Ah, that old issue of setting boundaries. Or the inability to set boundaries. From where does it arise?
First, let’s define what a boundary actually is:
“A boundary is a clear delineation of where you end and where you begin (and where other people end and begin). A boundary is a limit that you set to clearly express what you will accept and tolerate — and what you won’t. A boundary helps you protect yourself whenever necessary, and it lets other people know exactly where you stand.”
Here are some examples of boundaries in action:
- Let’s say you lend your car to a friend. Here’s your boundary: “Please return the car to me on Thursday by noon with a full tank of gas.”
- Let’s say you’ve started dating someone new. They text you on Friday night at 11pm to ask if you want to come over. (We all know what this really means.) Your boundary: “Thanks, but no. I prefer to make plans at least a day in advance.”
- Let’s say your boss at work has been assigning you more work than you can handle. An excessive and unreasonable amount. Your boundary might be: “I’m happy to help as much as possible, but this amount of work is not doable for me. Please prioritize the tasks you want me to complete first.”
Great! But… what happens when people violate your boundaries? Let’s keep going with these possible scenarios:
- Your friend returns your car to you on Thursday night, with an empty tank of gas. Now you must enforce your boundary: “I needed the car earlier today, and I also expected a full tank of gas. I just won’t be able to lend you my car anymore.”
- Your new date makes plans with you for Saturday night, but cancels at the last minute. On Sunday night, he texts you again to ask if you want to come over (disregarding your earlier boundary). You say: “It doesn’t seem like we’re on the same page. Thanks anyway.” This might seem harsh, but you deserve better! You deserve someone reliable and who will be super excited to schedule plans with you and keep them.
- Your boss disregards your request and keeps assigning you more work than you can manage. Your boundary: “I need these tasks to be prioritized because I can’t handle them all. I’ll have to go to HR otherwise.” And, if she continues doing it, you follow through and go talk to someone in HR.
Why is it important to set and follow through with these clear boundaries? Because when you do, you honor both yourself and the other person. You’re not asking anyone to read your mind, and then getting resentful when they don’t. You’re expressing your needs and limits in a transparent way. You’re telling the other person where you stand and what you expect.
Often, my own clients — especially women who put everyone ahead of themselves — find this whole process of setting boundaries “mean” or “selfish” at first. They think they’re being aggressive or mean with the other person. I have to remind them that they’re not. They’re actually being generous with themselves and others by being fully themselves and expressing their feelings and needs clearly. This is not selfish. It’s self-aware.
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