Learning to Put Up Boundaries Could be the Best Thing You Ever Do
The first time I learnt about boundaries was in a psychologist’s office, after a serious case of burnout. The high-achiever in me was juggling the HSC, full-time ballet, part-time work, and a host of teenage woes. And in a single moment it all crumbled. Looking for a one-step solution, I had never really heard about the concept of boundaries before (I was only 17 after all) and the idea of saying "no" to anyone felt like the scariest request she could have asked of me. Now, seven years on, learning what boundaries are and how to build them—and most importantly, when to say "no"— has been one of the best tools I have learnt.
I dare say, women probably struggle with this the most. We are mothers, sisters, best friends, mentors, daughters, and professionals, learning how to juggle everything at peak performance, while also navigating the relatively new reality of "having it all".
But the truth is, yes, we can have it all (though maybe not at once); the success lies in learning where, when and how to make it happen. And not only there, but also saying goodbye to the perfectionist in us. After all, is there any point in breaking the glass-ceiling if we reach the top tired, sick and jaded by the process? No.
So, if you feel the constant tug to be all things, to all people, all the time, while also struggling to be patient with yourself and the process, you may want to start building some boundaries. To get some insight, I spoke with psychologist Stella Franzese, from Lysn, about the fundamental principles of boundaries and why they are so crucial both in the boardroom and at home. Read on for the full interview, and I suggest grabbing a pen and paper, because unlike I originally believed all those years ago, there's (unfortunately) no easy fix; it's a just a lesson we're just going to have to keep learning and getting better at.
"Boundaries" is such a broad term, can you explain in a more specific way, what they are, and why they are beneficial in living a balanced life?
Boundaries are the limits we set for ourselves and our relationships. It is deciding what people can expect of us (in different contexts), with whom and to what extent we are willing to form connections, how we prefer to be treated in different contexts and how we prefer people behave around us. We as humans commonly set firm boundaries following a not so pleasant interpersonal experience. Boundaries are very subjective personal limits that draw a line between what we are willing to tolerate and what is unacceptable or anxiety provoking for us. It’s important to remember that boundaries are custom fit. That is, they are unique rules formed only by us, for ourselves.
The trouble begins when one person disregards that their friend’s personal boundaries and tolerance levels vary from their own, or they are just unwilling to respect them. "Boundaries" can be better considered as a big filing cabinet where you store personal "rules" for different categories, contexts and people. Examples may include: Physical boundaries or emotional boundaries. Most people have a mix of different boundary types depending on the situation. For example, someone could have strict boundaries at work, porous boundaries in romantic relationships and then a mix for their family. It is crucial to set boundaries in our lives because they solidify our sense of self. They reflect how we love ourselves and allow us to really reflect on our own morals and values. Setting boundaries is consistent with self-worth and self-respect. Failing to set boundaries means that all the people in your life have authority to treat you as they like.
How can we go about starting to make boundaries in our relationships, careers, and maybe even with ourselves?
Firstly, you need to identify your own limits in each area of your life. Decide what you can tolerate and accept and use your own feelings as cues to setting these appropriate limits. Practice tuning in to your inner self and uncover what your personal limits are. Think of it as an emotional scale, and where the tipping points are, or your inner compass that tells you 'yes' or 'no'.
Allow yourself to set boundaries without feeling guilty or fearing what the other person might think or feel. Clearly communicate your boundaries to those that might be over-stepping them, and prepare yourself to tolerate varying reactions of others. Sometimes boundary setting can unleash emotions, but it is important to stand by your words and stick to what you really want. If you can, try to manage (or if you can avoid) people who might have their own agenda and think nothing of pushing the limits. This can be a limit and a boundary in itself. Communicate openly and honestly, be assertive (but not aggressive), and understand that you are in charge of your own choices.
Your boundaries are going to vary widely across the different areas of your life, so take some time to consider the boundaries you might have professionally and personally. Know where to draw the line, put some mental 'rules' in place, and don’t be afraid to communicate them if you feel people are disrespecting your boundaries. Everyone has their own sense of self and what they can tolerate, so oftentimes people have different boundaries for themselves which can be different to your own, so they might not know they’re over stepping the line. Where your own personal boundaries clash with organisational boundaries at work or with someone that you love, aim as much as possible to work through any discrepancies and develop a happy medium.
What should someone do if friends or managers don’t respond to reasonable boundaries that you have set in place?
Setting boundaries involves letting the offending person know with words that it is not acceptable for them to treat you in a certain way. If people ignore your requests and violate your boundaries, it is important to make a point of reiterating how it makes you feel, and request firmly that they do not overstep the mark again. With friends who ignore your requests, be open and honest and let them know how their actions are affecting you emotionally. If they continue to ignore your requests, consider taking some time away from the relationship and re-evaluate what the friendship means to you. Friends shouldn’t make you feel uncomfortable or upset, so consider whether the friendship is genuinely providing you benefits.
With work related matters, if a manager repeatedly ignores your requests, it is important to take it a step further. If you have already been clear with how it makes you feel, then it is okay to report it to a work counsellor or a superior.
Do you think that our society is good at setting boundaries, or with 24/7 access to emails, has this become almost non-existent?
The rise of social media and other forms of communicative technology that can be accessed at any time has created a separate world adjunct to "real life" that demands instant responses and instant gratification. Having your work emails on your phone can especially make boundaries non existent and in some scenarios can result in people feeling constantly stressed and overworked. Some people are fine with being available 24/7, and some people feel pressured to instantly attend to their emails and can feel overwhelmed. In both scenarios it is important to communicate your stance and stick to it. This could be a chat with your colleagues and clients that you will not be available after 5 p.m. or setting an 'out of office' automatic reply once you finish work. Remember that your actions can speak louder than words, so make sure you’re not saying one thing and doing another. If you set a boundary, let your actions reaffirm your words. More importantly, once you set a boundary like this, ensure that you do not cave in, unless there are exceptional circumstances. People will not take you seriously unless you’re consistent.
What are some long-term consequences that can come from not setting boundaries?
The short-medium term consequences (like feeling taken advantage of) can eventually lead to a constant distrust and negative view of other people, avoidance of others, anxiety, guilt, a negative inner dialogue, negative view of self, low-self esteem and depression. A lack of boundaries can also lead to unhealthy relationships long-term. When reflecting on these consequences, a portion of our regret sometimes can stem from not communicating our feelings and being courageous enough to take a stand for what is right for ourselves personally.