Last week we talked about focusing your attention on the “Essential Few” and letting go of trying to keep up with the “Trivial Many” as Greg McKeown outlines in his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. One of the most effective ways to limit the non-essentials in your life is to set boundaries. Below is a list of steps you can take to effectively set boundaries in your life. Setting your boundaries is a key component to freeing up your time so you can focus on what's really important to you.
1) Overcome internal objections to setting boundaries.
I had no idea how to set boundaries until I was in my early thirties. It just wasn't a skill I learned growing up. As I grew into adulthood I refined my “people-pleasing” behavior rather than my boundaries. Here are some of the main reasons why I was a terrible boundary-setter:
• I was taught to be helpful as a child. I'm from a large family. When I was asked to do something, “no” just wasn't an option. I also learned early on that people “liked” me when I did things for them. After a while I equated disappointing others with not being liked (and on a deeper level, not being loved).
• I started working in the litigation industry when I was still a teenager. My job was to support large legal teams on a variety of projects. There's never enough time in litigation, and requests are almost always characterized as “emergencies.” I was trained from an early age to say “I'm on it! to every request that came my way” I didn't even have time to consider what I was saying yes to. As a result, I received accolades, promotions, raises, and was generally regarded as someone who would “get the job done.” In my mind, my professional success and my reputation depended on my lack of boundaries.
• For a long time, seeking others' approval what the only thing I knew how to do. Other people's opinions of me was how I gauged my self-worth. My own opinion of myself didn't even factor into the equation.
• It took me a long time to become clear about what was truly important to me. In early adulthood, climbing the professional ladder was my only goal. I learned the corporate system early on, and meeting expectations (and exceeding them) was, in my view, the way to “succeed.” All of my efforts went into getting a “good review” and generally being accepted at work. It took me a long time to realize that there were other things that were more important to me than “leaning in” and climbing the corporate ladder.
These are just some of the reasons why it never even occurred to me to learn how to set boundaries with those around me. You will have your own belief systems, internal messages, and childhood experiences that make it difficult to set boundaries. If you don't feel comfortable with setting personal boundaries, it is worth taking the time to learn more about your unconscious programming so you can escape the “people-pleasing syndrome” that will continue to make your life chaotic.
I've included a list of books that have been incredibly helpful to me in setting boundaries on the Self Care & Self Development page. That's a great place to start. If you want to go even deeper, I highly recommend finding a reputable therapist to help investigate what might be holding you back.
2) Determine your values.
One way you can begin to identify your boundaries is by first understanding your core values. If you haven't done it already, the 5-Day Frazzled to Balanced Bootcamp series includes exercises that can help you identify your values and begin to think about how you can begin to align your life according to your deepest values.
Here are a few of the values I have identified for myself through that process:
• Communicate honestly and directly. Be clear about what I want, need and expect.
• Everyone has free will. Make a request, but don't expect a particular outcome.
• Be responsible for myself. Give others the space to be responsible for themselves.
• Treat others with kindness and fairness.
• Be trustworthy by following through on my commitments.
• What other people think of me (good or bad) is none of my business.
• Be authentic and transparent.
• Don't hold a grudge. Forgive quickly, but don't lose the lesson.
Once I was able to identify my values, I began operating my life using these guidelines for my behavior. Treating other people well gave me the confidence I needed to begin expecting that they treat me well in return. This was the first step to having the will to set and enforce boundaries with others. It began with me.
3) Determine your boundaries.
The next step in setting effective boundaries is to actually identify what your boundaries are. You won't be able to set boundaries if you're not clear about what they are. Some boundaries are obvious and easy to identify. Here are some basic boundaries that most people naturally have:
• Don't physically harm me.
• Don't lie to me.
• Don't steal from me.
Many other boundaries are so unique and personal to us that we need to do a little work to identify them. Here are a few boundaries I've developed over time:
• Don't disrespect me. Treat me the way you expect to be treated.
• Don't intentionally waste my time. Honor the time I have set aside for you.
• Don't be passive aggressive with me. Be direct and clear instead.
• Don't try to control me. Respect my free will.
• Don't try to manipulate me. Ask for what you want, and then allow me the space to decide what works for me.
• Don't try to talk me out of having my boundaries. When I set a boundary, respect it.
Many of the boundaries I have didn't become clear to me until they've were crossed. Sometimes the best way to determine your boundaries is to pay attention to when you feel like you're being violated or controlled, but aren't sure why.
4) Determine when people have crossed your boundaries.
My feelings and internal reactions guide me the most in determining when one of my boundaries are being crossed. Here are the most common feelings I have when my boundaries are not being respected:
Whenever I experience any of these feelings, I have trained myself to use it as a trigger to ask myself this question: “What boundary do I need to set here?“
5) Set your boundaries.
Once I have identified which boundary is being crossed and what boundary needs to be set (or reset), I take action. I go through a specific process to set boundaries clearly and firmly, but with respect for others. If you haven't already checked out our free guide, “How to Say No Gracefully” in our library of free training materials.
5) Enforce your boundaries.
Here's the thing about boundaries: some people may not be capable of respecting them. They may innocently forget to respect your boundary. Or they may “test” you to see if you really care about keeping this boundary. Or they may just be the type of person who doesn't care about other people's boundaries (there are a LOT of these people out there). As a result, you have to be prepared to enforce your boundaries.
This natural tendency of others to not respect our boundaries is why you need to include the “consequences” piece when you initially communicate your message. What will happen if they don't respect this boundary? What will you do in response?
I am very thoughtful about the consequences I communicate since there is always a real possibility that I'll eventually need to follow through on them. There are a handful of people that are no longer in my life because they weren't capable of respecting my boundaries. It was disappointing and sad when I had to end certain relationships, but the cost of allowing people in my life who didn't respect me is simply too high.
There are other people in my life that I have a lifelong commitment to (my husband, my son, my good friends, extended family). There are going to be times when my boundaries are crossed in those relationships, even if I've been clear about that boundary. In those relationships, the “consequence” I set is usually something along the lines of “if you don't respect this boundary, I'll remind you. If you still aren't able to respect my boundaries, I'll need to not be near you until you can.”
An amazing thing happens when you become clear about your boundaries, set them, and then follow through on them: People begin to treat you with respect. They are able to trust you. They know that if something bothers you, they will hear about it in a kind way. This means they don't need to walk on eggshells around you. They trust that you'll stand up for yourself if they inadvertently cross a boundary. They learn that you respect yourself, and if they want to be in your life, they'll need to respect you too.
The ability to set boundaries is an integral piece to having control over your life. Without the ability to set boundaries, you'll never be able to control what gets your attention or where you spend your time. You'll likely feel frustrated and annoyed, no matter what the request is. Setting boundaries will free you from living for everyone around you, and give you the space you need to live your life according to your own priorities, values, and goals.
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