“When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated.” – Brené Brown
It’s always a bit surprising when it happens.
You’re going along fine, minding your own business. Then someone decides to poke their nose in where it doesn’t belong.
Without warning, you go into high alert as your inner alarms start sounding.
Your breathing gets short and choppy and your legs and back tense. You can feel the flow of blood to the extremities as your mind focuses on only one thing – danger. You feel scared, vulnerable, and weak.
Maybe someone was critical of your work.
Or someone got too close physically, in your face and in your space.
Or perhaps they just assumed that you would pick up their slack again – because that’s what you’ve always done.
You want to say something, but you don’t. Or you say yes even when you want to say no.
But instead of standing up for yourself, you stuff your feelings and acquiesce. Afraid that any disagreement will anger others or make them dislike you. Or, God forbid, create a dreaded confrontation…
You know you’re being taken advantage of. And the worst of it? You go along with it.
Then, because you don’t take a stand, you feel bullied, unappreciated, and misunderstood. And more likely as not, spend a good deal of time beating yourself up for being a pushover.
Clearly, someone has crossed the line where your boundaries should be.
And if those boundaries are flimsy or non-existent, feelings of safety, security, and well-being can be fleeting at best.
Yeah, it’s painful to be a doormat.
Choose strong boundaries for confidence and poise
“You get what you tolerate.” – Henry Cloud
But you know, it’s just as easy to have strong boundaries as it is to have weak ones. And they’re far more rewarding!
Acquiring them is an easily learnable skill. One that can change the pushover mindset that causes anxiety and stress for one of confidence and poise.
And like all practices, setting strong boundaries become easier with time.
Even if you’re a hard-core, deeply entrenched people pleaser, you can create healthy boundaries that others will respect!
Now to be clear, healthy boundaries are worlds apart from emotional walls.
Emotional walls are reactive in nature. They tend to operate at the subconscious level as a defense mechanism.
However, knowing and owning your values and aligning with them is an act of intention. They build emotional and mental strength. And provide the ability to respond calmly in stressful situations.
By itself, the word boundary is a bit misleading. It sounds rigid and gives the impression of an isolated state. A fence to keep yourself separate from others.
But that isn’t their purpose.
It’s more helpful to think of them as points of connection in a large web. An overlap area pre-programmed with healthy guidelines to navigate all our different relationships.
With them, you already know how to respond in a mature manner to tricky situations. This alone helps to reduce the conflict that emotional reactions typically produce.
But wear your boundaries loosely. When they become too rigid or inflexible, you’re straying into wall territory. And emotional walls have a whole host of their own problems to deal with.
Benefits of strong boundaries
“You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” – John Lydgate
Most of us know that the process of personal change can be a bit uncomfortable.
So, let’s look at some incentives before we get into the mechanics of setting strong boundaries.
Cultivate greater self awareness
Self awareness is a cultivated state.
It’s the art of knowing and owning your own needs, and the recognition that those needs are internal. They are not dependent on other people or the environment.
Establishing your own code of conduct is an act of self-awareness. And with self-awareness, you can better regulate emotional reactions.
Boundaries also act to solidify your personal identity. They create congruence and connect your present state and that of your ideal self.
And when you walk your talk, inner conflict and resistance dissolve. Which makes room for clarity and flow.
Improve communication, which improves relationships
When your values are clear, you’re better able to express yourself. You can assert your needs directly, without aggression, defensiveness, or drama.
When needed, you can communicate your expectations and limits calmly, clearly, and concisely.
This lends itself to openness and transparency. And these qualities stabilize relations and builds mutual respect.
Your well-being becomes a priority
You learn more about yourself when you’re clear about boundaries.
And importantly, how to take better care of yourself by making your well-being a priority.
Create a safe space to grow and learn
Life doesn’t come with a manual on how to deal with complex feelings. Having a safe space in which to learn, grow, and gain wisdom is essential to our happiness and well-being.
Strong boundaries give us the space to be vulnerable as we explore our world and learn life’s lessons.
Contribute to emotional intelligence
When you become your own advocate, your personal agency improves.
That is, strong boundaries give you greater control over your own thoughts, feelings, and actions.
They help us to self-regulate without decision fatigue. And they help us to resist the impulsive behaviors that often make situations worse.
Develop awareness and respect for other people’s space
Most of us inadvertently trespass emotionally.
So when we develop our own strong boundaries, we also develop a greater awareness that others have them as well.
Which makes it easier to rectify situations when we’re the boundary crossers.
Focus on the positives
It’s much easier to maintain a positive outlook when you feel strong and confident.
These qualities are enhanced by repeatedly doing the things we find challenging. And every time you take a stand and maintain your boundaries, you’re self-signaling your own self worth.
Now, let’s look at the steps to build healthy boundaries.
1. Review your current rules of conduct
“No one will listen to us if we don’t listen to ourselves.” – Marianne Williamson
The first step to setting strong boundaries is to become cognizant of your current ones. And this requires the practice of self awareness.
Because the best indicator of our current rules can be found in our emotions.
Emotions are loaded with information. They can tell us about what we like and dislike and what’s comfortable or scary. They also point to how we do and don’t want to be treated, the meaning we give events, and so on.
By monitoring emotional reactions, we can pinpoint common stressful situations and triggers. And this provides all the data you need about what your current boundaries are, and which ones have been crossed.
Here’s what to do:
Start your day with intention. Stay present to your thoughts and the emotions they produce.
Throughout the day, pause for a moment to ask yourself “How, or what, am I feeling right now?” “What am I thinking, where’s my focus?”
But don’t get involved with your internal state. The trick is to watch, but not participate.
Keep a journal handy and jot down the pertinent details of any situations that cause an anxious reaction.
Try to capture the nuances of the event. Note who was present, where it took place, time of day, the role were you playing (home, friend, work), and so on.
Awareness of your reactions to people, places, and things is a good indicator of your current boundaries.
2. Determine your core values
“The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction not a destination.” – Carl Rogers
To effectively create strong boundaries, you first need to get clear on your personal core values.
Our values are what we’ve decided is important to us and in good part, determines our behavior and decisions.
But if you’re not crystal clear on what they are, you’re operating on hand-me-downs – the old values of your parents, siblings, caretakers, teachers, and so on.
Not surprisingly, operating from someone else’s values is exhausting, frustrating, and unfulfilling.
So, it’s critical for you to determine what your values are.
Because it’s in the things that are important to us – not the urgent, grabbing things – that we find fulfillment, happiness, and meaning.
Here’s what to do:
Plan some quiet, focused time for this exercise. And with your trusty journal, ask and answer questions along the following line.
- What stories do you tell yourself? Are they different from your behaviours? If so, where’s the disconnect?
- What was your happiest time?
- When do you lose yourself and experience timelessness or flow?
- What do you spend your free time and money on?
- List the major roles you play. What priority do you give them?
- What are your greatest achievements?
- How do you define success?
- What were your worst failures?
- What did you learn from them?
- What do you dream about or hope for?
- What are your priorities?
- What beliefs or philosophies do you value?
- What causes or groups do you support?
- What are your strengths, and where do they come from?
- What are you willing to endure at any cost?
- If you had all the time and money you desire, what would you do? How would you spend your days?
- Visit the future and read your own obituary. What are you most proud of, and what are the regrets?
Now dig down under the under layers. Don’t settle for the first answers that come to you but delve deeper with more leading questions.
“Why is this important to me? What meaning have I given it? What do I value about it?”
Once you’re satisfied with your answers, jot down a list of 10 to 15 values they represent.
Compare the values and merge those that are similar.
Discard any that don’t have a strong emotional resonance, then whittle your list down to four core values. More than four or five core values are too distracting and dissipates focus, resulting in scattered effort and mediocre results.
Choose four core values that encompass the deepest, most important aspects of your life.
Think long term and get clear on exactly what it is you want to attain. Write out the specific outcomes you desire.
Also, list your most compelling reasons for making these values part of your life.
Next, outline the strong boundaries you want based on your core values.
This is an important step because to align your behaviour with your boundaries, your decisions must be based on what’s important to you.
3. Mix in powerful emotions for motivation
“Planning is bringing the future into the present so that you can do something about it now.” – Alan Lakein
Once you’re clear on your values and compelling reasons, it’s time to start living them.
That means adding the rocket fuel of elevated emotions.
Because to get to where you want to go, you need to resonate with the emotional state of your future accomplishments. You can’t bring your old anxieties, fears, or hang-ups with you. This is because in large part, they’re what keep you stuck in the repetitive loop of being a pushover.
Emotions can be felt. They influence our thoughts and prepare us for prompt action. And as they direct our attention, our attention informs our behaviour.
Emotions also involve a state of arousal that’s experienced physically. They move us.
Motivation is a compelling or driving force that initiates and directs behaviour.
Adding elevated emotions strengthens your whys – which provide motivation. They create a powerful pull, a pathway to your ideal self, and lend the strength to push through obstacles.
And the stronger your whys, the more they fill your heart and gut and occupy your mind, the more you’ll behave accordingly.
Here’s what to do:
To prepare for your new, empowered state, spend a few minutes visualizing or journaling the situations that once made you cringe.
But this time, picture yourself upholding your new, strong boundaries.
Imagine the specific outcome you want. Then immerse yourself in the feelings of being true to your ideals and strong in the face of adversity.
For inspiration, look to the higher states. Such as feelings of appreciation, confidence, empowerment, forgiveness, gratitude, peace, prosperity, or strength.
When you’re all chuffed and emotionally pumped, mentally link these enhanced feelings to your whys. This is the best way to supercharge their value and importance.
Spend five to 10 minutes in the morning and evening rehearsing and/or journaling with elevated emotions. Get specific on how you want your days to go and the feelings you want to experience.
With this exercise, you’ll be well prepared when the heat’s on. And you’re attracting the future of your dreams.
4. Redesign habitual responses
“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation.” ―Aristotle
Once you’ve decided for a new future, you’ll need to make some adjustments to make it a reality.
This typically involves changing self-limiting responses and routines for better ones.
We’ve all made promises to change, and within hours (or even minutes) realized we’re doing the same old same old. Our new intentions were quickly bypassed by ingrained automatic behavior.
This is true with boundaries as well. Our response to triggers is often habituated and seem to happen of their own volition.
However, habits are extremely difficult to eliminate. They’re hardwired into our brain and subconscious and run in the background for the long term.
But you can enjoy outstanding success simply by changing existing habits.
Habits consist of three parts.
- The cue or trigger
- The response or routine
- The reward
With boundaries, you may have to work on eliminating some undesirable cues. But often, changing the response delivers the reward you want.
Here’s what to do:
With your notes from Step 1, review your typical responses to undesirable cues. The ones where your boundaries are breached.
For example, your priority may be to spend more time with your family in the evenings. But most evenings, at least part of your time is spent answering work-related texts and emails.
The cue is the message alert on your device, and your response is to check the message and reply.
A new routine could be to turn off alerts in the evenings. Or you could set up an auto responder for work related messages that says you’ll be available in the morning.
This frees your attention so you can spend quality time with your family after dinner. And it also trains your employees or co-workers that your time after work is off limits.
Now is also the time to work out the details of any needed consequences as well.
These can be as simple as snoozing irritating friends on social media or as hard as leaving a job or relationship. But they must be clear, and you must be committed to follow through.
Spend a few minutes outlining your new responses and review them daily.
5. Develop the art of saying no
“No is a complete sentence.” – Anne Lamont
For many of us, effectively saying no can be a challenge.
It sounds like we’re rejecting the other person. Or we feel guilty, like we’re letting the other person down. Others may fear they’ll be perceived as self-centered and uncaring.
So, when it’s time to say no, you want to be prepared with a variety of strategies that won’t induce fear or guilt.
Here’s what to do:
Choose a strategy from the following examples or craft your own. Spend a few minutes rehearsing the methods to get a feel for which might work best for you.
And when you do need to say no, set the tone by staying calm, courteous, and firm.
Also, if you get jittery at the thought of saying no, first take a few deep breaths to get grounded. Inhale for a four count, hold for a four count, and exhale for a four count – repeat up to 10 times to restore poise.
a) Say it
Don’t waffle, sit on the fence, or try to avoid answering. Sometimes the less said, the better, but say no promptly and get it over with.
You can share your reasons if you want but keep them to a single sentence – succinct and courteous, and then move on.
b) Pause it
The opposite of the prompt reply is the awkward pause.
No one enjoys the discomfort of awkward pauses. And you can use them to leverage your position by waiting a few seconds before replying.
This is a good option for hairbrained schemes or requests beyond the norm. The awkward pause gives the person asking a moment to think about, and perhaps withdraw, their request.
Another variation of the pause (but not awkward) is “I’ll check my availability and get back to you.”
You then have the benefit of time to think about the request before deciding on how to respond to it.
c) Qualify it
In those situations where you’d like to comply but can’t, you can qualify your no.
For example, “I’m sorry, I’m booked solid this week, but I’d like to help when things ease up. Would next month work for you?”
Or “Yes, I can help for two hours on Saturday but not on Sunday. Does that help?”
This allows for some contribution without taking on full responsibility.
d) Forward it
If you’re not interested in a request, but know someone who can help, forward it.
For example, “I’m sorry, I can’t help you with that. But you can ask Jan in the art department – she’s great with layouts.”
This is a nice tactic for generating goodwill, providing Jan in the art department wants to help. But don’t fob off requests on those you know to be unable or unwilling to help.
e) Return it
For most of us, saying no to a boss isn’t the best path to career advancement. Instead of an outright no, return responsibility for any consequences from the request – gently and tactfully.
For example, “I’d be happy to help, but I’m already busy on projects A and B. Which would you like me to deprioritize and put on the back burner?”
At the very least, you’ve let them know about any potentially negative impact on your work.
f) Lighten it
Regardless of how you say no, you can lighten your response with humour and a smile.
No one likes to be turned down and doing so with gentle humour or a smile of understanding can help ease the sting.
Strong boundaries are crucial for confidence and self-esteem.
With them, you have control over how you respond to circumstances, events, and other people.
You’ll have more poise, and your relationships will improve. You’ll also have greater respect for others and yourself, and you’ll feel happier when aligned with the ideals that are most important to you.
Start by getting clear on your values and the boundaries you want. Then put them into practice with small issues before tackling the major breeches.
With practice when someone does cross the line it won’t be shame or weakness you feel. Instead, you’ll experience a buzz of power when you stick to your new, strong boundaries.
So, don’t wait. Start working on them today and you’ll soon be enjoying the benefits!