“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves even when we risk disappointing others.” – Brené Brown
Deep down, most of us are people-pleasers. Our default response to most requests is ‘ok, sure’ – even when we’d rather be crawling naked through a rat-infested tunnel. In the dark. We overcommit. We overspend. We overdo. And as a result, our lives are often chaotic and exhausting. But no more… it’s time to press pause and consider what makes us feel happy, healthy and sane. It’s time to set some boundaries. Are you ready?
First… what exactly are ‘boundaries’?
Put simply, your boundaries define what’s acceptable and what’s not when it comes to your physical, intellectual, financial, sexual or emotional wellbeing. What you’ll tolerate, what you’ll compromise on, what you’ll say no to. Boundaries are the ultimate form of self-care.
As the great poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, “Your personal boundaries protect the inner core of your identity and your right to choices.”
Your boundaries are shaped by your culture, family dynamics, where you live, your personality and your life experiences. As such, they’re completely unique to you.
Unlike the Great Wall, your boundaries aren’t set in stone. They’re under constant recalibration, expanding and contracting depending on your situation. Think of boundaries like a rubber band – they’re flexible, but stretch them too far and they’re likely to break and be no good to you at all.
So how do you find your boundaries?
This is the big challenge. Your personal boundaries don’t come clearly marked like those neat little fences dividing one house from the next. There’s no giant ‘trespassing’ sign flashing wildly when someone crosses your boundary, no man in little white shorts blowing a whistle when someone creeps over the line. As helpful as that would be.
To find your boundaries, you need to work out what’s important to you. You need to know how and why you’re making the decisions you make. Your body generally does a good job at telling you where a boundary should be drawn (hint, it’s generally when something goes against your values).
Increased heart rate, sweating, that nervous feeling, a tight gut – if something feels uncomfortable or unsafe, that’s a good clue that you’ve hit a boundary.
Understanding your cues can also help you read other people’s boundaries – if someone’s avoiding eye contact, backing up, folding their arms, looking nervous… it’s likely you’re skating pretty close to theirs. And respecting other people’s boundaries is just as important as respecting your own – in fact, it’s vital for any healthy relationship.
Effective boundaries are a real challenge to set, but defining them, communicating them and staying true to them is absolutely essential for your wellbeing, your self-respect and respect of others, especially if you’re a manager or leader.
Why is it so darn hard to enforce boundaries?
There are plenty of reasons we find it hard to champion our own boundaries, but it generally comes down to a need to please other people – a deep-seated need to be liked.
For many, enforcing boundaries by saying ‘no’ to something cues a feeling of shame, along with concern that people will think they’re mean or selfish. But according to Brené Brown, that’s just not the case. She believes that “boundaries are a prerequisite for compassion and empathy” – in fact, she considers the most compassionate people to be those that have the most boundaries. They’re clear on what they want and need, and because they don’t waste their time and energy having said yes when they meant no, they’re not angry or resentful.
Actress Lena Dunham detailed how her life started to change once she stopped being such a people-pleaser and started saying no. “It was a slow process, but a polite ‘no’ soon entered my vernacular… And something miraculous happened: my personal life followed suit… People respond well to honesty, to reality. They understand. And so with those no’s, YES sprung back up everywhere…”.
Constantly trying to adapt who you are for the sake of others, whether to avoid conflict or to stay in favour, is a recipe for inner turmoil. Not respecting your own boundaries or listening to your gut may make you agreeable, but it won’t make you happy. As Author Brianna Wiest said, “Each time you break your boundaries in order to ensure someone else likes you, you end up liking yourself that much less.”
There’s no doubt Simone Biles would have felt she was letting people down when she said ‘no’ by withdrawing from her Olympic commitments due to emotional exhaustion. Same goes for Naomi Osaka when she withdrew from the French Open for mental health reasons. But personal boundaries are there to protect you – if you constantly stretch them in an eternal search for popularity, they’ll break. And so will you.
Sometimes you just have to say ‘no’.
How to manage your boundaries
When you’ve set your boundaries, there are three keys to managing them – and they’re all about focusing on what you can control.
- 1) You are in control of your energy.
As Eleanor Roosevelt so eloquently put it, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” No one else controls how you think or feel, or how you respond to situations. Understanding this is a game-changer.
Boundaries are an energy exchange – energy we give out and energy we allow into our lives. You don’t have to take on someone else’s negative energy, it’s a choice. As New York Times bestselling author Douglas Stone put it, “Learning that you can’t control the other person’s reaction, and that it can be destructive to try, can be incredibly liberating… you’ll feel free from the desperate need for their reaction to go one certain way.”
Likewise, you have full control over how you choose to react in negative situations (the energy you give out). Turia Pitt talks about the choices we get to make in her blog, saying “When you’re faced with a bad day, choose to feel ‘brave’, ‘confident’ or ‘kind’ rather than ‘angry’, ‘annoyed’ or ‘disappointed’… A lot of what happens to us is outside our control. But how we feel, how we respond to a situation – that’s completely in our control. So, pick a way to feel that benefits you instead of playing victim to your challenge.”
Again, only you can control your energy.
- 2) You are able to manage your impact on others.
Do you walk away proud of how you spoke to someone? Do you find yourself needing to apologise for your outbursts? You have control over your words and your attitude, and the impact this has on others. While we all have down days, it’s important to recognise that every interaction you have affects those around you. Use your values to guide your thoughts, feelings and actions, and therefore how you connect with others – and remember, emotions can be contagious!
- 3) You can manage your attitude to work, family and friends.
How you show up matters. For work, for friends, for family. When you don’t care how you show up for the day, you’re saying it doesn’t matter. You’re saying they don’t matter. You’re saying you don’t matter. You’ve heard the saying ‘Be the best version of yourself’ and that’s exactly the choice you get to make each day.
Being entirely present in every moment is difficult to do, and some days are harder than others. If you have a commitment you’re not looking forward to, try reframing it as something you get to do, not something you have to do. Turia Pitt talks about this simple mindset switch on her blog, and it’s a brilliant way to create a more positive outlook.
When you set boundaries and learn to have brave conversations with other people when their behaviour impacts you, showing up with the right attitude becomes much easier.
So now you have the lowdown on why boundaries are so important, and how you can manage them like a boss. Go forth and set as many boundaries as you please (it gets easier with practice), get comfortable with saying no and don’t let other people’s negative energy ruin your day. As Steve Maraboli said, “Incredible change happens in your life when you decide to take control of what you do have power over instead of craving control over what you don’t.”
If you’d like some help on a reset, my Recalibrate Self-Paced Coaching Program is available to start now. You’ll learn life-long skills like value-setting and taking action to achieve your goals, as well as how to smash through limiting beliefs, bad habits and negative thinking. You can download an Info Pack for all the details, or simply get in touch and we’ll organise a time to chat!