5 Ways to Become a Boundary Boss

Boundaries are a buzz word these days, but seem daunting if not impossible to set. It feels like once you set a boundary you have to keep enforcing it over and over again. Sometimes, enforcing our boundaries can feel more exhausting than having no boundaries at all. Perhaps that’s because we’ve become so accustomed to having our boundaries crossed that it feels more comfortable to stay in the old dynamics of enmeshment. Or perhaps there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what boundaries are and how they should operate. We know they’re important, but not how they function. But anyone who has felt burnout and resentful knows that setting boundaries and enforcing them is crucial for our own sanity, as well as our relationships, both business and otherwise. 

First and foremost, let’s talk about what boundaries are not. Boundaries are not ways to control other people’s behavior (we’re looking at you Jonah Hill). They are not hard lines in the sand that once crossed give us license to unleash years of pent up resentment on our boss or spouse. Boundaries are rules for governing ourselves. They are the lines that separate us from others that are based on our own unique experiences, energy types and preferences. In order for there to be a boundary there has to be separation between you and the other.

This can be extremely difficult for codependents, people pleasers and workaholics because we become enmeshed others. And while it’s easy to point the finger at the person crossing the boundary, it’s more likely that somewhere down the line we crossed our own boundaries and tactfully gave someone license to do the same; somehow we demonstrated that our boundaries are fluid or nonexistent.

Now, to be clear, it is never okay for someone to violate or abuse you in any way, and there are certain boundaries that are just basic human rights. But the majority of our boundaries are highly personalized and rarely or vaguely expressed. It’s not to say we are to blame for having porous boundaries, at some point in our childhood we were probably told that our boundaries were not valid or at least we interpreted it that way. It makes sense, children are not often given autonomy, not allowed preferences and are often forced to allow adults to violate their boundaries under the guise of respect for authority. It’s no wonder we have such a hard time not answering our boss or a client when they send an email at 10 pm.

We can’t control other people, nor can we dictate what’s acceptable to society or an office culture. What we can do is decide what is acceptable to ourselves and move accordingly. Perhaps we’ll affect positive changes in our environment, but we have to model it and stick to our values even in the face of culture that is diametrically opposed to those values.

If you work in a client based business and can’t stand having clients who text you outside of your office hours, you can surely communicate that to your client. But if you consistently answer those 10 pm texts, you have demonstrated you will cross your own boundaries and the client will see no problem with continuing to do so. Others are always going to act based on their own preferences. Expecting others to act according to your preferences is setting yourself up for failure. You’ll find yourself repeatedly having to set the boundary until finally you drop the client altogether. Sometimes that is necessary, but why not just set some boundaries for yourself from the beginning so you can avoid those awkward conversations? Put mechanisms in place that prevent you from crossing your own boundaries, like using a slack channel instead of giving out your personal phone number. Below are five steps to setting boundaries that rarely get crossed:

  1. Get clear about your values. Do you know what your values are? Do you know what’s best for you and how to advocate for it? Are you well practiced at holding yourself to your own standards? If you feel like your boundaries are constantly being crossed, or that certain environments or situations trigger you deeply,  it’s time to examine your triggers and figure out why certain things bother you more than others. Perhaps the root of the issue is more personal than you imagined. If you hate it when people wait until the last minute and then project their anxiety and urgency on to you, maybe that’s because you value organization and ease. If things felt chaotic in your household growing up, you may prefer to get things done far in advance because that was your way of minimizing the chaos. But if you find yourself in jobs that mimic the chaos, you may be unconsciously gravitating towards jobs that replicate that dynamic in your attempt to fix it. You may find that jobs that don’t have that same urgency bore you, and so you attract chaos, or even create it yourself because that’s what you’re used to. Get clear on the why otherwise you’ll find yourself creating the same dynamics over and over again, only to play the victim when your boundary is crossed.

  2. Distinguish between a boundary and a preference. Boundaries are certainly based in preferences but there is a difference. A boundary is based on your limits of what’s tolerable and acceptable for you. A preference is a like or dislike. When deprived of a preference the impact is not as dramatic as when a boundary is crossed. We can certainly choose what’s best for us based on our preferences. If you prefer creative work to administrative, you are unlikely to choose an office job. If you prefer partners who are physically active, you likely won’t be attracted to someone who isn’t. However, you may alter or adjust your preferences over time. If you choose a partner who isn’t physically active you don’t get to enforce that preference on your partner by making them feel bad for not valuing fitness.  A boundary is a line you are not willing to cross. So if you have a boundary that you take care of yourself through physical fitness, then honoring that would be to maintain that practice even if you are with someone who doesn’t. Boundaries can change, but most likely if you have arrived at the point of drawing a boundary, you probably have good reason and may risk betraying yourself by adjusting it. Perhaps you are too rigid around this boundary, and your partner shows you that you don’t have to be so severe with yourself. But if you have to sacrifice something important about yourself to make it work with your partner, if they ridicule you or feel contempt because your boundary reflects their lack of boundary back at them, it’s important to keep your boundaries in tact. If you are are with a verbally abusive partner or coworker, it is not a preference to expect to be spoken to with respect. People who don’t respect basic human boundaries are unlikely to respect your personal boundaries. Once a boundary is communicated, so long as it does not infringe on the other person’s freedom, it should be respected. 

  3. Communicate your boundaries. You probably don’t go on a date and immediately rattle off all the things you won’t tolerate. However, it is important that your boundaries are communicated early, because by the time they are crossed it’s often too late. The dynamic has already begun playing out, and the truth is, if you are serious about your boundaries, you won’t allow yourself to enter situations where they are disregarded or diminished. Remember, boundaries are for yourself not others, so the best way to communicate them is through your actions. If you have a boundary around your office hours and your supervisor sends a request outside of those hours you have a few choices. If you answer the email and complete the request, you are communicating that those office hours are more of a suggestion than a hard boundary. It’s likely to keep happening until you finally explode. If you respond to the email stating you will follow up on the request during your office hours, you can mitigate the chances of it happening again, but you will have to take the extra energy to enforce the boundary. You can also choose to simply not answer the email until you’re back at your desk, or even better you can choose not to look at your emails when you’re out of office. Often looking at the email can be enough to set us off. Sure, in an ideal world we communicate our preferences and others respect that. But everyone’s preferences are different. Some people do their best work after hours and don’t expect a response until the next day. The sense of urgency often comes from our perception of the other person’s expectations, whether real or imaginary. But if we hold firm to the boundaries we set for ourselves, then that Sunday email won’t annoy us, at least not until Monday. By refusing to cross your own boundaries, you train others to respect them as well.

  4. Respect others boundaries. Your boundaries are based in preferences and that means they are not moralistic in nature. If you see your preferences as morally correct, asserting them as a boundary can easily become a form of manipulation and control, expecting others to adhere to your preferences so that you can feel the way you want to feel, rather than self-regulating. It is therefore equally important to respect other people’s boundaries. But if your boundaries are in conflict, how does this work? Let’s say a boundary you have in your relationships is reciprocity. But you also have a preference for a clean house and you consider it vital for your emotional and mental health. If you have a partner whose standard for cleanliness is lower than yours, and their boundary is that they need an hour to decompress when they get home, there is likely to be some friction around this subject. In theory, those boundaries should not come into conflict, but they will if you feel that your standard for cleanliness is correct, and that your partner is simply lazy and messy. After a long day at work, you come home to a messy house and your partner chooses to watch an hour of tv when they get home. You face a choice: disrespect your own boundaries by cleaning the house by yourself, or disrespect your partner’s boundary by not leaving them in peace for the hour they requested. Neither option is healthy and will likely lead to resentment, conflict and contempt. If you see your partner’s preferences as invalid or indicative of their failures as a partner, it will be more difficult to create cooperation and solve the issue. If instead you choose to see your partner’s needs and boundaries as valid, you can begin to assess these instances on a case by case basis, rather than an indication that your partner doesn’t respect your preferences. Know that if you choose to clean the house in violation of your own boundary, that is your choice, not your partners. Perhaps you can choose to do so this time, because you’ll feel better with a clean house than waiting the hour for him to help. Or maybe you can find a way to distract yourself for that hour, maybe by leaving the house or spending that time with your partner. If it’s a recurring issue, can you find a system that will help you prevent this situation from happening so frequently? Can you both make an effort to tidy as you go so there’s not such a big mess at the end of the day? Can you choose a day to clean together and divy up the day to day chores with the freedom to complete them when you have the capacity? Can you hire a cleaning lady or find ways to automate certain chores? Sure it would be easier to say a neat freak and a slob shouldn’t be in a relationship together, but if we only seek partnership with those just like us we are cutting ourselves off from opportunities to grow or see things from a different perspective. But the crucial thing here is cooperation. Both partners have to be willing to find new ways of satisfying their own and each other’s preferences and boundaries. If your partner is simply evading chores as a way of getting you to do them, they’re using their knowledge of your preference to manipulate you into doing them. You violate your boundaries by taking the bait, but choosing to stay in that relationship may be the real boundary violation.

  5. Know when to walk away. Sometimes no matter how effective we are at honoring our boundaries, certain environments are just not equipped to do the same. Boundaries are always valid, and certain work environments might be better off implementing them. However, if you are trying to change an entire work culture or relationship by enforcing your boundaries, it might be time to assess how well your values align. If you have a preference for not working on weekends, it is unwise to choose to work in a restaurant or retail. But maybe you don’t have that luxury. Your boundary may be that on the weekends you are off, you not be contacted; but no matter how many times you state this and what steps you take, you’re consistently contacted on your weekends off. On top of that, you feel punished or outcast for not being a “team player.” Your boundaries are now causing friction and contempt in your coworkers because they may not have the ability to draw those boundaries. It is completely within your rights to choose when you work, for how long and in what capacity. But that’s why it’s important to assess a work culture and enviorment’s ability to respect those preferences ahead of time. Sometimes, no matter how much vetting we do, we find ourselves in situations that don’t or no longer align with our values. Relationships can be a great example of this. Attraction, timing and compatibility can all work together to blind us to a misalignment of values. Or, as time goes on, we may find that our boundaries change, due in large part to our experiences within that relationship. If we find ourselves in constant conflict over our boundaries with a partner, coworker or client, it may be best to let them go and find something that more naturally aligns with our values. Constantly defending and enforcing our boundaries can be exhausting. It is possible to find a partner or job that fits a little better. Generally speaking, people are “as is merchandise.” If you are trying to change a person or situation to fit your life better, you’ll be fighting an uphill battle, expending valuable energy trying to make something work that simply doesn’t. Go where those boundaries are not only validated but embraced in the culture, applied across the board or at the very least respected and taken seriously.

    Words by:
    Josette Ramnani

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