Boundaries are about spheres of responsibility – defining where yours end and someone else’s start. Boundaries help you to manage your time, priorities, commitments, energy levels, health and emotions. Most of us never really think about boundaries – we just react, and as a result, our boundaries are loose, blurred and ineffective. If you are feeling stressed, powerless, guilty, angry, resentful, tired, burnt out, emotional or taken for granted, it’s very likely that you are not managing your own boundaries well enough.
Examples of poor boundaries are compulsive behaviour (spending, eating, drinking), constantly rescuing other people, taking on too much, feeling unable to say no, overwhelming yourself unnecessarily, mismanaging time or priorities, working excessive hours, taking work stress home, being responsible for other people’s stuff, never getting things done, crumbling under pressure from others, being responsible for your entire family, working to others’ expectations instead of your own.
Boundaries include responsibilities towards ourselves and to others. To be effective, boundaries must be intentional. They don’t just appear from nowhere. Sometimes we are manipulated or coerced into ignoring or flexing our boundaries. Sometimes by others, but very often, by ourselves. How often is your inner critic leading the way on when to say yes and when to say no? This is self-sabotage at its best.
In learning how to manage boundaries, it’s important to remember that you cannot change others. But you can change your own behaviour, including behaviour towards people who are draining you. Your approach to defining and managing boundaries was developed when you were young, and was influenced by a range of environmental factors, not limited to, but including
– a lack of limits at home
– excessive parental control
– inconsistent limits at home
– insecurity, hostility, or fear surrounding limit setting
– respect, clarity and consistency around limits
– trauma, such as illness, accidents, prolonged separation, abusive behaviour, death, family breakdown
As adults, lots of difficult-to-flex things are getting in the way of pro-actively managing your boundaries: your values, beliefs, attitudes, bad experiences, internal resistance, personality traits, levels of self-confidence and fear. Even our strengths, like being achievement focused, can be over-utilised with the result of poor boundary management. You can address and start to change the way you approach this issue.
Advances in neuroscience show us how our brain continues to fire new neural connections throughout our lives and this is great news if you want to change. By becoming more aware, more intentional, and by practising new behaviours consistently, you can alter how you behave and change your mind-set. The key thing is to find the right support.
Drawing new boundaries can be daunting and you may be worried about hurting other people’s feelings by starting to say no. Remember that hurting isn’t the same as harming. You may upset a few people initially, and this may take some time to work through. The longer-term benefit for your mental, emotional and physical health will outweigh this. You may also be concerned about how it will come across at work if you start changing your approach to managing your workload, your priorities and your working hours.
Don’t be worried. It’s adult, it’s healthy and it’s crucial. Drawing new boundaries doesn’t mean protesting loudly about your workload and risking losing your job. It does mean being realistic and not living in fear of your superiors or seeing ‘yes’ as a way to constantly win approval. If this is how you have felt compelled to operate, the issue is deeper-rooted and can be addressed with the right support, like coaching.
If you are in a leadership position, you should be considering your responsibility to your team as a role model for how to manage boundaries and well-being effectively.
Here are my tips for drawing new boundaries:
1. Reflect –
a. Understand your symptoms (feelings)
b. Identify where you are stuck in patterns
c. Be open to the truth about how you are self-sabotaging
d. Reflect on your motivators i.e. doing something out of guilt or joy
e. Consider the root causes
2. Visualise –
a. What change is needed?
b. What will the impact be if you can achieve it?
c. How will life be if things stay the same?
3. Plan –
a. Consider how you can achieve the change you most want
b. Plan the specific steps you will take
c. Consider points of compromise vs wholesale changes
d. Plan for self-sabotage
e. Include support – don’t rely on willpower alone!
4. Act –
a. Start with small, safe steps
b. Ask what others actually expect or need from you. Often the highest expectations are our own
c. If you are removing an unhealthy coping mechanism, like drinking, substitute with a new healthy one
d. Be consistent with new behaviour you’re trying out
e. Make yourself accountable to someone
f. Keep notes on your thoughts, feelings and behaviours
g. Make your new boundaries very visible to others – secret boundaries cause resentment and confusion!
5. Reflect –
a. Build in reflection time – behaviour doesn’t change overnight – keep working on it and thinking about what’s working/not working
b. Keep talking to supportive others
I am an Accredited Executive Coach and trainee psychotherapist. Based on my corporate and clinical experience, I have designed a coaching programme to target this specific problem. If you want to feel more in control, feel happier, and make better boundary decisions, contact me to discuss your goals and let me help you to change. Together we will
• Transform the way you think about and draw boundaries
• Work out where you are going wrong
• Learn to respect your own boundaries
• Create the balance you really want but are holding back from creating