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When to Use "You" or "I" to Draw Boundaries?

There is a general rule of thumb in assertiveness to use "I" when drawing boundaries to avoid coming across as accusatory and to take responsibility for your emotions.

However, I recall that if a person is being rude, sometimes you should not use "I".
Using "you" instead is better because it draws attention to their rudeness and away from yourself.


  • "I" - when to take more of the blame by highlighting how their behaviour affects you & how you feel VS
  • "You" - when to put more of the blame onto the other by highlighting their actions or behaviour are "bad".

So it's not really a dichotomy since you can actually use both.
You can highlight their behaviour, and let the person know how it affects you.

I am going to provide a few examples here to get an idea of when to lean more towards a certain direction.

#1 Obvious Aggression (What Most People Would Find Rude) - Use "You" to Highlight Their Bad Behaviour

Him: Fuck you man!

Me: That's rude of you.

The above focuses on their behaviour and recruits society's notion of what's appropriate behaviour to shame them.

I think the above is better than

Him: Fuck you man!

Me: I don't feel comfortable with the aggressive tone.

because this suggests that maybe only you find the tone aggressive but others may not.

But since most people would think the above is rude, it would be better to use "you".
And obvious aggressions tend to be stronger so it's better to match with a stronger response.

#2 Shame Attacks - Use "You" to Deny Their Frame Or "Attack" Their Authority

More in power university's lesson on combating shame attacks.

An example:

Him: You are a manipulator!

Me: No! Shame on you! You mislead the audience by painting innocent people like monsters.

This is because you need to destroy their momentum before they sway the audience.
It also stuns the attacker and buys you time.

#3 Close Relationships - Use "I" Unless It's Very Rude Then Use Above

Lucio gave an example of a girlfriend swatting your hand away when taking her pen.

Her: (swats his hand away)

Him: (warmly, genuinely hurt) why are you doing that. I need a pen, I would happily lend you my pen if you needed one

In this case, it's quite rude so using "you" in "why are you doing that" to draw attention to the behaviour is out of place.
But it's conveyed in a warmer tone because that will prevent escalations and encourage better understanding.

Then, the subsequent exchange was assertive and descriptive with a collaborative frame.

I believe DESOE would probably work too in this situation:

Describe: When you swait away my hand,
Express: I feel uncomfortable because
Specify: I would like our relationship to be mutually supportive.
Outcome: This way we can work through problems together more easily.

For like household contributions, it's more interpersonal and about being fair.
In Power University's assertiveness lesson, the DESOE framework uses "I" a lot:

Describe: I feel like I’m doing more than half of the housework around here.
Express: I would like you to also take the trash out a couple of times a week or whenever you see it’s full and are on your way out
Specify: I’ll appreciate that a lot, and I think we get along much better
Outcome: And once you start contributing with the trash out, I will also also be more motivated to do my part more thoroughly. It’s win-win.

Using "I" here is better because you want to avoid being accusatory so that the other person will listen to your explanation.

Lucio Buffalmano has reacted to this post.
Lucio Buffalmano

This seems like a very good overview, Matthew.

From a power dynamics perspective, the "you" format is more dominant and higher power.

It draws a bigger line in the ground, and it can serve to display your resolve for a potentially upcoming frame battle (you'd be going for "frame imposing").

"You" statement can also serve to "take the initiative" and set a judge role.

"You are being rude right now" is very strong, and often gets people to react to you, which gives you control.
There is a  new example in the update assertiveness lesson in PU for that.

Matthew Whitewood has reacted to this post.
Matthew Whitewood
Have you read the forum guidelines for effective communication already?