When it comes to setting boundaries, we seem to have a lot of confusion and angst about the subject. So many of us feel a tug-of-war going on with questions like what is a boundary actually, when do we need to set one, and what’s the best way to do it?
What can often add to the confusion is that there are so many areas that people talk about setting boundaries. You’ve got people talking about setting boundaries around things like your physical space, with your time, around what topics you will and won’t discuss, around relationships, and around your personal needs, to name just a few.
We’re so often told to set “healthy” boundaries, but then are too embarrassed or unsure of what constitutes a healthy boundary. As women’s issues are thankfully coming to the forefront of many social injustice movements, and more and more women are empowered to stand up for themselves, we’re also left with a lot of questions around the subject of boundaries.
For many of us, we’ve been taught at an early age to be “good” little girls, to not make waves, and to support and nurture others. Eventually we wind up as grown women, trying to navigate our careers and our families, accepting certain unacceptable things, caught between either not knowing what else to do or fearful of the repercussions if we do dare take some action.
The issue is that we can feel uncomfortable setting boundaries because we believe that we then need to control other people. For many of the accountant moms that I work with and coach, they’re reluctant to set boundaries because they feel that in setting a boundary, they then need to try to monitor and change another person’s behavior, exhausting themselves in the process.
They feel uncomfortable drawing a line in the sand and are confused, or emotionally drained, by the idea that they then have to police that line and stop others from crossing over it, or they fear other people’s reactions to them setting a boundary, and the idea of having to confront someone. When this happens, it just seems much easier to not set a boundary and then deal with the consequences.
The problem is that this perception of setting a boundary and then needing to control other people’s behavior IS understandably exhausting and it’s also futile. If you haven’t already realized, you cannot control other people; they have their own wants, needs, and preferences that are often not in alignment with yours.
Of course you can try to control others, but unfortunately you then have to pay the price when you succeed by then needing to keep them under control. Or you pay the price when you don’t succeed by then beating yourself up for not being able to keep them under control.
Either way, there are some misperceptions about boundaries that I will hopefully be able to shed some light on for you today. Once you understand the way I’ve been taught to set boundaries, it might help you to get clearer on how you too can start to set better boundaries.
This week I’m going to discuss some of the misperceptions about boundaries and how to set better boundaries.
Some of the misperceptions about boundaries
If you’re confused about setting boundaries, join the club! As a working mom it can be challenging to know when and how to set a boundary, especially when you might be getting so many mixed messages.
On the one hand, we admire those strong, self-assured women who seem to easily stand up for themselves, and who appear to swim against the tide. We wish we could be more like those heroines we see in the movies, that set a boundary and then stand their ground.
But on the other hand, we also read or hear the negative judgements about these women and worry that we might be judged harshly as well. We become concerned about how we might be penalized either professionally or personally, worried about being seen as difficult or being a bitch.
Just like you, I struggled with understanding how to set boundaries as well, but with the work I’ve done over the years with The Life Coach School, thankfully I’ve been able to see things differently. Early on in these podcast episodes I gave an introduction to boundaries in episode #2 – How To Set Boundaries The Correct Way, but since then I have also learned even more that I thought would be helpful to share.
In that earlier episode I explained what a boundary IS and what it ISN’T, hopefully giving you a better understanding of what boundaries really are and who they’re for. But for this episode, I want to readdress what I shared in that earlier episode and help to clarify some of the misperceptions about boundaries so that it might make it easier for you to understand how to start setting better boundaries.
The first misperception is that we think we need to set a boundary because we are fed up with someone’s behavior. Of course it’s not wrong to decide that you need a boundary with someone, but I want you to understand that you don’t have to be fed up in order to set a boundary.
In fact, one of the most important things I learned was that when you are angry or frustrated with someone, that’s actually the time to pause, work on those emotions, and NOT set a boundary. There may be times when you just can’t take a pause, but in many cases it is possible and way more effective for you to set a boundary from a more empowering emotion.
Feelings like fear, anger, resentment, and frustration are actually disempowering, and when you are trying to set a boundary from those emotions, you’re really trying to control someone. Again, if you’re in danger, then of course fear will be the fuel you’ll want to use to set a boundary or to get yourself to a safe place, but in most situations, you’ll want to check how you’re feeling before you set a boundary.
The truth is that it’s much better if you set a boundary from a feeling like confusion, compassion, or possibly even love. By taking the time to create a less volatile emotion, you give yourself the opportunity to get clear about the boundary you want to set and to make sure that you like your reasons.
But it’s also important to point out that you don’t need there to be some big, dramatic issue or to be on the brink of anger to set a boundary. You can just make a decision from a calm place, that you don’t prefer a particular behavior, and then decide what you will do to take care of you, if or when it happens again.
For example, you don’t need to be angry at a friend that typically shows up late for your lunch dates, in order to set a boundary. You can just prefer to not wait and calmly decide to tell her that you love her, but that her lateness doesn’t work for you so you’re going to give her 10 minutes of a grace period from now on and then you’re going to leave.
You still get to love her even when she shows up late, or when you’ve left and she’s now upset with you. Setting a boundary with your friend can all be done from the space of compassion and love, instead of anger, resentment and judgment.
You get to love her AND not want to wait for her. It’s not necessary to build up a case against her, get angry, and then dump your case and frustration on her in order to set a boundary.
The second misconception about boundaries that I learned is that we believe that once we’ve verbalized a boundary, that other people SHOULD honor them. We believe that if we’ve taken the time to get clear about a boundary we want to set, and that we’ve told someone what the boundary is, that the person will just stop doing the thing we don’t want them to do, or at least realize when they’ve crossed the boundary.
The typical situation before we set a boundary with someone usually looks something like this – they have been doing something a certain way for a while, we decide that’s no longer acceptable, and so we draw a line in the sand with our boundary. The issue is that they’re human brain is used to doing the things we no longer want to accept, and they’re brain is not on board with changing that behavior just because we set a boundary.
For example, just because you told your boss that you will no longer be answering his emails on the weekends, that doesn’t mean he’s going to stop sending emails on the weekends. His brain has a pattern of behavior that isn’t going to just stop on a dime because you set a boundary.
The best thing I learned about setting better boundaries is to expect that the other person’s behavior WILL continue and don’t set yourself up for anger or disappointment, or you can have a 50/50 expectation that they may or may not continue the behavior. The key is that, that has nothing to do with YOU upholding the boundary because, what you’ll learn in the next section is that the boundary has nothing to do with what the other person needs to do.
The final misconception about boundaries is that they’re going to make your life easier. While this might be true in the long-term, in the short-term setting better boundaries does not necessarily make your life easier, and can actually be challenging at first.
The reason I’m sharing this misconception with you is because I want you to be okay with the discomfort of setting better boundaries, and to know that it’s completely normal for it to be challenging at first, but it’s worth it. As women, our need to please others and to be accepted can make setting better boundaries super uncomfortable at first, but that’s okay.
So when it’s hard, just remember this episode where I told you that it’s completely normal for it to feel hard, because otherwise your lower brain is going to convince you that setting a better boundary is unnecessary. Remember what I’ve shared in previous podcasts, your lower brain is motivated to seek pleasure and avoid pain, so when it’s uncomfortable with setting a boundary, it equates that uncomfortability with danger.
Just know that that reaction is completely normal, but that you also have your higher brain to help you set better boundaries. That higher part of your brain sees the big picture, it sees the long-term benefit of setting a boundary, and it can help you handle short-term discomfort in order to achieve long-term gains.
How to set better boundaries
I think one of the most uncomfortable things about setting a boundary is preparing to have the conversation to verbalize the boundary. While it isn’t always necessary or feasible to have a conversation with someone when you’re setting a boundary, it’s still helpful to know how to handle a possible conversation so that you don’t feel so awkward.
The first thing to do before verbalizing your boundary is to understand that a boundary is what YOU will do, not what the other person needs to do or stop doing. This is such an important distinction because it will allow you to keep the focus on yourself when getting clear about your boundary, but then also when you have a conversation to share what your boundary is.
Basically, a boundary is not about what the other person needs to stop doing; it’s about what your preference is and what you’ll do if the boundary is crossed. Thankfully it’s not your job to control or change other people’s behavior, but the beauty in setting a better boundary is knowing that the boundary is FOR you, not TO them.
For example, you’re not telling your friend they can’t be late for your lunch dates anymore when you set a boundary with her. You’re just letting her know that her lateness doesn’t work for you and what you will do the next time she’s late – she doesn’t need to change, you just have a plan if it happens again.
You’re not telling your boss that he shouldn’t send emails to you over the weekend when you set a boundary with him. You’re just letting him know that you have chosen the weekends to be email-free time with your family and that you won’t be answering emails until Monday morning – he can keep sending emails but you have a plan if it happens again.
The beauty in this is that your friend gets to continue being late as much as she wants without you needing to change her behavior or getting angry with her, and your boss gets to send emails whenever he wants. Other people have the power to do whatever they want, but so do you.
So again, a better boundary is what YOU will do, not what THEY need to start or stop doing. Give yourself the chance to make a request of the other person, but don’t expect them to comply.
So once you’re clear about the boundary you want to set and you want to have a conversation about the boundary, there are 3 things that I learned that might be helpful for you as well:
- Expect that the conversation might be uncomfortable for you and for them – the more you can accept that the conversation might be uncomfortable, the easier it will be when the time comes. Remember, this person has most likely been doing something for awhile and now you’re telling them that you don’t prefer it. It can understandably be awkward for the both of you, but don’t let that awkwardness stop you. You could start the conversation by saying something like, “I’m kind of nervous to tell you this and it might feel awkward for you to hear but I need to share that….”
- Communicate your request and give them a heads up – you have every right to request that someone do or don’t do something, but you just don’t want to set yourself up for resentment when they don’t comply. Besides letting them know your request, you also want to let them know what you will be doing if it happens again. The way this might sound is saying something like, “When you are late for lunch, I feel frustrated. I know that you’re busy, as am I, but if it happens again I’m going to wait 10 minutes and then leave. I appreciate you and our friendship, and I want to communicate this with you in order to be honest”.
- Let their reaction be okay – just because someone gets embarrassed, angry, or wants to argue with you once you’ve shared your boundary, that doesn’t mean you did anything wrong. Let it be okay that they have feelings about what you shared with them. That’s why it’s so important for you to not come from a place of anger when setting a boundary because when you come from a calm, compassionate feeling, there’s no need to defend your boundary. They don’t need to agree with you in order for you to set a better boundary, but don’t make them wrong if they don’t.
Hopefully, you now understand some of the misperceptions about boundaries and how to set better boundaries. Just know that with some preparation and mind management before and after setting a boundary, you can actually enjoy the freedom that comes with setting better boundaries.
- As women’s issues are thankfully coming to the forefront of many social injustice movements, and more and more women are empowered to stand up for themselves, we’re also left with a lot of questions around the subject of boundaries.
- If you’re confused about setting boundaries, join the club! As a working mom it can be challenging to know when and how to set a boundary, especially when you might be getting so many mixed messages.
- Once you understand the way I’ve been taught to set boundaries, it might help you to get clearer on how you too can start to set better boundaries.