How do you set boundaries?

Boundaries and coaching

Working as a coach, the need to set boundaries comes up a lot. When done well, it acts as a firm, clear foundation for healthy relationships and a good level of work and life balance.

“Personal boundaries are the limits and rules we set for ourselves within relationships. A person with healthy boundaries can say “no” to others when they want to, but they are also comfortable opening themselves up to intimacy and close relationships.

A person who always keeps others at a distance (whether emotionally, physically, or otherwise) is said to have rigid boundaries. Alternatively, someone who tends to get too involved with others has porous boundaries.”

University of Berkeley Health Services

How are your boundaries?

If you’re someone who tends to want to help everyone, keep everyone happy but find yourself getting overwhelmed by the demands on your time, with many people, whether friends, family and / or colleagues relying on you to help them out on a frequent basis, you may benefit from considering your boundaries.

Similarly, if you keep people at arms length, never getting to know anyone properly, saying no to invitations to social events, for example, you may have too rigid boundaries and again, considering the right level of boundary setting could be beneficial.

Generally, the people I work with have boundaries that are too loose or ‘porous’.  They are feeling exhausted and stressed as pleasing everyone at work and home is pretty impossible.  As business leaders, keeping staff happy and bending over backwards to satisfy everyone, over servicing customers or clients and being reticent to delegate as they don’t want to ‘put too much on others’ means the hamster wheel turns faster and faster and they just want to get off, but can’t as it they fear everything would fall apart. If this behaviour goes on in the home as well (as is often the case), the chance to stop and unwind just never happens.

If you don’t have any firm boundaries in place, where do you draw the line regarding other people’s demands? Do you keep on saying yes even though you feel they’re asking too much? Do you sometimes feel uncomfortable or ‘put upon’ but just go along with it as it’s easier than speaking up or saying no for fear of not being liked or upsetting someone?

So if any of this sounds like you, you might benefit from setting your boundaries.  The next step is then to communicate them to others and stick by them. Not always so easy, but with practice, it can be done.

So how do you set boundaries?

Take some time to work out the following.  Not all will be relevant to you, so pick the bits that you can relate to:

  1. Which aspects of work and home life make you feel ‘put upon’ or where you feel that others might take advantage of you eg you’re always the one who picks up jobs no-one else wants to do.
  2. Are there times when people speak to you disrespectfully? Think of examples
  3. Are you seen as someone who can be interrupted with questions, no matter how busy you are? Does this frustrate / annoy you?
  4. Do you feel you rarely get time to yourself as you’re running around doing things for others (when often they could do these things themselves?). Think of examples.
  5. Are you the one who will stay late and finish things off every time (and people now assume you will?)
  6. Are there times when you say yes to doing something when you actually want to say no? Give examples.

Once you’ve come up with a number of scenarios that make you feel uncomfortable, taken advantage of, used even in extreme cases, work through each one and ask yourself what boundary could you put in place to stop it happening.  Start small as making big changes is not easy.

For example, for no.1, you might always be the one who organises birthday gifts.  Ask yourself why this is. And then ask yourself if you could suggest people take it in turns.  Suggesting alternatives in a positive and constructive way.  You may think this is the least of your problems – but by asserting yourself here, you are starting the ball rolling for bigger things.  If you can do this and stick to it, you will start realising that you can do it and move on to the next.  Little by little you will be putting boundaries in place.

Saying NO

This is a big part of boundary setting and so many people are uncomfortable with it. Being able to say you are not able to do something is essential if you want to have a balanced life and stay away from being stressed and overwhelmed.

Pick a scenario where you know you could say NO more often.  It might be something that happens frequently eg no.3 above, where people constantly interrupt you to ask questions etc.  I agree just saying NO to them can come across as a little rude, so think of a phrase that you feel comfortable with.  It might be “I have a lot on – can we arrange a catch up to work on these questions at another time?”.  Then when you have the catch up, you can explain that you’d like them to hold off asking you whenever they have a question and ask them to save them for agreed times.  This is of course not always possible, but when it works well, they will start working out some of the answers themselves and reduce the amount of questions they have for you.

(I have written a blog on saying no )

Do you know someone with healthy boundaries?

You might know someone who’s good at protecting themselves from burn out or overwhelm.  Whilst they are helpful and get the work done, you notice they are good at delegation and saying no in a constructive way that is respected. Observe them and think about how they do it.  There is not harm in copying someone who does it well!

It takes some determination and you’ll need to be assertive

Having healthy boundaries in place can transform your work and home life.  You will feel clearer, more in control and probably less stressed or overwhelmed.  You will need to be assertive and communicate your boundaries clearly to others, something which they will get used to little by little and you will be glad you did.  You’ll also need to be pretty determined as the role you’ve been playing as helper / people pleaser is how your are known.  People don’t like change, generally, but if you stick with it, they’ll soon get used to the new you.  It’s also very easy to revert to default.  A good way of avoiding this is to enlist the help of a friend (or coach of course!) who will help hold you accountable. 

As with most things that are worth doing, it takes a bit of determination and application, but you’ll be so glad you did!

If you’d prefer to listen to a podcast on boundaries, click here.

or to listen on apple podcasts, click here.

or to listen on apple podcasts, click here.