What are boundaries? A common definition of personal boundaries that I resonate with is “the limit of what someone considers to be acceptable behaviour”. This is a topic that has been in my awareness a lot lately, especially during this global pandemic, with work routines and demands changing, and working from home presenting opportunities but also many challenges.
In essence, this means that everything that starts to encroach on our wellbeing requires us to set a boundary around. Be it a personal or work relationship, our phone and devices, social media, or even the tendencies you have within that aren’t always serving you.
Boundaries require self-awareness – being present enough to notice when something isn’t supporting our wellbeing, or goes against our priorities. They also require self-responsibility, we don’t expect others to know intuitively what we need and find acceptable or not.
By communicating our boundaries, we share what we’re OK with and what we aren’t (which is based on our needs), in relationships to other people, things, and our internal world.
Communicating clearly doesn’t mean ruthlessly or aggressively. In fact that’s one reason I see that women are hesitant about setting boundaries – thinking the only way to do it is to be tough, or inauthentic, and anticipating confrontation. But why not frame it in another way – not as confrontation, or appearing needy, but instead as showing up for ourselves and simply sharing what works for us and what doesn’t? This can be done with kindness, compassion, and the kind of quiet confidence that gets the message across without the need to be aggressive.
Boundaries protect our priorities, our values, our sense of self.
If my priority is my health and wellbeing for instance, which includes rest and me-time, but people around me expect me to get their needs met without regard for mine – it’s on me to set a limit where I’ll meet their expectations and communicate that limit so they can set their own expectations more realistically.
A useful distinction I observed is between boundaries that we set externally – with other people, and things (such as our phones and devices) – and internally – those that we need to set with ourselves.
For example, if I notice a strong inner Perfectionist running the show so that it’s making me overwork and exhaust myself in the process, or keeping me stuck because nothing is good enough to share with the world, then I need to set a boundary with my Perfectionist. The same goes for any other part that takes over in a non supportive way, such as the inner critic, or the inner high achiever. These parts of us can be helpful when they’re integrated into our lives consciously. But when they’re left to take charge, they run riot. For example if my inner high achiever pushes me to overwork and forget about parts of my life that nourish me but aren’t related to achievement then I need to set an internal boundary with her too.
Essentially, the same dynamic that happens externally, happens internally. If we don’t set our boundaries, others will do it for us – and they likely won’t suit us! Why? Because others aren’t in touch with our core needs, with our values and priorities. That’s our job.
I think it’s actually too much to expect others to “read our mind” and guess what is just right for us. We have to take responsibility for this ourselves.
A good way to do it is to be proactive about our boundaries. Not just fight fire when it erupts, but see how we can set expectations from the get go. Of course we’ll adjust this as we go, because who can foresee everything, but at least thinking about our boundaries in a specific situation or life area will make it much easier to 1) recognise when they’re being crossed, and 2) communicate them when we know we need to.
We don’t tend to think of boundaries until someone has crossed them, and in hindsight we realise we could’ve avoided that if our boundaries were more clearly set.
This makes me think of an experience early on in my coaching career, when I took on a pro-bono client to support him in his career direction and getting unstuck and out of procrastination. We started working together and soon after I received texts about all sorts of things, not relating to what our coaching centred around but quite frankly daily decisions. Initially I responded to a few of those with support and helping him see things differently, but after a while the texts became more frequent, at any time of day or night, and I felt exhausted at just seeing the notification symbol on my phone.
I knew I had to confront this head on, of course in a kind and compassionate way, and taking responsibility for it, since clearly I had not set the boundaries well enough before we started our work.
We spoke about the boundaries of our coaching relationship, and continued to work together with great success. This served us both much better, I felt I had the space I needed, and my client felt empowered to seek the answers in himself.
That was a valuable lesson for me, both in how important it is to be proactive about setting professional boundaries, but also in recognising that boundaries are an organic process, not always clear cut, so it’s essential to pay attention and listen to ourselves when something doesn’t feel right.
Often setting our boundaries is actually more about speaking up for ourselves than it is about having others behave a certain way. If we say nothing, we will resent others and ourselves when our boundary gets crossed. However, when we speak up, we will have taken responsibility for ourselves and our lives, knowing that we had our own back, and giving others the opportunity to understand us better.
To sum up the key points in setting clear boundaries is:
- If we don’t set the boundaries that work for us, others will set them for us.
- We must pay attention to ourselves – what is acceptable to you and what isn’t? When our boundaries are crossed, we tend to feel resentful or violated.
- Learn to communicate your boundaries with clarity, compassion and kindness (towards yourself and others).
~ Mojca Henigman
Mojca Henigman is a DrivenWoman Group Leader, Life Coach and qualified NLP Practitioner. She supports purpose-driven women to peel back the layers of self-sabotage, show up with courage and create a life full of meaning and positive impact.
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