Boundaries are a gift
Gabor Mate once wrote: "‘If you face the choice between feeling guilt and resentment, choose the guilt every time… Resentment is soul suicide.”
It's hard to set boundaries. We don't want to let people down, or look bad. But when we refuse to draw a line in the sand about what we will and won't tolerate, we wind up letting them down anyway - and we deny them the opportunity to respond to our discomfort. When we choose boundaries, we choose guilt, but we save ourselves, and others in the process.
Most of us know (even if we don’t always practice it) that when it comes to preserving our health, time, and energy, boundaries are critical. If we don’t know where to draw a line, we eventually burn out. We get tired, frustrated and resentful, and we drop balls. We snap at the people we’re 'doing this all for', we lose passion for the stuff that used to get us out of bed, and we wonder why everything has to be so hard… and why other people aren’t helping us sort it out.
Boundaries are a gift you give to yourself. But boundaries are also a gift to others.
Unless we have clarity about where our shit starts and ends, others won’t know either. If you’re a serial responsibility-taker or over-functioner, you’re doing the people you care about a disservice.
You’re denying them their own autonomy and chance to grow or change in ways that would serve them, and putting yourself on a fast-track to resentment.
Signs that it’s time to set boundaries
If you find yourself thinking or saying things like “I really should...” or “I have to…” more often than you’d like, or you regularly feeling taken advantage of, disappointed, or frustrated by not getting what you want out of life, it’s time to set some personal boundaries.
(Sure, you could try and change the people you interact with, or the way the world works instead - and hey, good luck. Sometimes that works. But if you lack the time and energy, and don’t want to spend more time feeling like shit than you need to, you might want to try another tack.)
WTF are boundaries?
Boundaries are the decisions you make ahead of time about what you will and will not do, accept and take responsibility for.
They are your personal policy manual and protective shield against avoidable bullsh*t.
Why do we need them?
Boundaries are an excellent time and agony saver. The more decisions we can make ahead of time, the better we conserve ourselves for the tricky stuff.
With clear boundaries in place, we have a cheat-sheet for making good choices when we’re confronted with situations that have the potential to compromise us or mess with our values. Ambiguity is a breeding ground for boundary violation, so unless you show up with clarity on what matters to you, you’re fighting a losing battle.
Boundaries can be physical, intellectual, emotional, sexual, material, professional, or ethical. What they all have in common is that they are ours. While your boundaries might affect other people, they’re not about other people. You can’t decide what other people’s boundaries are or should be, or how they should react to yours. Just what you’re OK with, and what you’re not.
This all makes sense, right? You know this stuff already. Cool.
Here’s a few things you might not know about boundaries.
Boundaries are values on legs
Boundaries are invisible armour
Boundaries open doors.
1. Boundaries are values on legs
The only way to lead a meaningful life is to live in accordance with your values.
Unless you know what matters to you, and why, it’s really hard to feel good about your choices, especially when things go badly.
When things turn to shit, but you’re confident that you acted in accordance with your values, it’s easier to shrug it off and play the long game. Things don’t always go your way, but you sleep well at night.
But when you aren’t living from a values-led place, even the good stuff can feel hollow. When the bad stuff hits, you can find yourself trapped in an endless loop of guilt, blame, questioning and self-loathing.
Unfortunately, values aren’t much good on their own. It’s like those companies that have fancy posters on the wall about sustainability or diversity, but then work with tobacco manufacturers and 80% of their staff are white males from middle-class families that studied the same degree.
The leaders who put those values together aren’t liars or villains. They’re well-intentioned people that missed a critical step - they didn’t give their values any legs. Enter: boundaries.
Companies who put a poster up about diversity need boundaries about who they will and won’t hire. What behaviour is acceptable in the workplace, and what isn’t. Which activities are company sponsored, and which aren’t.
Companies who put up a poster about sustainability need boundaries about who they will work with, and who they won’t. How they will dispose of their waste, and what kind of project decisions they will and won’t endorse.
The same is true in your leadership and personal life.
If your value is about spending time with family, you draw boundaries about which of your personal time is off limits, what kind of commitments you’re willing to take on, and what you’ll say no to.
If your value is honesty, you decide what you’ll disclose to your partner, and how.
If your value is connection, you make choices about who to keep in your life and how to make those relationships a priority.
If your value is health, you make choices about what to eat, when to exercise and what to avoid.
Without clear boundaries, you have to make these kinds of decisions in the moment, and it’s much harder for your values to thrive. Once you know what you’re willing to suffer for, and make tricky choices ahead of time, you make better choices on the daily.
2. Boundaries are your invisible armour
Boundaries are a protective barrier between your identity, and the world outside. Because here’s the beautiful thing: once you’ve decided to take responsibility for your own feelings, thoughts and behaviours, you take back any power that you’d delegated to others.
If you’ve ever lamented someone for ‘making you feel’ a certain way, it’s definitely time to set some boundaries.
No-one can make you feel anything. They can make their own choices and decisions which affect you, and give you cause to respond, but they don’t have control of your life, or your emotions.
Boundaries are like an impermeable personal responsibility shield that keeps you connected, in healthy ways, to the people and events around you, while maintaining an iron wall around your values.
Boundaries don’t require you prove anything, explain anything, mount a case or convince other people to agree with you. Because boundaries are all about personal values, they become a personal policy. Personal policies don’t come with judgement or blame, and they don’t need other people to have the same position.
Take this example - you’ve been asked to come to a committee meeting on Tuesday night, and it would mean crossing a family boundary. When your boundaries aren’t clear, and you don’t own your responses, you might be able to turn it down, but it would probably sound something like…
“I can’t come to the meeting on Tuesday night, I’m so sorry. It’s just that Matthew has his karate grading that night, and I haven’t been home for dinner twice already this week. I hate letting you down, but I really don’t want Matthew to think I don’t care, you know? He’s had such a wobbly year at school. And George has been so good about picking up the slack while I get this project done at work, I really feel like he needs a break. I hope you understand? It’s really hard to balance work and family sometimes, especially in this place where everyone seems to be OK with out of hours stuff. It’s a crappy culture, actually. I find it tough. But I would so be there if I could. Just not this time. Please don’t hate me!”
When you have clear boundaries, you don’t need all the apologies and passive-aggression. You don’t hand-ball the reasons for your decisions onto other people’s issues (like the kid, or the husband) or try to take responsibility for how the receiver will feel.
Instead you just say things like:
“I won’t be at the meeting on Tuesday, it’s family time.”
“I don’t work on Tuesday nights.”
“I have a personal policy to go to all of my children’s sporting events.”
End of story. Armour intact. Friendly smile. Moving on.
3. Boundaries open doors
Boundaries are an inherent contradiction. On the face of it, they’re about closing doors and saying no to things. Which means that one of the hardest things about setting boundaries is FOMO - fear of missing out. When we say no to a friend, event, opportunity, project or job, it’s easy to get tangled up in what we’ll lose, even if we’re certain it’s the right choice.
Our little brains quickly mount an internal protest, urging us to consider all the things we could have if we just let this one slide. The money! The fun! The popularity! The promotion! The satisfaction of pulling off the impossible!
When the carrot doesn’t work, our asshole brains then turn to the stick, planting grave fears like
“What if another job or client doesn’t come along, and I go broke?”
“What if people think I’m boring and don’t want to hang out with me anymore?”
“What if I get stuck in the same job forever?”
“What if someone else gets the glory and I fall behind?”
Here’s your secret weapon against that annoying inner voice: focusing on the open doors.
When you close the doors that aren’t right for you, you create the opportunity for new ones to open.
Your company’s stance on sustainability might lose you three shitty clients, but then earn you one passionate, aligned one that propels you to the next level.
Your personal policy on drinking might lose you a couple of hours messy bonding after midnight, but open the door to Sunday mornings spent trail running with a new buddy instead of a day lost to eating hangover pizza alone in bed.
Your relationship boundary on me-time might result in a grumpy spouse today, but open the door to a happy marriage that goes the distance.
Your social boundary on having tech-free evenings might mean you miss an in-joke from group chat, but open the door to taking the painting course you’ve been talking about for years.
Your financial boundary about group holidays might see you miss out on a killer Air B’n’B weekend, but open the door to buying your own house sooner.
The trick is to focus on the doors you’re opening, not the ones you’re closing. You chose those values for a reason, give them a chance to happen.
How to set boundaries in 5 easy steps
Now that you know what boundaries are all about, and you’re enthusiastic to get started, what do you do?
Cancel everything? Go on a social media tirade about all the shit you’re not going to put up with anymore? Tell your kids and partner that the gravy train on responsibility-taking is over? Quit your job? Get a rebel tattoo?
You can definitely do that if you want. I’m personally inclined to a bit of drastic life-change myself. Send me an update on how it goes.
If you’d like a more measured approach however, you might want to do it this way:
Take an inventory
Check your values
Convert your shoulds
Look for small wins
Communicate with respect.
Step One: Take an inventory
Draw up three columns on a piece of paper, and head them up: “obligations” “resentment” and “unease”.
In the first column, write down all the things you think you should be doing, and leave two lines after each one.
You might write personal things like “I should get more sleep” “I should spend more time with the kids” “I should have a tidier house” or professional things like “I should join that working group” “I should earn more revenue this quarter” and “I should find a better job.”
In the second column, write down all the things that have been pissing you off about others lately. You might write personal things like “My kids don’t look after the stuff I buy them” “My husband doesn’t recognise how much more I do around here” or “My mother doesn’t realise how much pressure I’m under at work.” You might write professional things like “I’m the only one who sends my reports in on time” “My direct report always stuffs up important emails so I have to double-check everything” “My boss doesn’t realise how long it takes to roll out a new system.” Again, leave two lines after each entry.
In the third column, write down all the things you’re involved with that don’t sit quite right, or that have been weighing on you. You might write personal things like “My best friend is having an affair” or professional things like “We’re misleading our customers on response times”.
And (you guessed it) leave two lines after each entry.
Step two: check your values
Now, for each of the entries in your inventory, identify which of your values this is butting up against. (If you don’t know what your values are yet, it’s definitely time to have a crack. Have a read of this article, or try this online test as a start.)
You might write “health” next to the sleep thing, “fairness” next to the lazy husband thing, and “honesty” next to your dodgy best friend’s entry.
Take a look, and see what comes up most often. You’ll probably have a clear theme: you might have a strong value for reliability, for example, which being tested at work. You might have a strong value about family, and you’re not currently living up to it.
The most common value violations are the most important ones for you to solve. Those are the things that keep that gnawing feeling in your gut, and make it hard for you to bring your best to the things that you do really care about.
Step three: Convert your shoulds
Every one of your three columns is about a ‘should’. The first column is about what you should be doing. The second two columns are about what you think others should be doing.
But here’s the thing: shoulds suck.
Shoulds have no agency. Shoulds are about obligation, guilt, frustration and resentment. Shoulds aren’t about activity, they’re about anguish.
So we need to get rid of them all. Instead of worrying about what you, and others should be doing, you need to take control of what you are doing, and what you’re not.
Column one - release guilt
In column one, use the space under each entry to convert them into I statements that starts with one of four options: ‘I must…’ ‘I must not…’ I ‘will’ or ‘I will not’.
For example, ‘I should sleep more’ might be a non-negotiable health value for you. Change that one to ‘I must sleep more’ and identify ways to make that a priority. Guilt, be gone.
‘I should have a better job’ might become ‘I will get a better job’ which creates actions for you to take.
Or you might realise that isn’t in alignment with your values at all. You’re just feeling comparison pressure against your friends, and you love your job. In which case, convert it to: ‘I will not get a different job.” Phew, obligation released.
Columns two and three - release resentment and unease
In the second column, consider which of those behaviours bother you the most, which ones are about your critical values, and what you need to do in response.
Remember: you can’t make your kids more responsible, your best friend more faithful, or your husband more appreciative. When you try and do that, you’re focusing your energy on things outside of your control, and taking responsibility for other people’s thoughts and behaviour - which is theirs to worry about.
Boundaries are your personal policies. They’re the decisions you make about who you will do, accept and take responsibility for. That doesn’t mean becoming an island, or that you can’t state your needs or ask for help. Instead, it means being clear about what your choices are, and not depending on the compliance of others for you to be happy.
So, for each of your second and third column entries, write in the gap underneath what a boundary would be that reflects your values, and isn’t dependent on other people for you to feel good about. Use the same “I will” or “I will not” format, but include an “I will release” section at the end, to affirm your personal responsibility.
They might be things like…
“I will not replace items that my children lose. If they need to replace them, they will need to make their own purchases. I will release my bitterness or disappointment.”
“I will only do the household tasks that bother me the most. I will ask my husband to be more involved in the housework, and let him know which things would be most helpful. I will release guilt and responsibility for the rest - either they will happen, or they won’t.”
“I will be clear and respectful in my project plans and recommendations about timeframes, and I will not take on projects with unreasonable deadlines. I will release fear of damaging the relationship with my manager - either my opinion is respected, or it isn’t.”
“I will not cover up for my best friend. I will release responsibility for her decisions - the consequences are for her to accept.”
“I will not lie to our customers. I will release fear of recrimination, because I need to work in a place that aligns to my values.”
For bonus points, try saying them out loud. Feels good, doesn’t it? Empowering… and a bit scary!
But that’s the thing about boundaries - if we aren’t committed to being brave and acting on them, they’re just values without legs. Every one of those conversions requires us to release our fear about other people’s reactions, or the consequences of our decisions.
Every one of those conversions requires us to take responsibility for our own behaviour, taking the power away from others to determine our feelings.
Every one of those conversions requires us to put our long game lens on, and to sacrifice short-term wins like popularity or peace, for long-term gains like respect or value.
And every one of those conversions is worth making, for your own personal peace.
Step four: Choose small wins
Once you’ve done your inventory, and converted all of your shoulds into boundary statements, you might feel a bit overwhelmed.
It’s a lot of things to tackle at once, and the thought of sending your work, marriage, family, friends and personal life into disarray might be terrifying.
The good news is: that is unlikely to happen. Setting boundaries rarely goes as badly as we expect, especially not in the long term. In fact, most of the things we fear are:
A) The things we most need to do
B) Never as bad as we expect.
Check out this post for more on that.
You’re playing a long game, though - which means you don’t need to turn your life upside down all at once. The trick is to choose small, manageable wins that will create a snowball of boundary confidence.
Every time you can confidently state a boundary aloud, you get a little hit of agency dopamine, training your brain to enjoy it. Over time, you learn to feel good about taking control of your own choices, and it will become easier and easier.
Choose an easy one, and practice saying it out loud before you set it in action or have a conversation with anyone. Which brings me to…
Step five: Communicate with love
Boundaries are about love. Love for yourself, and love for others. Remember: when you don’t have a clear idea about where you start and another person ends, you aren’t loving them enough to grant them accountability and the chance to grow.
That means when we communicate our boundaries, they need to come from a place of love, not anger or frustration.
You can’t change others. This isn’t about their behaviour or choices - it’s about yours, and what you’re willing to do, accept or take responsibility for.
Boundaries are uniquely you. They’re a reflection of your personal values and policies, which doesn’t make them objectively ‘right’ - it just makes them right for you.
That means it’s important to stay in our own sphere of responsibility when we make requests of others, or let them know what we’ve decided to do.
It means saying things like:
“I have a personal policy against underquoting for work”
“I don’t use my phone on Sundays”
“I need more help around the house”
rather than judging or blaming statements like:
“You’re a devious prick with poor customer values and I won’t tolerate it”
“Using phones on the weekend is what’s creating a tech-addicted society and it’s setting a bad example for your children”
“I need more help around the house… because you never do anything and always expect me to pick up the mess”
These conversations won’t be easy to start with. You’ll get it wrong some of the time, make compromises you’re unhappy with, judgement calls that turn out to be misguided and lapse into finger-pointing more often than you would like.
That’s OK. You’re a flawed, learning human like the rest of us, who’s practising living a life with values and boundaries. The worst-case scenario here is that you learn what not to do, and adjust course as you go. And who’s responsibility will it be to fix that?
Yours. Because who else can you take responsibility for, but yourself?