- Do you ever say “yes” when you want to say “no”?
- Do you find yourself feeling resentful as a result?
- Do you prioritize other people’s needs or desires above your own?
- Are you overly invested in the feelings, decisions and outcomes of the people you care about?
- Do you avoid asking for or accepting help and end up doing most things yourself?
If any of the above questions resonate for you, then you’re in good company with other over-functioning, over-giving, exhausted people. And, there’s a key to shifting the trajectory and having better outcomes: Boundaries.
I’ve been thinking about boundaries a lot lately. Nearly every leader I coach is struggling these days with boundaries. And having the lines between work, home and school continuously blurred only exacerbates the boundary issue. It’s an ongoing area I still struggle with – taking four steps forward only to then take two steps backwards. Ever since I read Boundary Boss by Terri Cole and then recorded a summer book club podcast episode about it, I’ve been reflecting on my own relationship with boundaries.
Honoring healthy boundaries means that we are clear about what is and is not okay and why. There can be many reasons why we might avoid this. The two most common narratives I see people holding that leads to boundary issues are:
- I don’t want to appear selfish. Not honoring boundaries is actually selfish because it prevents us from maximizing our positive impact on others. We’ve all heard that we need to secure our own oxygen mask before assisting others. Making ourselves whole is an act of care and compassion, not selfishness. This means sometimes we need to say “no” or “not now” and other times we need to ask for help. When we aren’t honoring our boundaries and can’t receive help with an open heart, then we can’t really give it with an open heart. To put it simply, we can’t be in service to others when we’re depleted. And, when don’t allow others to help us, we’re depriving them of an opportunity to share their gifts with us.
- I need to [be in control, do it myself] in order to ensure things are done [right, perfect, up to my standards]. When we don’t give others opportunities to learn and grow, we stifle them. And when we are spending time controlling things we don’t need to, we don’t have the capacity for other things that fulfill us.
I think the self-limiting narratives that get in my way of honoring my own boundaries have aspects of not wanting to appear selfish and also forgetting that I’m really not Wonder Woman. You see, when I get into my self-protective mode, I convince myself that I can do it all and then end up over-committing, not being realistic about my bandwidth and how much time things take, and end up tired, crabby and resentful. Oh what a joy I’m sure I am to be around!
Being able to be clear about, communicate and honor our own boundaries is a skill that most of us were not taught and must learn at some point – over and over and over. But it’s so important because healthy, robust boundaries are essential to living a fulfilled, empowered and self-directed life. They are also a key aspect of both self and relational trust; not honoring our boundaries is one of the first places where trust starts to become cracked and can lead to overpromising, overcommitting, resentment and more.
“Every time we choose to take care of ourselves, we build self-trust.”
3 Keys to Build the Foundation for Healthy Boundaries
Terri Cole describes key components to become a master of boundaries.
1.Recognize, Own and Clean Your “Basement”. Our “basement” is our unconscious mind and filled with stories, beliefs and experiences we’ve tucked away and forgotten about (at least consciously). Basement junk shapes our lives in ways we usually aren’t entirely aware of. We can usually tell when it’s in play because our reactions become supercharged or way out of proportion to the actual situation. Terri recommends unearthing our Boundary Blueprint to illuminate the conscious and unconscious ways we currently relate to boundaries. Many of our issues stem from our inner child who didn’t get our needs met in childhood. Whether we realize it or not, many of our responses to current things in our life might be driven by, say, our five-year-old self. Would you let a five-year-old make major decisions for your household? Would you let a five-year-old decide your career moves? Probably not. It is so critical to recognize how much these filters we have from childhood hijack us and take over as adults. Until we become aware of them, we can’t expect to have different results.
2. Leverage the 3Rs to help you move from reactionary and hijacked to intentional and effective:
- Recognize when the little kid in us might be activated. This requires enhancing our emotional literacy and being able to recognize and name our emotions and feelings. Something that can be helpful here is tapping into our body wisdom; in fact, it can become our secret weapon in shifting from dysfunctional boundary patterns to healthier ones. Learn to listen to the knots in your stomach, constriction in your chest, pain in your throat, throbbing in your head, and more. These sensations are trying to help you and point you into a new direction. Get curious about what triggered the feeling, the story you’re telling yourself and what’s not working for you.
- Release our old reaction. This is the opportunity to be brave and willing to step out of our comfort zone. Practicing some mindful deep breathing can be our best friend here to help release the physical feeling and find a calmer place. If we recognize past patterns are showing up, we can tell ourselves, “That is old stuff I don’t need to listen to/take on,” and let the junk go so that we can be in a more thoughtful place. This takes practice but is so important – especially in our highly disruptive, reactive environment these days.
- Respond from our grown-up self that is in a grounded place. Once we’ve calmed and paused our reactivity, we can choose to speak and act from a more intentional place. From this place we can make a simple request; state our preference, desire or deal-breaker; or take a new action.
3. Create Your Proactive Boundary Plan. Once we are informed about our unique history, life experience, and natural boundary style, we can craft different proactive boundary plans depending on the nuances of our various relationships. For example, if you’re dealing with someone who is new to engaging with you and your boundary requests, you might want to show up differently than with someone who is a repeat offender when it comes to honoring your boundaries. Essentially, we are getting clear about our desired boundary, clearly communicating it, and expressing gratitude when people honor our boundaries.
I’ve learned that when I start feeling overwhelmed, unappreciated, resentful and downright crabby, there is frequently a boundary issue at play for me. It means that I haven’t set healthy limits (and haven’t communicated them), am jumping into the armored behaviors of hustling for my worth rather than knowing my worth and value, and am not honoring all of the ingredients I know I need to be my best self. My body wisdom can be extremely helpful as well; when I listen, it lets me know when I need to chill the hell out, reconnect with what actually matters and course correct. When I ignore it, “luckily” it just gets louder until I do – and seems to do that quicker as I get older.
I’ve also realized that committing to being a boundary master means that we have to embrace vulnerability. It can be unsettling to speak up, set limits, and ask for what we need. And, at the same time, it’s a huge act of courage. Every time I reclarify and recommit to being boundaried, I feel relieved, calmer and am much more effective in all areas of my life.
Applying These Principles in Your Life:
In our ongoing pandemic world where so many boundaries seem to be blurred these days, it is even more important that we do the work to honor and role model healthy boundaries – and then call those around us to greatness by inviting, encouraging and supporting them to do the same. Here are some ideas for putting this into practice in your own life (and supporting your teams, family, and communities to do the same):
- Start being intentional about what you say “yes” to. If someone makes a request of you and it’s not an immediate, enthusiastic, “heck yes,” ask if you can get back to them (and by when they need an answer). If you notice dread, hesitancy, or overwhelm, give yourself permission to decline the request.
- Make a practice to ask yourself: What story am I making up here? We have to realize that our brains create stories to help us make meaning from our experiences. When you find your emotional reaction exceeding the moment, it’s very likely your childhood self has hijacked you with some story. Get curious about it; thank your 5-year-old self for wanting to protect you; and then remind yourself that you’re an adult now and try on a new narrative that allows you to move from assumptions and judgment to curiosity.
- Practice compassion – for yourself and others. These are incredibly challenging times right now. We have to extend some extra grace and move towards connection.
- Make self-care a priority. Be intentional to schedule and protect time to tend to the things that give you energy and whatever practices you need to show up as your best, fully authentic self. It’s the most loving thing you can do for yourself and others!
I’d love to hear other ways you’re practicing your skills to be a boundary master that’s helpful!
Stay brave. Stay human. Stay safe. And never dull your sparkle!