remarks before it becomes too much? If someone doesn’t know they are hurting you, how can they stop? I understand they may very well not change though!!

    Jonice - April 30, 2020 Reply

    Great question, Mary. I surely could have included the speaking up part. I do sometimes have to leave certain things out of a blog to make a point in the space allotted. But speaking up would definitely be a step toward setting the boundary. Thanks for pointing that out!

    Shellie - May 17, 2020 Reply

    Thank you!! I just had to FINALLY speak up to my mother 2 weeks ago. She is the father in the example with the offhand comments every chance she gets. I had enough. Im 53…enough!!

Nan Hamilton - July 16, 2019 Reply

Hi Jonice, I am reading your first book, after taking the quiz 😉 and as an adoptee into an alcoholic (dad also an adoptee) family that fell apart while I was in grade school this is feeling like the proverbial cup of cold water after living in a desert for decades! I have done so much work in the midst of almost a decades of one loss after another now entering my Second Adulthood as an Intuitive Transition Coach for baby boomers. Is it possible to attend one of your training sessions as a life Coach? I am deeply drawn to people who are finding their Way forward after loss and ptsd type journeys. I’ve already recommended your book to one of my client’s and know it is helping him SEE himself and his Life from a strong view for the very first time.

    Jonice - July 17, 2019 Reply

    Dear Nan, you sound like someone who has faced the pain from your childhood. Kudos! Yes you can take my Therapist Trainings online. And if you are a certified coach you can be listed as a CEN therapist. You can learn all about the trainings on the Programs Page of this website. Thanks you for your support of my work!

Judy - July 13, 2019 Reply

I was encouraged to see others who didn’t know what career they wanted!!
When I left high school I told my only living parent…I wanted to go to an agricultural college…their reaction…caused me to put up a very thick glass brick wall!! Some light got in…but the world was very distorted!! I was the Scape goat…I now know…other the golden child…. And with a WW 2, PTSD parent, who became Alcoholic… I was kind of a mess!!! the 12 step program started my recovery…I could accept …ACOA!!
Your work Jonice, is filling in detail and helping me see myself… And others in a new and caring way!!
Thank you!!! And Blessings aplenty too!!!

    Jonice - July 14, 2019 Reply

    I’m so glad Judy. Thanks for sharing!

Denise - June 25, 2019 Reply

I am 54 and recently learned that my mother was BPD NPD, and emotionally abused me (only child), until the day she died at 90. I have every manifestation of CEN, especially a lack of boundary setting skills. My biggest roadblock in therapy is shame over my blindness to the whole situation. I’m an intelligent (enough) professional person and can’t seem to get past this.

    Jonice - June 27, 2019 Reply

    Dear Denise, this is a sign that you need help and support in your healing. Please see the Programs page of this website as well as the Find A CEN Therapist page. There is plenty of support for you, and it’s a sign of strength to use it. I hope you will!

Bridget - May 29, 2019 Reply

Thank you for dividing boundaries into different types of boundaries. This was a true eye opener to me! It makes it much easier to sort out why I struggle to set boundaries within myself and with others.

    Jonice - June 2, 2019 Reply

    I’m glad Bridget. You can do this!

Marva - May 27, 2019 Reply

Thank you for such valuable information. I am 53 and have lived my entire life without boundaries. I accepted any and every thing from people, I did not say no. Now I know what to do and I forgive myself. Now I will set some boundaries in my life, especially in my personal space .

    Jonice - May 29, 2019 Reply

    That’s great Marva! I’m excited for you.

Jamee - May 27, 2019 Reply

Thank you for this article. I grew up with no boundaries (children weren’t allowed to have them) and the adults around me had very poor ones. I’ve read books on it and worked on it a lot. For me the hardest one is the temporal boundary. As I’ve spent lots of time healing from the past this one fights me a lot. I struggle to stay in the present. I’m not sure how your method will help with this but I am glad you talked about all 4 boundary types since most of what I read is only about the first 3. Thanks for all the information.

    Jonice - May 29, 2019 Reply

    Dear Jamee, the healthier your boundaries are in general, the better you’ll be able to stay in the moment during difficult or painful times. Keep working on it!

Lili - May 27, 2019 Reply

This is an excellent article and very useful exercise. I will be doing the exercise often in order to strengthen my external boundary. While inside my protective wall, I can also see myself being anchored in the truth of who I *know* I am, to help me deflect unwarranted negativity and recognize it as a reflection of the speaker. Thank you.

    Jonice - May 29, 2019 Reply

    Good work Lili! Keep up that great effort and it will keep getting better for you.

Leah - May 26, 2019 Reply

I’m always wrestling with terrible external boundaries. I’ve felt like I’m always making a newer stronger, stiffer one to replace the last one that broke. I agree with the wording in one part about how hurtful, blindsided comments can say more about the speaker than the intended target. I’ve thought about it that way before, but not in the moment. Maybe it’ll help to think about that in the moment. I’ll try the barrier exercise to see if that helps with run-of-the-mill comments that shouldn’t hurt so much, the little things that make me feel ready to burst (hide in my room and cry).

    Jonice - May 26, 2019 Reply

    Dear Leah, it sounds like you are wrestling with your boundaries, and that is a good thing. It’s not easy to build them, and you describe the exact process it takes. Keep working on it and it will get better and easier!

Tina - May 26, 2019 Reply

Thank you, Jonice. I am really struggling lately with my temporal boundary due to current life situations. I needed to hear this today, you timing is impeccable! Many thanks for what you do and share

    Jonice - May 26, 2019 Reply

    I’m so glad to be helpful Tina!

Abby - May 26, 2019 Reply

This article, and the exercise, are so important to me. I so wish that someone could have taught me this exercise a long time ago. It would have saved me so much pain! But, I guess that’s part of the point. Years ago CEN was not recognized and many children were treated like virtual punching bags. I’m so glad that you are making this information about CEN available to everyone. Thank you ❣️

    Jonice - May 26, 2019 Reply

    Dear Abby I hear ya! The good news is that it’s never too late to learn! All my best wishes to you.

Leave a Comment: