Without healthy boundaries, we become overextended, frustrated and resentful. Today, I want to talk to you about why we need to set boundaries, the relationship between boundaries and our values and how to set boundaries graciously.
What are boundaries?
A boundary is the line we set about what we’re willing and not willing to do. It’s about determining acceptable and unacceptable behaviours that we’re prepared to tolerate or not tolerate. Boundaries are personal and it’s up to each of us to consider, set and enforce our own boundaries.
Why do we struggle with boundaries?
As an executive coach who works with women in or pursuing senior leadership roles, you might guess that my clients and I don’t need to talk about boundaries. This is incorrect. Setting boundaries is one of the most common topics I address in my coaching sessions. Even high-performing professional women need to regularly protect and enforce their boundaries.
Many of us (women and men) struggle with boundaries because of external factors. We’re concerned or worried about pleasing others, being liked or fitting in. We worry about the consequences, perceived consequences or judgments that might come from setting a boundary at work or home. We think boundaries are about the other party and we want to change their behaviour to suit us.
When we don’t set and defend our boundaries, we overextend ourselves, which often leads to frustration, resentment, anger and declining health. We can get trapped in the martyr syndrome where we don’t let anyone help us and then doing it all becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or the boss always relies on us to organize projects, which is flattering at first and quickly becomes too much. In marital relationships, one person may quietly take it (whatever it is) for years and then “suddenly” file for divorce.
With so much at stake, no wonder it’s hard to set boundaries! When we rely on external factors, setting and keeping boundaries will always be difficult and cause us to doubt ourselves.
There’s a much better way to approach boundaries: through our values.
How are boundaries related to values?
Boundaries are rules we make for ourselves. But what do we base our rules, decisions and actions on? Values. When you realize that boundaries have nothing to do with external situations or people, it’s a big relief. Instead of focusing on the other person, you inquire within. Ask yourself, “How does that connect with my values? How is that sitting with me?”
If your decision aligns to your values, you won’t second-guess yourself or be worried about real or perceived consequences. Even if there are consequences to asserting your boundaries, you’ll be comfortable because you’re living your values.
To take a values-based approach to boundaries, it’s essential to connect or re-connect to your core values. I suggest finding a long list of values on the internet, choosing your top 20, then top 10, then top five and finally, your top three values to really connect with them. Brené Brown, author of Dare to Lead, has a list of values here.
When we know our values, setting boundaries becomes much easier. It’s no longer about being assertive; it’s about taking care of our spiritual and emotional needs in the practical world. This helps us show up authentically and meet our full potential. Magically, what was once daunting becomes grounding and affirming.
“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.”Brené Brown
Seven ways to practice setting healthy boundaries
Even with a values-based approach, setting boundaries doesn’t become easy overnight. This might surprise you (because I’m not known for shying away from anything), but I struggled with boundaries so much that it made me sick. As a senior leader, I always said yes (I once accepted a transfer at work before I knew which city I was going to). I wasn’t afraid to say no; I always said yes because I loved new challenges and thrived in this environment. Until my body said, “enough is enough.”
Now I still say yes to the opportunities that align with my skills, values and interests but I don’t do them all at once! I pace myself and rest in between because I have new boundaries that align with the value I place on my health.
Here are seven ways you can practice setting boundaries based on your values:
- Connect with your values – Take some time to do the values exercise I mentioned above and discover or rediscover what you value the most.
- Say yes or no without regrets – We often think of boundaries as saying no to something, but it can also be about saying yes to what we want to do. Before you make a decision, ask yourself, “Do I really want to do this?”
- Recognize your capacity – You can’t do it all. Figure out how much capacity you have for each important area of your life and budget your time and effort accordingly. This might seem harsh at first but with this approach, you can give 100% to what you cherish the most, instead of being exhausted all the time. As they say in airline safety presentations, you can only help others if you put your oxygen mask on first.
- Given the requestor a place to go – When you say no at work, help the requestor by pointing him or her in the right direction. For example, you could say, “Right now, I’m at my threshold and I really can’t support that. However, I’ve noticed Andrea is highly detail oriented and I know she’s interested in picking up some extra projects.”
- Be consistent – Some people push boundaries that you’ve already defined and asserted. Instead of getting frustrated, calmly restate your boundary. It may take many times, but eventually your boundary pusher will stop pushing.
- Think of boundaries as relationship preservation – The divorce example I mentioned earlier is from real life. After decades of marriage, the wife finally asserted her boundaries, and the husband was blindsided by the divorce. Setting boundaries based on values lets you preserve and build relationships. Even if the other person “should know better,” it’s up to us to be clear about our boundaries instead of hoping the other person will know what they are and respect them.
- Reward yourself – Setting boundaries is a big accomplishment so reward yourself after each success. This helps you create a virtuous cycle. With practice and positive reinforcement, setting your boundaries becomes normal and comfortable instead of anxiety-producing.
Gracious ways to say no (or yes)
Setting your boundaries can be difficult when you’re at a loss for words. I’ve put together some examples to get you started. You can use them as is or modify them to fit your needs.
Examples of setting boundaries graciously:
- Thanks so much for thinking of me for this collaboration. This isn’t the right direction for me right now so I must decline.
- Usually, I don’t go out on Thursday nights, but I’ll make an exception this week for you.
- Hey, I love you guys, and this is a great project. Unfortunately, I just don’t have capacity right now. I don’t mind you asking but it can’t always be me.
- Thanks for the offer but I’m already committed.
- Sure, I can take on that project. However, I can’t get to it for another four weeks with my current commitments.
Setting boundaries is compassionate and when you consistently make decisions based on your unwavering values, people respect you—even when they disagree with you. I challenge you to set one small boundary this week and see how you feel!
If you’d like to practice setting your boundaries and be in a supportive community environment over the next 12 months, become a member of the WIL Empowered program today!
Hi, I’m Vicki Bradley, an executive coach in Toronto and the Founder and CEO of Women in Leadership Empowered.
I work with women pursuing success in executive leadership roles and the presidents and CEOs who understand that strong businesses are built with strong, diverse leadership.
WIL Empowered is a year-long program where we use all four aspects of leadership development: coaching, networking, peer to peer mentorship and skills development. Our mission is to help women develop the skills, motivation and accountability required to succeed in their business and personal lives.
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