Boundaries are important to look after ourselves. But I often speak to clients who don’t feel they’ve got them “right”, either in terms of setting them or maintaining them (or both).
As with many things, the best way to approach this is to take a step back and start again. I’ve identified three steps to better manage boundaries.
Step 1: Reframe
The first thing you need to do is reframe. Too often we view boundaries as barriers we put up to keep certain things (overwork, toxic behaviour, stress) out. But strong boundaries are there to protect what’s important to us.
What is it that matters most to you, that will most ensure you have the balance you want in your life? And what do you need to put in place to make sure that happens?
A useful phase to help articulate this is “I need X to do Y”. If spending time with your family matters, then you could tell yourself: “I need to make sure I finish work on time so that I can put my children to bed”.
Step 2: Be really clear
This reframing makes it easier to approach the next, important, step, which is being able to set out your boundaries really clearly.
I often suggest clients do this by drawing two columns on a piece of paper headed 'OK' and 'Not OK'.
Try to be as specific as you can. For example, working late occasionally on a big project is OK, but missing bedtime more than twice a week isn’t. A friend snapping at you when they’re having a tough time might be ok, but putting you down isn’t. Everyone’s lists will be different. The important thing is to think as clearly as possible about what your red lines are.
Now is also the time to be honest with yourself about what it is that trips you up. Do you say yes because you are a people pleaser? Or because you worry that you’ll miss out on something if you say no? Are you afraid of conflict? Understanding what is driving your behaviour is really important in being able to tackle it.
Step 3: Practice
Now that you have a really clear sense of what your boundaries are and why, it’s time to stick to them.
As with so many other things, the key thing is to practise. Start small and build up.
Here are some ideas:
Start by saying no to those close to you more often. You may be surprised by how they react (or don’t react!)
Focus on one area of your life at a time, for example, making time to exercise, and use the success there to motivate you to move on to the next
If you find it difficult to say “no”, try finding alternatives that offer a solution: “I haven’t got time for that this week, could it wait until next week?” or “I’d love to, but I’m already committed to something that day, could you ask Sarah?”
Very few of us manage to get it right all the time, but protecting your own mental and physical well-being is well worth putting in a bit of effort.
Ruth Richards is one of our partner coaches, working with leaders who want to feel calm, confident and in control. Find out more about her here: www.careeringintomotherhood.com/ruth-richards