Needs, Boundaries, Requests, and Demands

Two ladies sitting at a table in a professional setting having a conversation

A need does not require a specific person to do a specific thing. That’s called a demand.

There’s a lot of talk about “setting boundaries” these days, and I’m happy to hear it. But many people don’t know what that means or how to go about doing it. I hope this article will help shed some light on the topic.

Setting Boundaries

Setting a boundary can be viewed as simply informing others what meets your needs and what does not meet your needs. It’s not a judgment, accusation, demand, or ultimatum. It’s a statement of fact.

And all humans essentially have the same needs. It would be difficult to disagree with someone over what their fundamental human needs are because yours are the same.

However, we all have different ideas about how we wanna get those needs met. Let’s call these “strategies.”

All conflict occurs at the level of strategy. That’s where human relationships get sloppy.

For Example:

“I have a need for connection and belonging — to feel seen, heard, and valued.” That’s a fact.

“I need you to text me on your lunch break every day.” That’s a strategy to get your need for connection met, and you’re demanding that someone else make it their responsibility. That’s immature, manipulative, and codependent.

This is where people struggle with setting boundaries. They think they’re setting a boundary when oftentimes they’re actually making an unreasonable demand.

And the only things you can do with demands are submit or rebel — neither of which are conducive to healthy relating.

So when people tell me, “I set a boundary and they didn’t respect it,” I’m always curious to know exactly how they communicated this boundary.

Common Mistakes:

•Don’t follow the words “I need” with a pronoun. “I need YOU to… I need HIM to… I need US to….” None of that shit is true. Stop saying it. Perhaps you want those things, but you don’t need them. Take it down a notch, champ.

•Don’t say “You make me feel….” That’s completely false as well. It’s an unverifiable accusation that will start an emotional war that no one wins. Instead, try taking responsibility for your own ass feelings. “I’m feeling sad.” That’s a true statement that isn’t being weaponized or used against someone. Good job.

•Don’t say “should.” Not about yourself, not about others, not about the past, not about the future. That word is trash. It’s implicitly judgmental, controlling, shaming, and all kinds of awful nonsense. Replace it with “I want,” “I would’ve liked,” or just eliminate it altogether.

•Don’t start a sentence with the word “You.” Just don’t. Such “you-statements” come off as criticism, which elicits defensiveness, which leads to contempt, and eventually to avoidance. A you-statement is the beginning of the end. If you wanna burn your relationship to the ash, sure, let it rip. But if you’re interested in preserving a connection, stick with I-statements.

•Don’t use the words “always” and “never” when describing your interactions with someone. Those are usually emotionally charged hyperbole. These words roll off the tongue most easily when we’re triggered and ready to die on some inconsequential hill. “You NEVER do the dishes!” More false accusations that make civil discourse literally impossible. Instead of using global qualifiers (wholesale condemnation), cite specific instances.

My Needs vs. Your Needs

Another common mistake that I’ll expound upon here is the belief that there must be a winner and a loser when it comes to getting your needs met (explained through the lens of attachment theory here).

“I want pizza and you want seafood. We have to choose. One of us is gonna have a lovely dinner while the other resentfully eats food they hate.”

Ok, so obviously food is a need, but pizza and seafood are strategies (again, where all conflict arises). One could also argue that this isn’t just about the need for food, but also involves needs for connection, attention, acceptance, validation, agency, freedom, authenticity, or self-care.

What many people don’t realize is that there is usually a win-win solution to every interpersonal problem. But either they are too selfish or emotionally immature to care about others’ needs, or they are triggered into an emotionally regressed state as soon as they suspect their needs (or strategies) are being threatened. So they become incapable of talking through the uncomfortable emotions to reach a mutually satisfying decision.

“Let’s get a pizza with anchovies!” Or, “I’ll order a pizza, and you can GrubHub from your favorite seafood restaurant.”

Nonviolent Communication

This whole article is low-key about nonviolent communication, discovered and taught extensively by Marshall Rosenberg. I truly believe NVC is the benchmark for healthy relating. Anytime I see or hear cringey human interaction, it’s invariably out of line with the principles of nonviolent communication.

There is no shortage of literature and resources available for you to study, but here is a secret recipe I would like to share with you today for navigating awkward confrontation: Observation, Feeling, Need, Request.


This takes a good bit of mindfulness, self-awareness, and maturity to make an objective observation divorced from judgment and interpretation. It’s all about reporting the facts — something that could be caught on camera. You are not attaching meaning to it or sharing any of the stories in your head about it.

“I noticed you’ve been more than fifteen minutes late to dinner three times this week.”

There is no blaming, shaming, judging, or accusing going on here. Just stating actual things that happened. (Tone and body language are super important here as well).

“Why can’t you ever be on time for dinner? All you care about is your job, and we’re supposed to just wait around for you to make time for us. You always say one thing but do something else. You’re so selfish and inconsiderate. You should plan better or at least call ahead if you know you’re gonna be late again.”

Obviously, none of that shit is an observation. All projection, judgment, interpretation, criticism, and accusation. Totally counterproductive emotional warfare. (Notice the copious you-statements).

Stick to the facts.


Remember to use your I-statements when sharing a feeling. You can use Brené Brown’s list of 30 core emotions, the 87 feelings from her recent research, the feelings wheel, or this nifty feelings inventory from to help identify your actual feelings (not just more interpretation and projections). Use whatever works best for you. Humans tend to have very little formal training in emotional fluency, so don’t feel bad about how difficult this can be.

“I’m feeling frustrated with this pattern of lateness.” This is a feeling.

Whenever you say “I feel like…” or “I feel that…” or “I feel as if…” you’re about to say something that isn’t a feeling.

“I feel that you don’t respect my time.” Or, “It feels like you just don’t care about me anymore.” These are not feelings; they are speculation and assumptions. Super unhelpful. Cut that out.

Also, past participles usually aren’t feelings either.

“I feel disrespected. I feel neglected. I feel unloved.” These are all slick ways of saying “YOU disrespected me, YOU neglected me, YOU don’t love me.” Not really building any bridges with those covert you-statements.

You don’t need to explain or justify your feelings at all — in fact, it’s better if you don’t. But if you feel compelled, the way we do that in NVC is by following the feeling with “because I….” In other words, we take responsibility for our own feelings instead of blaming others.

“I’m feeling frustrated because I was planning to finish dinner in time to watch my show.”

But this can be a slippery slope because it’s easy to jump from “I was planning to watch my show” to “Now I can’t because of YOU!” Even if it’s only implied and not spoken. Better to stick with just the feelings and no explanation.


Now you can inform the other party what need you have that perhaps is unmet at the moment. As always, stay in your lane with I-statements. You can use my simplified list here, or check out this needs inventory from the NVC website. It might sound like this:

“I’m needing a little more consistency and stability in my life right now.”

Just like you are the authority on what you feel, you are also the expert on what you need. And similarly, explanations are not required. “I need to use the bathroom,” or “I need to take my medicine” do not require anyone’s input, understanding, or feedback. And if someone wants to argue your needs, either 1) You’re claiming things that aren’t really needs, 2) They have the emotional intelligence of a potato, or 3) They’re willfully trying to manipulate or gaslight you out of having needs for their benefit.

Again, don’t sling any kind of “I need YOU to do better” statements. Or “I need everything to go the way I want it to go all the time.” The former is a boundary violation, the latter is delusional.

You can also phrase this as what you would like, love, prefer, appreciate, or want, depending on the situation. Sometimes the word need can come off as implicitly demanding.

“I’d appreciate having more consistency around dinner time so I can make and keep plans in the evening.”


Thus far, you’ve framed the whole problem with your observations, feelings, and needs, but have yet to put forth any solutions, suggestions, or recommendations. Sharing your upset feelings with someone and telling them what you need is a good start. But just stopping there can easily be interpreted as “And what are YOU gonna do about it?”

This is called giving someone a headache and not bringing the aspirin.

If you’d like to advocate for yourself, set an effective boundary, get your needs met, or improve this relationship, you’ve gotta make the request.

“Would you like to sit down with our schedules and renegotiate dinner time?”

“Can you commit to calling me when you’re running late?”

“Shall we establish a ten-minute rule that says we eat without you if you’re more than ten minutes late?”

Do you see the difference between a request and a demand? A request starts a conversation and a demand ends a conversation. Requests are flexible and negotiable. They have to be because not all requests can be satisfied. In fact, being able to say and hear “no” without having a complete meltdown is a sign of a healthy relationship.

Demands, however, are rigid and non-negotiable. They assume that “I would be fine if YOU would just act right,” which is more or less the definition of codependency.

Practice Practice Practice

I always say that being human is hard enough and that trying to synchronize two of those things can seem damn near impossible. But it absolutely can be done. In fact, I’d say the quality of our relationships is one of the most accurate measures of mental health and emotional maturity.

So if you’re wondering where you are on your journey of self-discovery and personal growth, you need look no further than your relationships with the people around you. Nobody has shoddy relationships because they’re perfectly healthy and simply surrounded by idiots. That’s not a thing. Human relationships can only mirror back to you who and what you are.

And if you’re paying attention, this can be extremely helpful information.


“When will you write a book?” – When I can afford to.

“When will you write a book?” – When I can afford to.

“When will you write a book?” – When I can afford to.

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Published by Adam

Mentor, coach, speaker and educator for over 12 years. I have recovered from and triumphed over many obstacles and afflictions. It brings me tremendous joy to help others overcome similar circumstances so they can live their best lives.

2 thoughts on “Needs, Boundaries, Requests, and Demands

  1. I just went back and read what I wrote to him yesterday and I used about every one of the wrong statements you mentioned above 🫣 . I was pitching a fit out of frustration and feeling needy and lonely. “ I always show YOU how I feel and YOU never do” and things of that nature . F*ck , I need practice . A lot of it

    1. Haha… happens to the best of us. If it’s any consolation, I’ve observed when people are triggered (clients, myself, my wife, the Dalai Lama perhaps) we go IMMEDIATELY to a you-statement. It’s remarkable. I can tell when my wife is triggered, no matter how subtle, and sure enough she might drop a “You shoulda thought about that before you…” or something like that. I can spot it in myself too. When I’m upset, all I can think about is attacking someone I love, hahaha. Thank God I’ve cultivated a practice of PAUSING before I say something and evaluating the quality of the statement (checking for yous, shoulds, always, nevers and such), and I’ve learned to hold my fire. But it’s STILL THERE. Something very human, animal even, about wanting to attack when we feel threatened. So don’t beat yourself up. But yes… practice 🙂

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