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Boundary Setting: A Skill to Enjoy What Matters!

Boundary setting cartoon by Mimi and Eunice

What is boundary setting, is it simply saying no?

Boundary setting, at its most basic, is a process through which we each set necessary limits for ourselves, and others, to protect our wellbeing. Boundaries are a clear and unambiguous signal that guides other people on how to behave towards us. Why is this important?

Boundaries, or bright lines as some call them, help us meet our own personal needs and they protect us from being taken advantage of by others. Boundary setting applies to all areas of our lives, personal and professional.

The benefits of setting boundaries

The benefits are numerous, for instance, we:

  • Put ourselves back in the driver seat of our time and life (we start to do only what we want to do)
  • Establish the rules in our life which allow other people know where to stop (meaning our relationships are healthier)
  • Prevent burnout throughout our life
  • Prevent emotionally draining vampires from entering our lives (or lose them quickly if they do)

The natural question becomes, how do I set effective boundaries?

Starting with the fundamentals

As a coach, I am often asked: “How do I set boundaries without upsetting X or Y person?”

It’s a great question!

The fundamentals are simple when you start to think about them:

  1. You can say no (guilt free)
  2. Your needs are on an equal footing as the needs of other people 
  3. Someone else’s monkey (problem) doesn’t have to become yours to carry
  4. Expectations are personal, we live up to our own not those of others
  5. We all make mistakes, we are human after all 

You may be thinking, this all seems too easy that there must be a catch? 

Defining our personal boundaries

When boundary setting, beyond the fundamentals, there are two specific areas to consider. Firstly, consider your core values. Identify what is important to you and why it is. This will help you draw boundary lines free of guilt because it clearly establishes the framework within which your decisions are made. It also helps others understand what makes you “tick”, meaning they will know which lines not to cross. 

Let me illustrate with an example:

Zaheb is clear about his values, he values family first amongst those. He has a two-week planned vacation coming up. Zaheb, his partner Josefina, and their two adopted children, Summer, and Chase, are going to Disneyland. The kids are beyond excited at the idea of seeing Mickey and Pluto. Zaheb works in a job he loves; he is in the global mergers and acquisitions team advising the team on acquisition targets. A few days before the family trip, his boss approaches him and says: “We’re about to target Acme Key Supplier so we can integrate the vertical supply chain. This is a key acquisition for us, and we need you on the core team. This project will make you more visible with senior management and accelerate your promotion.”

It is easy to see how the clarity of Zaheb’s values empowers him to make a clear decision. He will forgo the acquisition because family time is more important to him than any individual achievement or role. Without this clarity, he would struggle with trying to please everyone.

So, how would Zaheb apply his boundaries in this case?

Applying the boundaries day to day

This is where the personal element comes into play. We need to develop the ability to be firm with our boundaries and do so consistently, otherwise, we send mixed messages to others about what is and isn’t okay for us. When we don’t apply our boundary limits, we cause ourselves issues. Failing to live by our values can leave us feeling uncomfortable, disappointed, or upset.  

When we are being firm, this is about clarity of decision-making rather than the tone in which we communicate it. Assertiveness is the communication approach we seek. Sentences start with “I” because we need to own what we say and the way in which we say it. Zaheb could say to his boss: “As soon as I get back from my family vacation, I will jump into the M&A project and catch up. We can then work together, as a team, to ensure the acquisition is successful!”

The example illustrates that we can say no, without using the word no. By reminding the other person that you have a prior commitment, you convey a negative answer without offending. It is okay to decline to do something being asked evokes a feeling of discomfort within us. 

Final Thoughts

Being clear about our boundaries helps us save our energy for things that really matter to us. It will ensure we avoid feeling drained, minimize wasted energy, and generally create a feeling of balance in our lives. Boundary setting helps us learn more about ourselves which in turn improves self-confidence and allows us to be the kind of person we want to be.

Your turn

Sign in to the Community Member Area or comment below to share your views on the best ways you’ve found to set boundaries. What is your advice for others?

Give it a try!

Cartoon credit: Mimi & Eunice by Nina Paley

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