A practical post on boundaries

It's important to me not to give overly-simplistic advice.

Each of you reading this has your own unique set of circumstances and one-size-fits-all solutions or quick fixes are unlikely to help you make lasting change. Plus it can be really invalidating to be told that your problem is not as complex as you think it is. 

Nevertheless, sometimes you just need a little practical advice to give you somewhere to start.

So let's talk about boundaries.

Why are they so hard to set? What's really to be gained by this seemingly painful process? How can we make it easier on ourselves?

Let's dive in.


Why setting boundaries is hard

When I say boundaries, I mean saying no to things you can't or don't want to do, and being able to set limits on relationships that are draining to you. 

Setting boundaries is hard both because of the meaning placed on saying "no" and because of your values and how you want to be perceived.

We make a lot of meaning out of things that aren't really there. Over time, "no" can take on more meaning than it actually has. Whether it's “No, I don't want to hang out tonight” or “No, you can't get a raise” or “No, I don't think that outfit looks good on you,” to sensitive and compassionate people, “no” can accidentally translate to “I disapprove of you”.

You would never purposely want to make someone think that you didn't value them or that they were unworthy (because you know how bad that feels). Ironically, the more you avoid boundaries, the more significance you place on your "no"s, and so this becomes a cycle.

The second part of this equation is how you hope to be in the world and how you feel you are perceived.

Even if you are willing to risk that uncomfortable moment of saying no (in your mind - rejecting the person who is asking and making them feel bad), some part of you equates saying "no" with being unhelpful, irresponsible, inconsiderate, or selfish.

And that is not how you want to be in the world or how you want people to think of you.

But saying no does not actually mean these things. It can mean letting people down occasionally. It can mean acknowledging that you can't make everyone happy all the time. It can mean that you are human and, just like all of us, need to actively decide what's most important to you if you are going to be able to live fully.

And it definitely means you will not be perfect and you might make mistakes.


But boundaries are necessary and good.

There is so much to be gained by saying no!

And the least of it is having more time to yourself.

The real advantage of setting boundaries is respecting your own limits and valuing your own priorities.

I'll say that again: Setting boundaries means respecting your own limits and valuing your own priorities.

Isn't this the way we all want to live our lives? With clarity of purpose and knowing what's important to us and being able to say no to what doesn't fit in? The truth is, the more we collectively start to show each other that boundaries are happy things that allow us to live more fully, the easier it will get.

But, hey, I said I was going to give you practical advice. So here it is.


My recommended process for setting boundaries

I'm going to give two models.

First, for a lower-stakes interaction when you've been asked to do something you don't want to do. And then for a higher-stakes interaction with someone whose way of operating is not working for you.

1. Start with what you appreciate
2. Say no (and, if necessary, why)
3. Send them off with "thanks"

Example: Your neighbor asks you to look after their cat while they're on vacation.

"(1) I'm honored that you trust me with that! (2) No, I won't be able to look after your cat, I'm overcommitted at the moment. (3) Thank you for thinking of me! I hope you find someone."

This formula includes:

  • Instead of saying sorry, you're saying thank you! The gratitude will make both of you feel better rather than making you feel like you've done something wrong.

  • Actually saying the word "no". As a society, we are afraid of this word! It's time to break the spell.

Higher stakes:
1. Start with what you appreciate
2. Articulate how things have been so far and why you've allowed them to be that way
3. Explain what you want instead and why this will be better for you (and for them)
4. Tell them what you need from them
5. Send them off with encouragement

Example: A friend calls you after every date to debrief. You want to be there for her, but it's been burdensome.

"(1) I really love that you think of me as a confidant when it comes to dating. (2) When you call me after your dates, I always want to pick up because I want to be there for you and I want you to know I care. (3) I think I need to debrief a little less frequently, though, and to wait until we get together for coffee to talk about it. That way I still know what's going on and can be really present for you. (4) That means that you'll have to save your stories for when we get together. (5) I'm excited to keep up with each other in a way that works for both of us!"

This formula includes:

  • Asking for what you need

  • Maintaining your values

  • Acknowledging that it is sometimes hard to hear "no" and being gentle in your delivery


So there you are.

This is something to try. Something to get curious about, to jump into, and to experiment with.

Try this model of setting boundaries and see how it feels. Personalize it. Get it wrong and try again. And let me know how it goes!


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