How to Set Boundaries

How to set boundaries
How to set boundaries audio

In my work I talk a lot about leading with empathy and compassion. I talk about the value of kindness, acceptance and love in leadership. These words can be mistaken for “soft” or “weak” and therefore some are hesitant to employ those qualities in a leadership role. This is only the case if we do not learn how to set boundaries.

There is a truth that took me a little longer to learn than perhaps it should have. 

Empathy and compassion without boundaries and accountability are a recipe for disaster. 

They are not mutually exclusive. Far too often I see good, talented, even gifted individuals not live up to their potential because they lack the ability to set boundaries. They confuse being a good, kind person with having no boundaries. 

The truth of the matter is that you can be both someone who is kind, caring, and compassionate as well as have firm boundaries as to what is acceptable in your life. The cold, hard truth of the matter is that if you have one without the other you are ripe to be taken advantage of. Abused even. 

This holds true for all of our relationships. Personal as well as professional. Setting boundaries is a skill that takes practice, repetition and effort to master. Once you start to learn the art of articulating what is acceptable to you, and that which is not, life/business becomes so much better. There is a profound freedom in learning to assert your boundaries. 

What are boundaries

Boundaries are a set of guidelines. A list of what is acceptable in your life and what is not. Boundaries aren’t beholden to right or wrong, they are simply about identifying what you will allow in your life. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is reasonable to consistently challenge your boundaries and ensure that they continue to match the values which you strive to live by. 

Walls vs. Boundaries

This is an important distinction. There are many times when we seek to improve ourselves we can implement practices that are counterproductive. In the context of boundaries it is very easy to mistake putting up walls for setting boundaries. 

Walls keep people out. They are protectionist in nature and usually stem from fear. They create disconnection and can lead to loneliness and isolation. As human beings we are hardwired for connection. When we create disconnection by putting up walls we risk that disconnection becoming a much larger mental and emotional well being issue. We may put up walls in order to protect but ultimately those walls can become our downfall. 

We don’t have to do life alone. We don’t have to keep people out. We don’t have to be the lone wolf (yes men I am looking at us). We need to have the courage to value ourselves enough to make sure that we are clear and firm in our boundaries. 

Boundaries simply let people in relationship with us know the rules of engagement. When we are able to clearly articulate what those are, then the people in our lives can choose to abide by them or not. If they choose not to respect our boundaries then at some point we need to make the decision to limit the amount of opportunity that we allow them to break those boundaries. Why don’t we set boundaries?

Why Don’t We Set Boundaries?

  • A fear of losing love and belonging
  • It takes effort (especially if you haven’t before)
  • We lack self worth
  • We don’t want to appear selfish

How to set Boundaries

Identify what your boundaries are

As with everything in life, with awareness comes choice. If we do not know what is acceptable in our life then we really will not be able to articulate what is not acceptable. Often times we know when something just doesn’t feel right. However, it is easy to gloss over these feelings and ignore those items that really are not acceptable in our life. Over time these things will add up and ultimately start to do damage. 

Listen to your gut. If you are a list kind of person, create a list of things that are not acceptable that you are currently allowing in your life.

Are there patterns starting to emerge? 

I suspect there will be patterns that you can begin to recognize. In the beginning you may want to simply focus on finding the patterns without trying to change them. It can be overwhelming trying to do it all at once. Simply start to notice the patterns. Let them become clear first, then you can start to do the work to change.

It will be difficult

If you’ve had a hard time expressing and asserting your boundaries for most of your life then you need to understand a few things. The first is that it is not going to be easy to change old patterns of behaviour and you will need to give yourself some grace as you start to make the shift. 

One of my favorite expressions is “When I am at my best…” 

When I am at my best I am living my values and standing firm in my boundaries.

For me this subtle shift in language is powerful. First it is a reminder that these are the things I do when I am living my best life. Secondly it allows me to acknowledge that I do not always get it right. There is no way I am “at my best” 100% of the time. I don’t expect that to be the case and allows me the latitude to have a little bit of self compassion when I am not operating “at my best”. 

Those that have been in your life the longest will push back the hardest. If you have not been good in the past of setting boundaries then people have come to expect a certain way of being from you. So when you start to alter that and start asserting those boundaries, the ones you love the most will likely be the ones to make it the most difficult to do. It is uncomfortable for them, they may not be able to see the harm that the lack of boundaries has caused you in the past. Or worse, they may not care because it was more convenient for them when you were not setting those clear and concise rules of engagement. 

Consistency is key

As I mentioned earlier there will be times when you fail. There will be times when you drop the ball and let people cross those boundaries. That is perfectly OK, just gently re-establish them and be consistent. 

Do not engage in the drama. When you start setting boundaries you will get challenged. You will get questioned and you will likely feel like you need to justify your position. 

You don’t. You simply need to decide what is acceptable in your life and what is not. It honestly doesn’t matter if you are right or wrong, all that matters is what you are willing to tolerate in your life.

Make the decision

Do you ever feel ‘stuck’ in your relationships? Do you vacillate on what is right and what is wrong? 

So often we live in nowhere land. We accept behaviours that are unacceptable. We let resentment build and harbor ill feelings. We live in this low simmer of discomfort and angst because we are living in indecision. We haven’t decided that we will accept the unacceptable nor have we decided that we won’t. 

When we live in this purgatory. It is an awful way to live. I’m not here to tell you the right or wrong decision, I am here to tell you to simply decide. Either way. Right or wrong doesn’t really matter what does is that you make the decision. 

Decide that you are willing to live with the behavior or decide that you are not willing to live with the behaviour. You cannot start to make change until you have made the decision.  

The Weapon of Guilt

Oh, I know! Right? For many of you this subtitle landed hard! I see it so often. I see it from family, I see it from religion, I see it from cultural norms. Guilt used as a weapon to breech your boundaries. To manipulate you into tolerating the intolerable. 

I was recently having this conversation with a client who has someone in their life that weaponizes guilt against them in order to push boundaries. They lamented the fact that it was so hard because they felt so guilty for asserting themselves. They allowed themselves to feel like they were a bad person if they stood firm in their boundaries. Sound at all familiar?

I’m fairly certain we have all experienced this at some point in our lives. 

  • “You must not really love me”
  • “A good {insert religion} wouldn’t do that”
  • “If this was valuable to you then you would…”
  • “A good daughter/son/wife/husband would do this…”

After listening to all of the reasons why they felt so guilty and acknowledging how hard it was going to be I asked them a question. 

Would you rather live with temporary guilt or permanent exhaustion? 

You see the things they were being manipulated into doing were literally killing them. They were putting their life on hold for a family member that was using guilt as a weapon to manipulate. It feels incredibly difficult at the moment but the reality is that the whole thing is quite simple. Simple but not easy. 

You have a choice. 

You can choose to try and appease those around you (many of whom will never be appeased regardless of what you do) or you can choose to stand firm in your values, beliefs and boundaries. While this is temporarily difficult I can assure you that it will give you a lifetime of relief. 

Reason or Excuse

I’ve talked about this exercise in a variety of contexts. There are moments when we need to ask ourselves this simple question.

“Is this a legitimate reason to allow this behavior in my life or is this really just an excuse to make me feel better about allowing it to happen?”

When it comes to setting boundaries it is easy to mistake excuses for reasons. 

  • “It’s a cultural thing”
  • “It’s a religious thing”
  • “It’s just how they were raised.”
  • “They don’t know any better.”
  • “They aren’t ill intentioned.”

All of these things may be true. Truth doesn’t turn an excuse into a reason. These things being true doesn’t mean you need to sacrifice yourself and your values because of them. 

It can be true that it is a cultural thing and it can also be true that you won’t allow it in your life.
It can be true that it is a religious thing and it can also be true that you won’t allow it in your life.
It can be true that it is how they were raised and it can also be true that you won’t allow it in your life.
It can be true that they don’t know any better and it can also be true that you won’t allow it in your life.
It can be true that the person encroaching on your boundary isn’t ill intentioned and it can also be true that their behaviour is unacceptable to you. 

Like anything in life worth having, setting your boundaries will take practice and discipline. It will take discipline to consistently stick to your boundaries and not acquiesce to pressure. No different than any diet or exercise program, you will need to be disciplined in your execution. If you miss a time or two don’t let that dissuade you. 

Imagine what your life will look like once you become a master of setting boundaries. Use that as your intrinsic motivation to stick to it. 

Once you master the art of setting boundaries you will find that there are so many areas of life where you can apply this skill. With your kids, with your partner, with your work, with your employees, with your teams, with your boss, and your family. When executed with care and attention solid boundaries will only help solidify and deepen your relationships, not compromise them. 

I’d love to know how you make out. Drop me a note in the comments and let me know.

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