Who do you belong to? A short question that sometimes stumps people, and for very good reason. We play so many roles in life that it can be challenging to decide our focus and how much of our energy to be giving to any particular role, project, or person at any given moment. So if you find yourself multitasking (I used to count this as a superpower until I accepted that it was, in fact, highly inefficient) and frequently interrupting yourself to attend to someone or something else, you may well need to look at what you’re saying Yes and No to in your life and learn how to set boundaries effectively.
We’re all having our boundaries tested in unexpected ways at the moment as most of us are working and learning from home. The challenge may be amplified at present but we recognize it as a persistent issue regardless of the presence or absence of a global pandemic. So if you’re feeling burnt out, unproductive, struggle to find any time for yourself, your passion projects, your self-care, if the term “people-pleaser” resonates with you, if you struggle to advocate for yourself or say No to others when you really want and need to, well this post is for you! Who do you belong to?
Why do we set boundaries?
We set boundaries because they:
- Allow us to clarify who we are and what we stand for;
- Ensure we have the necessary resources to attend to our priorities; and
- Serve to protect our emotional and mental well-being.
Let’s take each of these in turn to explore them in more depth.
Boundaries help us to clarify who we are and what we stand for
When we set a boundary we essentially declare what we are saying No to, but more important is the underlying Yes that requires the boundary in the first place. If you find it difficult to own the No necessary to set a boundary, it’s probably because you don’t know with sufficient clarity what you’re saying Yes to, or you do know what you want to say Yes to but you don’t feel comfortable claiming that Yes.
OK let’s unpack that a little because it may just have landed as all “Yes-No-Yes….Whaaat Eimear?!” Take a moment to step out of the spinning and crazy overwhelm, take a deep breath, and ask yourself what is it that is most important to you and that you want to say Yes to. This is really a values question, and I’ll go into that area in much more depth in another post, but essentially we’re talking about priorities and your nonnegotiables. For example you have values around your key relationships – your partner, children, friends. So say your work wants you to attend a call at 8pm and that’s a time that you put your young children to bed – what do you do?
If being consistent and present are values for you in your role as a parent, and a very important way in which you express those values is by always attending to the nighttime ritual with your children, then you protect that Yes by creating a boundary and choosing not to take a weekday meeting after 6pm in this example. You say No to the meeting because you’re saying Yes to being present with your children and being a consistent and reliable figure for them. When someone proposes the meeting you don’t have to hum and haw pondering how to respond because you are already clear on who you are and what you stand for as a parent . Sure if you get some push-back it may feel a little uncomfortable but discomfort is part of the bargain of living a human life, as is making choices about who we are and what we want to be about in this one precious life we have. It’s about owning that reality. It’s about truly owning our lives. Who do you belong to?
Boundaries help us ensure we have the necessary resources to attend to our priorities
Imagine if you just spent money without ever checking your bank account. There would be some rather unpleasant consequences (Eek! – I’m having scary flash-backs to periods of fiscal irresponsibility in my 20s just writing that!). It’s the same for us except we might not be so aware of the alerts and warnings, signaling to us that resources are being depleted, as we are in the bank account analogy. The alerts can take the form of a sense of resentment. We might feel we’re being taken advantage of and disrespected. Maybe you recognize a “Should Story” where you’re asked to take on something and your mind immediately feeds you something like; “I should say Yes to that because it’s important to/I need to/they’ll appreciate it if I/insert other rationale”.
We all have stories and almost default programmed responses relevant to certain life events and it’s valuable work to explore which ones might be harming you more than serving you. If you are a people pleaser you know all about the almost automatic Yes response to a request and the burden that becomes. The truth is that if you don’t take the time, thought, and effort to set the boundary, then the behavior of others will continue to reflect that fact. The generous, virtuous mind-reading sector of the population is fairly bloody thin in my experience! It’s up to you to speak up and set the boundary or you will tip over into overwhelm or even burn-out, end up giving your energy in service of the life priorities of others, and not have the necessary resources (tangible or intangible) to devote to what matters most to you. You essentially cede your power to another person instead of owning it 100%. Feel or sound familiar?
Boundaries are essential to protect our emotional and mental well-being
You are not a machine. You are not a robot. You cannot do all the things, all the time, for all the people, without an impact. “You gotta pay the piper!” – as we say in Ireland when we’re greeting that friend who’s hung over after thinking they could drink all the drinks, for all the hours, and that be fine the next day! (Obviously am referencing other people here as most certainly have never been on the receiving end of such comments – she says as she diligently polishes halo) Consequences are a bugger!
You are an amazing and complex being and, just as your physical well-being requires you to care for and nourish your body, the same goes for your emotional and mental well-being. You need to nourish yourself on all levels and so you need to create the time and space for that. “I’m feeling overwhelmed” is one of the most frequent things I hear from clients. Usually the initial request is for some magic tips and tricks to better manage their time. That is rarely where we start.
Every Yes that you give is like a deduction from your energy reservoir and you only have so much in that reservoir. I talk about the “buffer zone” with my clients which is the area of the “Hard No”. And yes, it is literally that. The buffer zone exists to protect your mental and emotional well-being and prevent you tipping over into overwhelm. If you don’t protect that you will invite elevated and chronic stress and anxiety which will permeate into all areas of your life. Who do you belong to?
Boundaries matter. They literally keep you alive and healthy, so let’s see now how you set them.
How To Effectively Set and Communicate A Boundary
HINT – There is no apology involved!
Hopefully by now you can see more clearly that if you don’t set your boundaries yourself then someone else will decide them for you. Setting boundaries is about being very clear about who owns your life and demonstrating that clearly and confidently. [ You can discover valuable tips to help you build your confidence in my earlier post – 5 Tips To Help You Build Genuine Confidence ]
STEP 1 – Know your Why.
This is the values point I mentioned earlier. What are you saying Yes to that naturally requires saying No (setting the boundary) to this person, this opportunity, this request? For example if someone asks you to do some work for them and at a rate below your card rate for you the answer is No. That’s a boundary that makes sense for you because you have plenty of work opportunities and so you never negotiate your rate. You’re saying Yes to values such as Self-Worth and Financial Freedom which translate to an obvious No to low-balling requests like in this example. Know your Why and what it is that you say Yes to and then the No is just the natural partner to that Yes.
STEP 2 – Be clear and concise
Don’t feck around with the “I’d really like to…” or “I’m so sorry I just don’t know if I can…”. Yes it’s really important to show up in any conversation in alignment with your values of say, respect and courtesy, but owning your No is essential. The other party should come away from the interaction crystal clear on your position. Be polite (always!) but don’t end up in the weeds and sacrifice clarity.
Some Examples of Communicating a Boundary Clearly
Thanks for thinking of me for this opportunity but it’s a No as I have prior commitments.
I am currently at capacity and don’t have the bandwidth to take anything else on. It’s a No. In 4 weeks I’ll be finishing one of my projects so keep me in mind then if you still need support at that time.
I won’t be able to make that 8pm call because of family commitments. My diary has a lot of flexibility earlier in the day up to 6pm for a reschedule.
If you are pushed in a work situation you may want to try something like this –
I’m currently at capacity working on Projects A, B, and C which are also flagged as high priority. Saying Yes to your request would mean that the quality and/or deadline dates for my existing projects would be directly and adversely affected. That is why I am saying No to this project opportunity. I look forward to working with you on a future project knowing that we are both committed to ensuring delivery of high quality, on-time projects.
Yes, some of those examples may sound a little intimidating to deliver if you’re not used to owning the No. We build our confidence by taking this sort of value-aligned action outside of our comfort zone. That’s literally the confidence formula and that’s often what we’re doing when we communicate boundaries. [ Download my FREE guide, 7 Powerful Practices to Skyrocket Your Confidence to learn more on this topic ]The feelings of confidence unfortunately don’t conveniently show up to precede taking the action (Yeah, I know – total bummer!). If you’re not used to doing this, just practice it beforehand. Create your own version of what I’ve done above that’s relevant to your life situations and make it resonate with you. Infuse it with your values and how you want to communicate. Just one reminder though not to water that No down too much or you’ll risk creating a permeable, wishy-washy boundary that won’t be respected. If that happens you have to re-assert it.
Remember that people will tend to treat you the way you allow them to treat you. When you create a clear boundary you are serving not only yourself but others also by clarifying what is OK with you and what is not OK. [Brené Brown shares some thoughts on just this in this short snippet from an interview] None of us are mind-readers (and for those of us who think we are, we’re typically pretty shit at it) so it saves us, and others, a whole heap of bother if we just decide to take full ownership of our lives, create those clear boundaries that we then confidently communicate. So who do you belong to? Yourself of course! Now make sure others see that clearly too.