How and why to set boundaries

April 13, 2017 0 Comments

How and why to set boundaries

Have you ever heard that saying, we teach others how to treat us? It really is true. Setting good boundaries helps us to ensure we show those around us how we want and expect to be treated. Good boundaries allow us to communicate effectively and perhaps most importantly, they allow us to love and care for ourselves.

Whether we realise it or not, we set boundaries in every aspect of our lives. The idea of boundaries might make you automatically think of raising children, but we also set boundaries with our partners, friends, co-workers and employers. When these boundaries are not clear and defined, we can find ourselves in trouble of one kind or another.

We may find that we feel bulldozed into things we don’t want to do, that too much is being expected of us, or that someone is taking advantage of us. We often don’t realise it but as we get to know people we push to see where the boundaries lie. When a person does not clearly communicate where their boundary is, the new friend or co-worker may well keep going with their requests, unwittingly lighting a fire of disgruntled resentment in us as we think to ourselves “why does she keep asking me to work on weekends/calling late at night/sending people to me for help!”

Many women find themselves in the role of people pleaser; we want to make others happy so when the boss asks us to do something above and beyond our normal job description we say “yes of course; no problem.” For us, this is a step beyond our normal job for which we should be recognised, but to the person asking the favour it’s probably just a relief to have resolved that particular issue.

The next time the issue arises, they will call us because they remember we helped out the last time. Fairly soon there is an expectation there that we will do something we consider to be unreasonable and don’t want to do. How often have you heard yourself saying, “I didn’t mind the first time but now this is just getting ridiculous…”

Without good, clear boundaries in place it is easy for that resentment to build up; we have inadvertently taught this person that we are ok with them piling the work on, calling us late at night or referring others to us for help because the first, second, fifth and twentieth time it happened, we didn’t say it was not okay. We sit and silently seethe at the audacity of this person calling late at night for assistance again - but have we ever actually told them not to?

You might feel that in a work setting you need to be always available, that you can’t afford to turn down opportunities or your boss will look elsewhere when it comes to promotions and bonuses. The fact is that your boss is more likely to respect you for drawing that line in the sand and saying “no, I’m sorry I can’t do that.” With burnout becoming one of the leading causes of absenteeism, employers would rather we all set boundaries around work to avoid that happening. Your manager might be inconvenienced by your refusal to work until 10pm tonight, but they will also see that you are someone who can prioritise, and who knows what is important.

It’s a skill we can all learn, but many of us don’t even know we can. Boundary-building can seem challenging, and for some of us it might feel scary to start saying no to things, but in the long term is it one of those things we are all better off for knowing and applying to our lives. So how do you go about setting boundaries? Here are some tips to get you started:
    • Identify what your limit is - Rather than waiting for someone or something to push you to the limit and make you angry or resentful, think about it beforehand: how late is too late for a co-worker or employer to call you?What time do you want to be available until? Do you want to be contactable on the weekends? We need to know where we stand before we can set effective physical, mental and emotional limits. Look at your life right now, and identify the areas that make you feel uncomfortable or stressed - this can help you to identify where your limits are. 
    • Be mindful of how you feel - There’s that word again: mindful. Mindfulness really is important in so many different areas of our lives. The key to setting good boundaries is noticing on a daily basis how certain situations make us feel. If we begin to feel resentment towards a certain person or situation, this is often because of a lack of communication over boundaries. Resentment often comes from a feeling that someone is taking advantage of us or doesn’t appreciate us. When we feel this resentment or discomfort, it’s a good sign that boundaries are being crossed. 
    • Be clear and direct - Now is not the time for subtle hints that a person is expecting too much of you; that can just come across as passive-aggressive or bitchy. If you feel that someone is asking too much of you, whatever the situation, it is better to be direct in communicating this. That doesn’t mean shouting or getting over-emotional; it’s better to leave emotion out of it and to clearly and calmly state: this is asking too much or I’m sorry, I can’t keep doing this. 
    • Avoid being accusatory - Whatever the boundary you’re trying to maintain, accusing the person of deliberately crossing a line can cause bad feeling and upset that’s better avoided. Choose your language carefully and try to remember that just as this person doesn’t necessarily see anything wrong in their actions, the words you think sound perfectly fine might provoke a negative response in them. Avoid using “you” and instead place the focus on yourself: “I feel that…” 
    • Remember that most boundaries are not universal - While you prefer not to be called after 8pm, others might think it perfectly reasonable to deal with calls until 10pm. Therefore it’s not necessarily obvious that they shouldn’t call later. Make it clear that this is your personal boundary, rather than any wrongdoing on the part of the other person. 
    • Give yourself permission - You’re not being difficult or rude; it is not unreasonable to set boundaries in any area of your life. Fear, guilt and self-doubt are big pitfalls when it comes to setting boundaries. We may fear the other person’s response, or feel guilty about saying no to something. We may feel that we are not a good employee/friend/daughter if we’re not always available or don’t always say yes. The thing is that boundaries are not just a sign of a healthy relationship; they also show that we have self-respect, something we all deserve to have. 
    • Make yourself the priority - Self-care is so important; it’s all well and good bending over backwards to accommodate the needs of others, but that can only go on for so long before you burn out and end up having to let people down. Realise, and remind yourself regularly, that it’s better to set healthy boundaries that allow you time to care for yourself first, than to end up spreading yourself too thin for too long, and unable to help anyone. 
    • Communicate - Let people know your boundaries before they are crossed, wherever possible. Use your email signature, your out of office function, your voicemail greeting to reiterate your boundaries if needs be, and don’t expect that people will remember; they have their own issues. Just continue to repeat yourself whenever required. 
    • Practise assertiveness - It’s one thing to say to yourself, “here is my line in the sand” but quite another to stand up for yourself and stick to that line when tested. Prepare what to say to the person beforehand, and say it in a calm and respectful way. Remind yourself that the other person cannot read your mind; they don’t necessarily know that they’ve overstepped the boundary you put in place. 
  • Start small - If you’re not used to enforcing your boundaries, don’t start with the biggest issue. Begin with something small and unthreatening, and build up to the big, scary one. 
Setting and enforcing boundaries is an important part of living a healthy, fulfilling life. By upholding our boundaries, we can maintain a healthy work-life balance and make time for that all-important self care.