Written by Jenn Humphries
Feel like you live in a pressure keg, and everyone wants something that you must deliver? In my past, I have over-reacted, panicked, even dominated teams to accomplish the impossible. And I learned the hard way these situations happened too often because I did not have healthy boundaries. So, when an accident changed my life, I decided that installing better personal limits would be vital for my recovery. I dove into research, took hours of therapy, and figured out that the most difficult part of adopting better personal boundaries was figuring out how to implement them and make them stick. This blog will show you the thinking and the path that has worked for me, and my world is infinitely less stressful due to the healthy boundaries I have installed.
First, it is worth fixing your boundaries. Doing so can help ease anxiety, assist with depression, and lower stress levels over time. Oh, oh, did you notice that qualifier – ‘over time’?
That’s because the process of boundary setting and enforcing limits takes time. When you start actively living your boundaries, it will feel uncomfortable. Why? Because it is outside of your normal habits. It’s also difficult for those around you. They didn’t sign on to make a change in how they interact with you.
Yep, prepare yourself for all of that. It is still worth it to create a healthier way to live.
What are boundaries, and why is everyone talking about them?
Boundaries help us live up to what feels right for us, and they alert us when something is starting to go wrong. Think about That sick feeling you get in your stomach when someone pays you untoward attention. That stiffening in your shoulders hits when a colleague or a boss has requested you take on more work for the same pay.
When requests, actions or behaviours of others encroach on what we feel we should be doing and what we are comfortable with, that is when boundaries are not being respected. The person initiating it may not even be aware of the discomfort they are causing. That doesn’t make it okay. And more importantly, it should not make you shift your boundaries unless you feel comfortable with shifting them.
I will write this again differently: Only YOU get to decide where your boundaries are and when or if they should change.
So, where are these boundaries?
They are mostly invisible rules and guidelines based upon beliefs that we have. We have been taught them. We have been told them. As we become adults, it is up to us to decide the boundaries we set, the boundaries we keep, and the boundaries we live up to.
It’s also up to us to own the consequences of not respecting boundaries we have been taught or told. For example, look at safety boundaries. If you cross the street before a set of traffic lights, you may be hit by a vehicle or a bicycle or charged for jaywalking. ‘No jaywalking’ is a municipal bylaw set for us, and yes, that’s a boundary. If we don’t adhere to the bylaw, that’s our choice, and we are accountable for it.
There are many different types of limits. Some boundary categories address:
- Physical safety
- Social agility
- Healthy workplaces
- Personal care, wellness and health
- Interpersonal relations
We are concerned with all of these in our 365-Day Reset.
Before we can implement new boundaries, we need to identify and select some.
To do this, read the Healthline article “The No-BS Guide to Protecting Your Emotional Space,” written by Jennifer Chesak and medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, Ph.D., CRNP. It does a stellar job of detailing the process of selecting and setting boundaries, explains why it is important to do so and delivers strong tools to recognize boundaries and employ boundaries. Come back and do this work! With more information, you will create a system that works for you.
For now, we will jump ahead to focus on the areas where people tend to feel the most stress: how we implement them.
Recognizing that my boundaries will be different from yours because we are different people, I hope we can agree that we may share certain boundaries and expect others around us to share. For example:
- Don’t abuse people, pets or things.
- Don’t steal
- Don’t lie
- Do your fair share
- Honour your boundaries and others’
If your conflict is in the first area, contact professionals to assist you. I am a big believer that everyone (yes, EVERYONE) is helped by a good therapist. The good ones prompt us to order our thoughts and perspectives, and reactions. For people in abusive situations, a well-trained counsellor is critical. For the purposes of this blog, we will focus on the fourth idea. When individuals don’t live up to this, it will cause conflict at home and in the workplace.
Another source of conflict happens if we suddenly flip a switch to turn on our new boundaries. Our adjusted behaviour may surprise, even offend, those closest to us. While this shouldn’t make us hesitate to enact healthy boundaries, we can take care to implement our boundaries in a manner that respects our current ties and minimizes friend loss. (And yes, be aware that some relationships may fall by the wayside).
My six key rules to follow when implementing new boundaries.
- Take responsibility
- Focus on your feelings and outcomes
- Don’t blame or fault others.
- Alert people to the upcoming changes they will see in you
- Hear and acknowledge the opinions and needs of others
- Reserve space and time for making your decisions
To understand why they are effective, consider the following scenario:
Likely, we honour our parents, and as adults, we may feel that they are encroaching on our space. This is natural as the parental role shifts and evolves. You may have kept silent about your discomfort in an effort not to hurt the person you love. But, here’s the thing, keeping silent about what hurts you or makes you uncomfortable doesn’t help your relationship with your parents. It hurts it. Resentment will take root, and anger will grow.
Like most things, the first thing to completing a process is to start it. Start gently and offer to bring the people surrounding you along for the journey.
Having a soft conversation with your parent or parents to let them share your boundary-setting process may be a good first step. The gentle and direct conversation may look something like this:
“Mom, Dad, I’m finding it a bit tough right now. I feel like there are so many pressures on me, and I think it’s because I don’t have good boundaries in place for me.
“So, I’m starting to really look at that. There are many demands on me and a lot of pressure. I know that it’s happened because I haven’t dealt with it before now. I may want to talk to you a bit about it as I go through the process.
“Will you help me think about how I can install healthier boundaries? Your support matters.”
If the reaction is negative:
Consider sharing some examples of harm or difficulty you have experienced when people have overstepped your boundaries. I suggest choosing examples that don’t involve your parents at this early stage. It’s less confrontational.
Acknowledge whatever they say. Then decide what you will do with their answers. Recognize that you acknowledge what they have said doesn’t mean that you agree with what was said. You simply accept that they think as they do. Decide how that knowledge will shift your relationship and recognize that the relationship may be fractious while you are boundary setting.
If the reaction is positive:
Going forward, consider asking for suggestions about different ways to handle situations as they arise. For example, if your parent asks you to do a major maintenance project while you are in the midst of a big, complicated work project, ask how you can speak with them about it to make life more manageable. Find the solutions together. This builds a framework for re-negotiating your dynamics and your existing boundaries. It will deepen your relationship.
See how gentle the idea of this conversation flow is? Obviously, it won’t work exactly in this manner. But the scenario shows how the six key rules are employed:
- It takes responsibility for your feelings, your coping strategies, and your steps to address them.
- It focuses on your feelings and how the actions of others impact you.
- It doesn’t fault or blame people for their actions.
- It alerts them to a change in your relationship and asks them to co-operate.
- It hears and acknowledges their answers.
- It hears their feedback and preserves space and time for you to decide what to keep and what to discard.
Similar discussions can happen with kids, love partners, friends, colleagues, and situationally with bosses.
Let’s consider another scenario, perhaps in a work situation.
You are approached by your boss to work an extra shift because someone called in. Doing so will mean more money to you, but it will also mean that you won’t have time to help your daughter with her school project next week. In your value system, family trumps the need for money. At work, there is pressure to do what is asked and jump in to help at all times. To align with your healthy boundary of keeping a good work/home life balance, you don’t mind taking the extra shift if someone else can cover one of your shifts later in the week. That will let you be a team player AND still fulfill the commitment you made to your daughter. Here is how that conversation could transpire, gently:
“Thank you for thinking of me. If I do the extra shift, I won’t be able to meet a commitment I made. And yet, I want to help our team out here.
“If I agree to take this shift for tonight, can you find another staff person to take my shift on Thursday?”
If your boss answers no, then living up to your healthy boundary requires you to politely decline, and you may respond something like:
“Oh darn, I thought that could be a good solution for everyone. It’s best then if I keep to my original schedule.”
If your boss answers yes, then do the shift.
Next week, go in and thank him or her for working with you to find that solution. Tell him or her about the success of your daughter’s homework project if that is appropriate.
In this scenario, you lived up to all six rules and your healthy boundary. You were respectful, calm and you stayed true to what you want your life to look like.
Sometimes, one of the things that brings us into conflict is a fear of saying no.
My Mom has a theory. She says that the most important word for anyone to understand and use is saying no. Doing so means that we recognize our own power and our right to make our own decisions.
And there are many different ways to say no. Some include:
- Thanks, but I am going to pass.
- Let me think about that for a bit. I’m not comfortable with it.
- I understand what you are asking, but I need to decline. Thank you for understanding.
- No thanks.
If people don’t accept your decline, that is their issue, not yours. Don’t change what is good for you to suit someone else. That is how healthy boundaries get unstuck.
Other ways to keep personal boundaries sticking are:
- Saying no in a gracious manner.
- Negotiating an exchange of services or time if you do the requested activity.
- Staying in your routine so time pressures don’t prompt stretching healthy boundaries.
- Changing deadlines or project loads to fit new demands while respecting your boundaries.
- Delegating responsibilities to others.
- Doing a daily or weekly check-in with yourself to highlight good choices and not-so-good choices you have made.
What this blog hopefully shows are ways to positively implement your healthy boundaries and strategies to keep to them. Notice how none of the key rules, scenarios or strategies leaves place for outbursts, demands, ultimatums, manipulation, or assault? Why? Because resorting to these five bad behaviours is actually bullying, and that is a blog for another day.