“We need to keep things that will nurture us inside our fences and keep things that will harm us outside.”Dr Henry Cloud, U.S. author and psychologist.
Sometimes, I can only smile when I realize that the universe is sneakily testing me. This past weekend was a perfect example of such a test.
When preparing to write these blogs, I think about the topic a lot. I think of my own experiences: how good or bad I am at doing what I’m writing about, the lessons I’ve learned, and if I have anything useful to share with others.
This time, my thoughts centered on 2020 and how the year progressed. Throughout the year, many of us were in various stages of lockdown and found ourselves working from home much longer than we ever anticipated.
Boundaries in Lockdown
Initially, many people were in survival mode; they did what they had to do – working hard while still trying to run a household and take care of the various needs of children and family members.
Our boundaries between our work and home life had become blurred. We were at home all the time, but at the same time, we were also at work all the time! The topic of boundaries began to come up in conversations more and more.
And then suddenly, it was one of THE topics everybody was talking about.
Conversations about work-life balance circled around boundaries. Articles and podcasts about mental health talked about boundaries. When we spoke to friends about how tired and drained we felt, boundaries were front and center of our thoughts.
It became clear: if we wanted to deal with what was happening in a healthy way – to protect our physical and mental health – we had to be willing to assert our boundaries.
Learning My Boundaries
Me and my boundaries? No problem!
In recent years I’ve become good at minimizing contact with people who don’t respect my boundaries – including family. I’ve also learned to tell others that I love them, but I don’t love or accept their behavior.
I started taking real holidays – the ones where you don’t write articles on the plane, or read emails while walking through the Louvre. I even taught my husband that a closed office door means “do not enter unless the house is burning down or you’re having a heart attack and can’t phone the ambulance yourself.”
But sometimes our boundaries are challenged and we have to be willing to assert them.
A Boundary Challenge
Last Friday afternoon, an ex-neighbor came over for a “quick coffee.” It turned out to be a three-hour coffee-turned-counseling-session. That was fine – I understood her need to talk, and her desperation for someone impartial to listen.
However, a boundary challenge presented itself early on Saturday morning.
She called while I was out walking my dog. Because I was concerned about her safety, I answered, thinking that she was just checking in to let me know she’s fine. I told her that I was walking my dog, yet she launched into a repetition of Friday’s conversation.
Even though I still understood her need to talk, I also understood my own needs in that moment. This was my time to enjoy a walk with my dog. I cut the conversation short in a firm but friendly way.
Boundaries at Work
I started lecturing online again last week. In 2020 I learned that I have to set boundaries with online students regarding my time.
Because I work from home, students think that if they do assignments in the middle of the night, I’m there just waiting for their call at 00:30 a.m. (true story, by the way).
This year, I started off with time boundaries in place. I asked them not to call or message me after 7 p.m. during the week. On weekends, I’m only available until 1 p.m. on a Saturday.
Despite setting clear boundaries, one Saturday, a few minutes past 1 p.m. a student phoned.
I immediately felt conflicted: do I answer, or do I not? It’s only 12 minutes past the hour and they might need help… Thankfully, another voice piped up in my head – it reminded me that it was 12 minutes PAST the hour. I felt relieved that I had managed to protect my time.
But then a second student contacted me via Whatsapp – at 6:30 p.m.! I politely let them know that I’d be available at 8 a.m. on Monday.
Feeling Guilty About Boundaries
I felt good that I was asserting my boundaries, but at the same time, I couldn’t help but feel that I was letting the students down. What if they weren’t able to complete their assignment for the week because I was protecting my boundaries?
Fortunately, the other voice came to my rescue again and told me that I wasn’t responsible for bailing out a student who’d left their work until the last minute.
Here’s the thing: although I was able to assert my boundaries I felt guilty in all three instances.
I didn’t want to sound unhelpful or seem rigid. “But,” said the second voice. “That doesn’t mean that you should accept it when people disrespect your boundaries, because your boundaries aren’t unreasonable. And you are the only person who is going to protect your time. Now be done with the guilt!”
A Moment of Realization
During my run early Sunday morning, I was thinking about my feelings of guilt for sticking to my boundaries. After all, I’ve set and asserted many other boundaries but without a hint of guilt.
It became clear to me that it’s when I think or feel that a person depends on my help, that I feel guilty about asserting a boundary.
My profession (a therapist and coach), my nature (a high empath), and my work (lecturing, counseling, managing, and coaching) all dispose me toward understanding, helping, and nurturing.
When I say, “No, not now.” I feel as if humanity will crash and burn, the world will go down in flames, and it’s going to be my fault. Don’t you just love the drama?
And something else dawned on me. I didn’t say “no” forever – it was “no” for now. It’s not my responsibility if someone can’t deal with that.
Oh, how I love a run that makes me feel lighter and brighter!
I had a quick scroll through the Mind Tools Career Community on Facebook to see what others struggle with when setting a boundary.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many also struggle with asserting themsleves and then feeling guilty about it. Some people also said that they struggle to not be available for work all the time, while others don’t want to turn off chat and email notifications for fear of missing out.
Boundaries: Your New Best Friend
During the #MTtalk Twitter chat last Friday, we talked about the importance of having and maintaining boundaries. Here are the questions we asked and some of your most insightful responses:
Q1. What’s the most important benefit of boundaries that you’ve experienced?
@TwinkleEduCons The time and energy I gain on not wasting time negotiating. When I have a clear boundary on something, I stick to it and can walk away from a “discussion” not feeling guilty or as though I have not been fair.
@PG_pmp Helps me to keep a check on my self-respect.
Q2. How do you define where your boundaries lie?
@Yolande_MT Listen to your emotions – feelings like discomfort, anger, tension signals that your boundaries are being pushed/challenged.
@LernChance For one, I rely on my gut feeling. Am I feeling OK with this situation, answer or incident?
Q3. What practical and emotional impact does it have on you when someone doesn’t respect your boundaries?
@MicheleDD_MT When boundaries are crossed at work, and I don’t address them, relationships become strained.
@emapirciu It’s a difficult question for me because I’m the first not to respect my boundaries. Sometimes it bothers me more, sometimes less. It depends on what boundaries aren’t respected.
Q4. When people maintain strong boundaries for themselves, what’s the effect on you and others? Ditto weak boundaries?
@SustainedLeader Those with weak or no boundaries are doormats and people will take advantage. Rigid boundaries without reason make people difficult to work with. Rigid boundaries bolstered by principles allow healthy discussion and a clear playing field.
@carriemaslen [It] may take practice to get comfortable setting and communicating our boundaries, but it pays off with respect (self-respect + respect from others).
Q5. How/why could boundaries be your new best friend?
@LernChance Boundaries can help me to grow. I can change them as I go forward.
@LDresslerplus Healthy boundaries help you look after yourself, to be the best version of yourself, for yourself and others! Professional boundaries support transparency and clarity.
Q6. Why do we find it so difficult to set boundaries?
@Dwyka_Consult We feel selfish when we set boundaries. I mean…how dare you “only think of yourself?” In my head, I hear so many voices who used to say that.
@NgukaOduor Lack of self-awareness. Trying to please everyone, feeling inadequate thus trying to seek validation by being available [to] everyone. Boundaries are hardest to set when you aren’t even sure that you can actually set them and communicate it in advance.
Q7. What might happen if you start asserting your boundaries? How might others react?
@TheToniaKallon Those who benefit from your lack of boundaries will try to make you feel guilty for asserting yourself. Those who fully respect you will adjust in time.
@Midgie_MT It would feel scary yet good to assert my boundaries. Others may push back, test them to see if I am really serious, or even get angry at me trying to shame me into doing what they want me to do.
Q8. How can you better assert your boundaries in future?
@SustainedLeader You must first understand your own boundaries. This starts with a heart-to-heart with yourself over WHAT you believe and WHY you believe it. Once that’s clear to you, it’s easier to hold firm to these principles to which you have given serious thought and know your limits.
@llake I walk the talk. I need to remember to honor other people’s boundaries. Sometimes, a response is not necessary. Not responding is a boundary because there are people who will goad you into responding. Understand with compassion, blessing, and let it go.
Q9. What is the role of a manager regarding team members’ boundaries?
@ColfaxInsurance A manager’s job is to provide the best materials and support for their team’s success – they should be able to recognize each individual’s boundaries and goals and how to help the team do their best within their limitations.
@MicheleDD_MT Managers also need to be on the lookout for team members whose boundaries may be weak so that they are not unfairly taken advantage of.
Q10. How can you create a culture where people respect one another’s boundaries?
@SizweMoyo Let people know that they matter by treating them like they matter, and also respect them enough to hear them out, regardless of whether you agree with their opinion or not.
@JKatzaman A culture where people talk and engage with each other regularly will take the rough edges off of boundaries. Mutual respect lowers fences.
To read all the tweets, have a look at the Wakelet collection of this chat over here.
Sometimes we set a boundary to avoid difficult situations. Very often though, we learn to do it as a result of challenges. In our next #MTtalk chat, we’re going to talk about the storms that shaped us.
In our poll this week, we’d like to know in what way those storms most changed you. To see the poll and cast your vote, please click here.
In the meantime, here are some resources to help you explore strategies to cope with life’s storms. Some of them may only be available in full to members of the Mind Tools Club.