Boundaries are invisible lines that determine where I end and you begin. Think of a border or dividing line that indicates what’s you and what’s me. Boundaries protect us physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually as well as preserving our time, energy and resources. Boundaries aren’t walls. They’re semi-permeable, flexible and help us define what we will and won’t accept, and how we choose to interact with the world and people around us.
Boundaries traverse all areas of our lives including work, family, friends, partner, children – even our pets (is your dog allowed on the couch?). And the strength of our boundaries can vary – some people have clearly defined boundaries at work but murky boundaries at home. Others might have clear boundaries with an intimate partner but less so with friends.
Ultimately, boundaries are about radical self-responsibility and honesty. They empower us to take ownership of our lives and our experiences. They’re less about saying no to others and more about saying yes to ourselves. They keep us out of blame and resentment and without them we can be subject to control, manipulation, abuse, over-work and burnout.
Below I address some of the more common misconceptions I hear about boundaries.
ARE BOUNDARIES SELFISH?
Boundaries aren’t selfish. They’re critical to our wellbeing and there’s nothing selfish about taking full responsibility and ownership over our wants, needs, goals, choices and lives (rather than expecting others to do it for us). Boundaries are about freedom – for us and the people around us. When we take full responsibility for our lives we’re saying to the people we love ‘I love you for who you are, not what you can do for me’. It doesn’t mean we don’t do things for each other, it just means the motivation is different and not for personal gain.
Boundaries also enable us to better manage our time and energy so we’re not constantly running on empty. They enable us to be more focussed, present and available. We can’t give what we don’t have.
DO BOUNDARIES HARM RELATIONSHIPS?
Boundaries preserve and strengthen relationships in all areas of our lives. Done well, they can bring us closer to the people we love. Control, manipulation, resentment and enmeshment can’t exist where boundaries operate. You’ll very quickly learn about the quality of your relationships when you start communicating your boundaries – healthy relationships don’t require you to abandon yourself.
“Boundaries are the litmus test for the quality of our relationships.”
Dr Henry Cloud
CAN I SET BOUNDARIES AT WORK?
Absolutely! Had I known about boundaries early on in my career I would have saved myself from burnout and been a better employee and manager. Ironically, having boundaries at work can shift us from working 60hr to 40hr weeks while remaining engaged and being even more productive and effective. It sounds counterintuitive but I’ve seen it happen.
Boundaries help us determine what we are and aren’t responsible for and prevent toxic behaviours from taking root in the workplace. I’ve worked in many organisations that don’t encourage healthy boundaries and it results in chaos, reactivity, lack of accountability and a toxic work culture.
Having clear boundaries at work demonstrates courage, leadership and the recognition that we can’t do it all, we’re not indispensable and we need other people.
WHAT STOPS US FROM SETTING BOUNDARIES?
Fear is ultimately what stops us from setting boundaries. Fear of what people think. Fear of upsetting other people, fear of guilt, loss or abandonment.
“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves,
even when we risk disappointing others.” Brene Brown
HOW DO I START SETTING BOUNDARIES?
The first step is becoming aware. You’ll know when someone’s met one of your boundaries because you’ll feel it. Or there’ll be a lack of congruence between what you’re saying and feeling (e.g. I’m saying yes but my body or gut says no). Start to keep a record of when and with whom you do this and what you were afraid of (e.g. the other person being upset, losing the relationship etc.). Consider what you’d like to do differently next time and notice when your mind wants to jump in and talk you out of it!
Start small and when communicating your boundaries keep the focus on what you want or need and use ‘I’ statements rather than blaming or shaming the other person. Saying to someone “I’m not looking for advice right now” works much better than “you’re so controlling!”
Boundaries take courage, practice and staying power. Clarifying and communicating your boundaries can be difficult and uncomfortable at first so it’s worth getting help from a coach, therapist or support group – especially for those more difficult boundary conversations. Like anything, the more you practice the easier it gets and you’ll soon start to reclaim your time, energy and freedom.
WHAT BOUNDARIES LOOK LIKE IN ACTION
- Not checking your emails after a set time (and really not checking them)
- Putting boundaries around your social media usage
- Not criticising or disrespecting yourself
- Making time for self-care
- Not taking on more than you have capacity to manage
With how you treat others
- Not giving unsolicited advice
- Not trying to fix, change or rescue others
- Choosing not to do things for others they can do for themselves
- Not spending time with people because you think you should
- Not staying with a partner because you don’t want to be alone
With how others treat you
- Not tolerating abuse – from anyone
- Not letting a friend continue to dump on you emotionally while never being available for you
- Asking for a raise or renegotiating a contract
- Asking to be involved in a project you want to work on
- aren’t selfish
- empower you to take ownership of your life
- improve your relationships
- are flexible
- are critical to your wellbeing
Image courtesy of Isaiah Rustad on Unsplash