12 min read

Boundaries 101: Your guide to personal and professional peace

Boundaries 101: Your guide to personal and professional peace

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 save ourselves and others.

Boundaries are a gift

"If you face the choice between feeling guilt and resentment, choose the guilt every time… Resentment is soul suicide.” - GABOR MATE

Most of us know (even if we don't always practice it) that boundaries are critical when preserving our health, time, and energy. We eventually burn out if we don't know how to draw a line. We get tired, frustrated and resentful, and we drop balls. We snap at the people we're 'doing this all for', lose passion for the stuff that used to get us out of bed, and 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 a disservice to the people you care about.

You're denying them their autonomy and chance to grow or change in ways that would serve them and putting yourself on a fast track to resentment.

Signs 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 are 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.

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 a protective shield against avoidable bullsh*t.

Why you need boundaries

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 in 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.

3 things you should know about boundaries

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 others, they're not about others. You can't decide what other people's boundaries are or should be or how they should react to yours. You can only decide what you're OK with and what you're not.

Here are a few things you might need to learn about boundaries:

  1. Boundaries are values on legs
  2. Boundaries are invisible armour
  3. Boundaries open doors

1. Boundaries are values on legs

The only way to lead a meaningful life is to align with your values.

It's easier to feel good about your choices if you know what matters to you and why, especially when things go badly. When things turn to shit, but you're confident that you acted in alignment 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 even the good stuff can feel hollow when you aren't living from a values-led place. 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 companies with fancy posters on the wall about sustainability or diversity who work with tobacco manufacturers and feature an 80% white, middle-class male staff.

The leaders who put those values together aren't liars or villains. They're well-intentioned people who missed a critical step - they didn't give their values any legs. Enter: boundaries.

  • Companies that 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 that put up posters about sustainability need boundaries about who they will work with and who they won't. How they 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 you value spending time with family, draw boundaries about which time is off-limits, what kind of commitments you're willing to take on, and what you'll say no to.
  • If you value honesty, decide how and what you'll disclose to your partner.
  • If you value connection, choose who to keep in your life and how to prioritise those relationships.
  • If you value health, you choose what to eat, when to exercise and what to avoid.

With clear boundaries in place ahead of time, you can make choices in the moment that are aligned with your values. When you make tricky choices ahead of time, you make better choices on the daily.

2. Boundaries are invisible armour

Boundaries are a protective barrier between your identity and the outside world. Because here's the beautiful thing: once you've decided to take responsibility for your feelings, thoughts and behaviours, you take back any power you delegated to others.

If you've ever lamented someone for 'making you feel' a certain way, it's time to set some boundaries.

No one can make you feel anything. They make choices and decisions that affect you and give you cause to respond, but they don't control your life or emotions.

Boundaries are like an impenetrable 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 to prove anything, explain anything, mount a case, or convince others to agree. Because boundaries are about personal values, they become a personal policy. Personal policies don't come with judgement or blame and don't need others to have the same position.

Take this example

You're asked to attend a committee meeting on Tuesday night, which would cross a family-time 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 don't want Matthew to think I don't care, you know? He's had such a shaky year at school. And George has been so good about picking up the slack while I finish this project at work; he needs a break. I hope you understand. It's 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. I find it tough. But I would so be there if I could. Just not this time. Please don't hate me!"

Ugh.

You don't need apologies and passive-aggression when you have clear boundaries. You don't handball 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 say things like:

"I won't be at the meeting on Tuesday; it's family time."

or

"I don't work on Tuesday nights."

or

"I have a personal policy to attend all of my children's sporting events."

End of story. Armour intact. Friendly smile.

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 sure it's the right choice.

Our little brains quickly mount an internal protest, urging us to consider everything 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 is your secret weapon against that annoying inner voice: focus on the open doors.

When you close the doors that aren't right for you, you create opportunities for new ones to open.

  • Your company's stance on sustainability might lose you three shitty clients but earn you one passionate, aligned one that propels you to the next level.
  • Your policy on drinking might lose you a couple of messy bonding hours after midnight, but open the door to Sunday mornings spent trail running with a new buddy instead of a hangover.
  • Your relationship boundary on me-time might result in a grumpy spouse today, but it opens 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 the group chat, but it opens 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

What do you do now that you know what boundaries are all about and are enthusiastic about getting started?

Cancel everything? Go on a social media tirade about all the shit you won't 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 do that if you want. I'm inclined to drastic life changes myself. Please send me an update on how it goes. If you'd like a more measured approach, do it this way.

  1. Take an inventory
  2. Check your values
  3. Convert your 'should's
  4. Look for small wins
  5. Communicate with respect. 

Step 1: 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 everything you should be doing and leave two lines after each.

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 everything that has annoyed you 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 have been weighing on you. You might write personal stuff 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 2: 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 your values yet, it's time to have a crack. Read 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 strongly value reliability, for example, which is being tested at work. You might strongly value family, and you aren't living up to that.

The most common value violations are the most important ones to solve. Those things keep that gnawing feeling in your gut and make it hard for you to bring your best to the things you care about.

Step 3: Convert your 'should's

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. "Should" has no agency. "Should" is about obligation, guilt, frustration and resentment. Should isn't about activity; it's about anguish.

So we need to get rid of them all. Instead of worrying about what you and others should be doing, 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 start 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 aligned with your values. You're just feeling comparison pressure against your friends and 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 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 to do that, you focus your energy on things outside your control and take responsibility for other people's thoughts and behaviour - which are theirs to worry about. So don't.

Boundaries are your personal policies. They're your decisions about who you will do, accept and take responsibility for. This isn't about becoming an island or not asking for help. It's about being clear about your choices and not depending on the compliance of others for you to be happy.

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 responsibility.

They might be things like…

  • "I will not replace items that my children lose. If they need to replace them, they must 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 not."
  • "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 with my values."

For bonus points, try saying them out loud. It feels good. It also feels scary, and that's OK too. 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 conversations requires us to release our fear about other people's reactions or the consequences of our decisions.

Every one of those conversations requires us to take responsibility for our 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 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 peace.

Step 4: Choose small wins

You might feel overwhelmed once you've done your inventory and converted all your shoulds into boundary statements.

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 that is unlikely to happen. Setting boundaries rarely goes as badly as we expect, especially not in the long term. Most of the things we fear are:

  1. The things we most need to do
  2. Never as bad as we expect.

Check out this post for more information.

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.

Whenever you confidently state a boundary aloud, you get a dopamine hit, which trains your brain to enjoy it. Over time, you learn to feel good about taking control of your choices, which will become easier. You can choose an easy one and practice saying it aloud before setting it into action or talking to anyone. Which brings me to…

Step 5: Communicate with love

Boundaries are about love. Love for yourself and love for others. When you are clear about where you start and end, you love others enough to give them accountability for their choices and the opportunity 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 reflect your values and policies, which doesn't make them objectively 'right' - it just makes them right for you.

That means it's essential to stay in our 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 creates a tech-addicted society and sets 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 will be challenging to start with. You'll get it wrong sometimes, make compromises you're unhappy with, make misguided judgement calls, 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, practising living a life with values and boundaries. In the worst-case scenario, you know what not to do and adjust the 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?

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