Managing Your Boundaries
Ensuring That Others Respect Your Needs
Good fences make good neighbors. – Old proverb
Fences allow you to protect what's valuable to you. They also allow you to control who and what enters your space.
Our personal boundaries do a similar job. They set the limits that separate us from other people – not necessarily to exclude interaction, but to protect what matters to us, and to control who enters our psychological space, as well as our physical space.
Boundaries also foster more productive work environments. Co-workers' differing values, needs and beliefs sometimes lead to conflict, resentment and stress, so clearly defined boundaries can help to prevent these negative reactions.
Important movements such as #MeToo and #BLM have also highlighted how important these boundaries are to all of us, as human beings.
But, if personal boundaries are such a vital part of our interpersonal interactions, why do so many of us struggle to build them?
This article will help you to assess, strengthen and maintain your own personal boundaries, in order to make life easier and more rewarding for you and those around you.
Why Are Boundaries Important?
Boundaries are a crucial part of keeping relationships mutually respectful. They help you to look after yourself and those around you.
People who set strong personal boundaries empower themselves to exercise greater choice. They have a more robust sense of psychological safety, find it easier to relax, and are generally happier and healthier.
However, many people struggle to establish boundaries. They are held back by low self-esteem, a dread of upsetting people, or a fear of conflict. They may simply accept intrusions and interruptions, or subsume their personal feelings "for the good of the team."
It's natural to want to be seen as a capable, reliable "extra miler," but people who fail to set boundaries risk "generosity burnout," as others take unfair advantage of them. This can leave people feeling exhausted, humiliated and hurt.
For these reasons, establishing robust personal boundaries isn't selfish or arrogant. It's simply an essential part of treating yourself – and those around you – with compassion and consideration.
Even people with strong personal boundaries can experience bad behavior from others.
If harassment or other inappropriate behavior becomes an issue for you, talk to your manager, or to your HR department if your manager is part of the problem.
How to Manage Your Boundaries
There are four main stages to managing your boundaries.
Stage 1: Analyzing Your Boundaries
Ask yourself these questions:
- Do you sometimes doubt that you have a right to have your needs met, or make little effort to have them met?
- Do you avoid speaking up for yourself, and do you "let things go" without reacting to bad situations?
- Do you tend to avoid conflict? Do you let others have their way or allow them to make decisions for you?
- Do you sometimes agree to do things that you really don't want to do – and later regret it?
If you answered mostly "yes," then chances are that people see you as a "soft touch" who they can manipulate into doing what they want, without negotiation. It's time, then, to start strengthening your boundaries!
Stage 2: Understanding Your Needs
You may believe that to get along with others, or to do the job that you're paid to do, you need to give much more than you take. Perhaps you say things like, "Whatever you choose will be great!" and agree to do things that you don't want to do, and shouldn't have to do.
This may avoid conflict with others, but it can create conflict inside you. Anger and tension can build because you're not getting what you need, and this can lead to bad behavior or burnout. It's far better to identify what you need and develop strategies to ensure that your needs are met.
So, think of times when you felt angry, tense or resentful, or times when your reaction to something embarrassed you. These were likely occasions when your needs were not met.
Ask yourself these questions:
- What need were you denied?
- What did you really want?
Then, use positive affirmations like the following to articulate your specific needs:
- I have a right to ask for ________, because I need ________.
- It's OK to protect my time by________, because I need ________.
- I will not allow others to________, because I need _______.
This process of self-reflection and positive reinforcement will help you to develop the emotional intelligence to understand and manage your needs. Don't minimize your own self-worth – you deserve the treatment and respect that you give to others!
Stage 3: Setting Healthy Boundaries
Now that you understand the needs and boundaries that must be in place for you to be happy, you must change your behavior – and let others know. They won't figure it out on their own!
The key is to be assertive. This means being firm – but not aggressive – about your own rights, needs and boundaries, while considering those of others. When you're assertive, you get your point across firmly and fairly, but with empathy.
An essential part of this is to practice saying "no," politely but firmly. Many people find this hard. After all, we are social animals, and we like to be liked, and useful to others.
But if you say "yes" to everything, you risk not having enough time to do anything properly. You also risk not working on the things that are truly important, and you'll end up feeling used or frustrated. Far better to say "no" more often, and to concentrate on meeting your needs.
Mind Tools Club members can learn some practical strategies for saying "no" from our Coaching Clinic, Why Can I Never Say NO?
Effective time management is another crucial element of boundary-setting. When you put all your energy into one thing, without taking time for both your work and personal responsibilities, you risk overloading yourself. With good time management, you can get things done more efficiently and effectively.
Stage 4: Maintaining and Respecting Your Boundaries
Setting boundaries will likely give you an immediate sense of empowerment, but "holding your line" and maintaining them can be hard, especially if others are used to you not doing so.
You need to maintain a clear sense of what you will and will not accept, but be realistic and adaptable when necessary. Reset boundaries to suit your situation, and rethink ones that later seem too rigid. Remember not to isolate yourself or to simply stop collaborating.
When your boundaries are under threat, look out for the negative emotions that you associate with the situation and work to control them, while calmly reasserting those boundaries.
If you need to challenge a co-worker who is breaching your boundaries, you can use a tool like the COIN Conversation Model to nip problems in the bud. Be polite but firm, and always seek to move situations toward positive outcomes.
It may also help to keep a journal of occasions when your boundaries were crossed, what you did, and whether or not your actions were successful. Keep your affirmations from Stage 2 in the journal, too, so that you never lose sight of them.
Stress can cause severe health problems and, in extreme cases, death. While these boundary management techniques have been shown to have a positive effect on reducing stress, they are for guidance only, and readers should take the advice of suitably qualified health professionals if they have any concerns over stress-related illnesses, or if stress is causing significant or persistent unhappiness.
Strong personal boundaries establish your right to meet your own needs. They empower and enable you to control your emotional well-being, and to maintain healthy spaces between you and other people, so that you can work and interact more effectively with them.
If you don't maintain boundaries, your work and well-being can suffer.
Managing personal boundaries effectively consists of four stages:
- Analyze why your boundaries might be weak.
- Understand your needs and how to assert them.
- Establish strong boundaries.
- Monitor and maintain your boundaries.
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