Let's Talk About Boundaries
It’s November, the time we traditionally start to think about gratitude. But I want to go a different route. I know many of you are stressed with end of the semester business, but at some point, you’re going to realize that on top of the stress you’re feeling at work, you have to visit your family for the holidays. And as an added bonus, it’s all going down after the midterm elections. Womp-womp. Even if you get along well with most of your relatives, emotions will be running high. So this week, we’re going to talk about boundaries. If you have trouble setting boundaries or maybe don’t even know what they are, keep reading.
Let’s start with the basics. What the BLEEP even is a boundary? Most of us have never been taught how to establish healthy boundaries – especially women. That’s definitely been true for me. It’s something I’ve been working on with my coach, so I wanted to share what I’m learning with you. When we aren’t comfortable doing something, it makes that thing seem at best mysterious and at worse scary. So, when I asked what even IS a boundary, my guess is you probably had a hard time defining it.
In a nutshell, a boundary is the container or vessel that allows you to be your best self. Okay, so what the BLEEP does that mean? Well, what do you need to keep yourself healthy and balanced? Whatever that is – and it’s going to be different for everyone – making sure you have what you need and removing what you don’t is creating boundaries.
Now this idea of “being your best self” may seem selfish or naïve, but being “your best self” isn’t about being pampered and ignoring your responsibilities or other people. It means being able to show up the best way possible at work and home. It’s about showing up for the people in your life in a way that brings out their best selves. You can only do that if you’re at your best.
We’ve talked about self-care many times – oh and BTW setting healthy boundaries is crucial for self-care. Let’s say you know you perform at your best when you do yoga three times a week. You setting aside time to do that, is creating a healthy boundary. And again, this isn’t about being selfish. If you do better work, are more patient, are more whatever because you’ve done your yoga, doesn’t that benefit everyone?
Same thing with sleep. Maybe you need 8 hours of sleep to be at your best. What’s getting in the way of that? Now those of you with small children are probably laughing hysterically right now. I do realize that it isn’t always possible to put everything in place you’d like, BUT think about what can you put into place to get you closer to that ideal. It’s easy to give up on setting boundaries when you feel like so much is out of your control. In the next episode, I’m going to dig into why we have such a hard time setting boundaries, so we’ll get more into this then.
Now in my intro, I focused on the upcoming holiday family time. Why? Because it’s both topical and it’s something that’s out of the ordinary. I am going to talk about work as well, but sometimes when we’re living something every day its harder to notice when boundaries are being broken or need to be set. Sometimes things start as a gradual shift, so it’s easy to wonder is this just how work is or is there something wrong?
Since the holidays are supposed to be this magical time, it’s more noticeable when something doesn’t feel right. And when something feels wrong, how does that show up for you? Have you ever gotten angry over the holidays? Maybe at your relative that LOVES to antagonize folks with their political views? Maybe at your kids for complaining about the gifts they got? Maybe at your mom for demanding you do ____ on a certain holiday, even though it’s not what you want to do? I don’t think you really need my examples. Lol. I’m assuming as soon as I asked if you’d even been angry over the holidays, your mind flooded with examples. As I mentioned earlier, the holidays are typically wrought with emotion, so this anger probably feels larger than the angries you feel at work. It’s also more challenging because often you’re so busy at work you don’t even have time to process that you’re angry much less why.
What do you do when the anger comes? Most of us are uncomfortable with anger. I mean, what are you supposed to do? Lash out? Ignore it or shove it down? Obsess about it all day/week/month? When anger shows up, most of us don’t have particularly healthy way of dealing with it. Here’s the thing, as troubling as anger seems, it’s just your body/mind/spirit letting you know that a boundary needs to be put in place or one was violated. Anger feels very “in your face” because it’s trying to get your attention. “Hey you…er, hey me, this thing that’s happening isn’t cool. It’s definitely impacting our ability to be our best self. Please address it.” And how do we address it? That’s right, by setting or reinforcing a boundary.
The problem is most of us are so anxious to just defuse that feeling that we focus on making it go away, not fixing the underlying problem. If you lash out, which let’s face it happens to the best of us, do you later go back and address the underlying issue? If you ignore it now because it doesn’t feel like the right time to address it, do you keep shoving it back down or do you try to understand what’s going on so you can fix it? Anger is a healthy response. Anger is a good thing. Most of us just haven’t been taught to see anger for what it is. Nor have we learned how to set the boundaries we need, so that we can fix the issue.
I’m working with my coach on setting better boundaries. And to be more effective at doing anything, you need knowledge and the tools to do it, right? Well one tool I’ve gotten from my coach is understanding that there are four ways to set boundaries. This structure has definitely helped me, because as much as we might know, “Hey, set better boundaries!” That doesn’t explain how to do it.
So, what are the four ways to set healthy boundaries?
1) You can do it yourself.
2) You can ask an authority.
3) You can make a request with consequence.
4) You can walk away.
Let’s dive a little deeper into each of these, but before I do that, I want to remind you that in the next episode we’ll get into why we have such a hard time setting boundaries – even if we do know these options. So, if as I go through them, you’re all, “easier said than done, Anne.” You are correct. We’ve just got to start somewhere, if we want to start establishing better boundaries.
Now the first way to set a boundary is for you to do it yourself. When I first started doing this podcast, I didn’t schedule time for that to happen. I figured I’d find the time – and I did, but it often stressed me out. I knew it had to be completely recorded, edited, and uploaded by Tuesday evening, but since I didn’t schedule time to do it I’d end up with meetings peppered throughout my Monday and Tuesday which would make me ANGRY. That often meant doing the podcast on the weekend or staying up late Monday and Tuesday, which again made me ANGRY. That system was NOT letting me be my best. Since I largely control my own schedule, I started blocking off all day Tuesday to make sure I had the time and energy to do my best work. Can I still schedule things on Tuesday if I want? Yes. But blocking the day off gave me the boundary I needed to make sure I was setting myself up for success.
There are absolutely things that you can change in your life right now, that don’t need anyone’s permission but yours. Note: If you feel like that’s not true, you’re definitely going to want to read my next article. Keep in mind, boundaries can be about restricting others – like I restricted others’ access to my calendar. But boundaries can also be about setting ourselves up for success with the right systems or conditions. If you can’t be at your best when your environment is messy, you might need to create a better system to keep your office/house clean. If one of your talents keeps showing up as a weakness, you can set boundaries for yourself to limit how often that happens. An example I’ve used many times is me over-Inputting – aka too much researching. I’m not at my best if I’m not putting what I learn into action, so setting limits for myself on all the Googling is a healthy boundary.
The second way to set a boundary is to ask an authority. You may not be completely in control of your schedule, a person, or a thing that’s making you angry. When that happens, you’ll need to ask the person who is in charge of that area to get a boundary set. For example, is there a policy that needs to be changed? Or maybe you feel like you need a promotion? You need an authority to do that for you. Let’s say your department works with another department to get information and they’re often late with that material. To solve the problem, you may have started collecting the data yourself or just know you’re going to have to stay late to do it at the last minute. That’s technically solving the problem, but is it setting you up for success? I’ll wager it is not. Since you aren’t “in charge” of that department, you’ll need to ask your supervisor to step in and correct the issue.
Now you may be wondering, what if they won’t Anne? Good question. You can’t force other people to act on your behalf. But if they won’t fix the problem, that doesn’t mean game over. You can still set a boundary yourself by deciding what you will and won’t do. In my example, if it typically takes you two days to process the information from the other department, you can let your supervisor know that you’re going to take two days to process the information rather than staying late or coming in early to get things back on schedule. In that scenario, you’re still doing your job, you’re just not letting the other department’s decisions impact your well-being. If someone complains that it’s late on your end, you can direct them to the issue for the delay.
The third way to set a boundary is to make a request but understanding that there may be consequences. You cannot control other people, so if you make a request of someone you can’t be guaranteed that you’ll get the outcome you want. That person could say yes, but they might say no and/or be mad, upset, etc. If you don’t get the answer you want, you’ll have to go back and choose one of the other ways to set boundaries. For example, my sister asked me if I’d go and house/dog sit for them while they were on vacation. Now, yes, this started with her making a request of me, BUT how many times have you done something you didn’t want to do or wasn’t convenient just because someone asked? Exactly. I know I used to be really bad at doing that to myself. I didn’t mind the dog part, but they live so far out that it would have doubled my travel time to most of my appointments. So, I made a request to watch the dog at my house. Now, she could have said no that won’t work, been mad that I didn’t just say yes, or anything else under the sun. But she said that was fine with her, so it was done. I helped my sister, but in a way that allowed me to have healthy boundaries.
Now earlier I talked about your supervisor as a possible authority figure who could help you set up a boundary. But just because someone is an authority, that doesn’t mean they always play that role. Say your boss texts you after 5PM on a regular basis. You’ve decided that you need to detach from work at 5PM each day. You can make a request of your supervisor to only text you during work hours. Again, they don’t HAVE to agree to your request. And as with any request, there may be consequences for asking. Your boss might be angry or change how they feel about you, “Oh, I thought Brenda cared about the students. I guess not.” But this isn’t about pleasing people (again, listen to the next episode), it’s about your wellbeing.
The final way is to let it go. This might feel the same as ignoring the situation or convincing yourself that it’s not important, but there’s a big difference. In this case, you’re letting it go because you’ve decided it isn’t important like you initially thought, or because you realized that there’s something else that’s more important. That means you can’t just say you’re letting it go because it’s easier than setting a boundary another way. If you’re letting it go, you have to really let it go.
This last one sometimes requires some introspection and even new knowledge to allow you to truly let things go. For example, maybe you’ve been sucked into a committee that seems like a huge waste of your time. I mean after all, you have SOOOO much stuff to do. You could decide to remove yourself, ask your boss if you can step down, or request that the committee meet less frequently, but you could also decide that you weren’t looking at the situation in the right way. Instead of focusing on the work you’re not getting done, you might realize that meeting with those individuals on a regular basis could help you get other things taken care of more quickly. This isn’t about forcing yourself to manufacture a reason to not be mad. It’s about honestly reframing a situation so it’s serving you instead of working against you.
Let’s run through these with a classic family holiday situation. It’s Thanksgiving and Great Aunt Bertha loves to bring up politics and argue with family members who don’t share her view point. That’s not a great vibe for you, so you need to establish a boundary…
Option 1 – Do it yourself. You could decide you’re not going to Thanksgiving this year. You could decide you’re going to leave if she does start discussing politics. Or if you’re hosting, you could tell Aunt Bertha she’s not invited.
Option 2 – Ask an authority. If it’s happening at someone else’s house, you could ask them not to invite her. Or you could ask them to establish some rules for behaviors. Now, I realize it might seem a little odd to think of your mom or brother as an authority, but if they’re the host or well-established matriarch of the family it still holds true.
Option 3 – Make a request. You can ask G.A. Bertha if she would refrain from discussing politics. She might say yes. She might say no. She might say no and immediately launch into her usual schtick. But you can always ask.
Option 4 – Let it go. You can decide that even though the moments she does get combative isn’t pleasant, but you realize that there are many other moments during Thanksgiving where you enjoy her company. Since you can’t change other people, and you’d miss out on all of those if you distanced yourself from her, you decide to let it go and focus on the quality time you get with her.
Different situations will more naturally lend themselves one of those options. It’s not about right or wrong, per se. It’s about deciding the best way to get your needs met. It’s about putting the right structures around you to make sure you can be your best self. As we’re going to get to next time, none of this information makes creating or reinforcing boundaries easy. But what happens when you don’t recognize what your anger is telling you? What happens when you ignore those things? What happens is that anger festers and turns into resentment. Anger is a healthy response. Resentment isn’t healthy, not for you or your relationships.
So, as you’re wrapping up the semester and prepping for the holidays, pay attention to any anger you feel OR any thoughts that seem angry because maybe you’ve gotten too good at ignoring your feelings 😉 When it happens, think about why you’re angry. That’s the thing that needs a boundary put in place or reinforced. Even if setting boundaries seems too overwhelming right now, the first step is just identifying where they need to go. That’s a win in and of itself.
And until next time, stay strong.