Setting boundaries in work and life is difficult. Most of us don’t know how to say “no” or “enough.” We worry about disappointing other people, we worry that we won’t finish our work and get in trouble, or we just don’t even know where to draw the lines between our personal and professional lives. And while I don’t have all the answers, I’ve learned if you want to achieve balance and success, you need to learn about setting boundaries.
Start with the small stuff
Start with the small stuff: If you’re new to the idea of setting boundaries, it’s probably not wise to start with something that’s a big deal to you. You need to build up your confidence and practice setting boundaries before you attempt to set them on things that are really important. So start with the small stuff. Allow yourself to be late for dinner with friends. Say no when someone asks if you can pick up the tab for lunch. Leave a party before it gets too late. Don’t answer your phone if you don’t want to talk to the person calling.
Set boundaries by making a request: One of the simplest ways to set a boundary is by making a request of someone else. This allows you to make clear what you do want while also making clear what you don’t want. For example, let’s say that your sister has been calling every day trying to borrow money from you, but you don’t have any money right now and can’t afford to lend her any more than she’s already borrowed from you. Instead of saying “I can’t lend you any more money,” try saying something like this: “I’m going through some difficult financial times right now. I’m having a hard time even paying my own bills, so I can’t lend you any right now.”
Take your time
“Take your time” is a phrase we hear all the time, but what does it really mean? When someone asks you to take your time, it’s often because they’re asking you to slow down and not rush into something. While that may make sense in the moment, it can easily become an excuse for putting things off indefinitely. You may be able to rush through something quickly and get it done, but then you’ll either have an unfinished product or a lasting dissatisfaction with how it turned out. That’s not taking your time—that’s leaving things unfinished or not doing them well. What really taking your time means is using the appropriate amount of time for whatever you’re working on, whether that’s getting ready in the morning, cooking a meal, crafting a holiday present, or anything else. It means setting boundaries for yourself and sticking to them, rather than letting others’ expectations about what you should do with your day (or how long it should take) dictate how you spend your time. Having boundaries means being clear with yourself about what you will and won’t do with your time—and if that includes saying “no” to things when they pull at that boundary, so be it.
Set boundaries before you’re in crisis mode
When you’re at the end of your rope and you have to set boundaries, it’s easy to say, “I’ll never do that again!” But what if next time isn’t the same situation? You need to be able to set boundaries in a way that will work for any future conflict. Set yourself up for success by thinking ahead and being consistent.
Think about how you want things to go before you’re in crisis mode. You want everyone to be heard, but you want everyone to feel respected. You want the person who is causing the problem to understand why the behavior is unacceptable. You want a plan for how the problem will get resolved, and how you’ll avoid this conflict in the future.
Before anything goes wrong, discuss it with everyone involved—everyone’s feelings matter when it comes to setting boundaries. If one person doesn’t agree with your boundary or doesn’t support you when someone else pushes against it, get another opinion from someone else so you can be confident in your decision.
Set expectations early and consistently. Before there’s an issue, talk about what behaviors are acceptable and what aren’t (within reason). And when those lines are crossed, remind them of the rules they agreed to follow!
Imagine what would happen if you did set a boundary
Imagine what would happen if you did set a boundary and someone respected it. And then another person respected it. And then another. Pretty soon, you’d be surrounded by people who respect your boundaries.
It’s good to remember that boundaries are about self-care. They’re based on what works for you, not what works for everyone else. What’s important is that you know yourself well enough to know what kind of behavior you can tolerate, and what kind of behavior is unacceptable to you
Setting boundaries isn’t easy if you aren’t used to doing it or if you’ve spent a lot of time around people who have ignored or violated your boundaries in the past.
But the more often you set boundaries, the more easily they’ll come to you. It gets easier over time — and the more people around you who respect your boundaries, the healthier your relationships will be.
Remind yourself why you’re doing it
Setting boundaries is essential for yourself and for your relationships with others. It’s helpful when you’re overworked or underpaid and need to set some boundaries. Remind yourself why you are taking time off or changing jobs and make a list of things that need to be done before the transition is complete.
Prioritize yourself, just this once
Slow down. You are doing the best you can.
Prioritize yourself, just this once. If you’re like me, you’re constantly putting other people first. You make them breakfast, drive them around town, do their laundry, and take care of their needs every day. You may feel incredibly guilty when you can’t fulfill all of their requests.
That’s not healthy. Remind yourself that it’s okay to say no sometimes.
I know it’s hard to unplug from work, especially if you work from home (like I do). But you need to set boundaries so your work doesn’t bleed into your personal life 24/7. That’s how burnout happens and it’s harder to recover from than you might think. When I don’t take breaks, I get headaches and start feeling anxious for no reason. That’s why it’s important to set aside some time for self-care and recharge your batteries every now and then!
See each boundary as a practice run
A boundary is a limit we set, either in the moment or in advance, to protect ourselves from the unwanted impacts of another person’s behavior.
Boundaries are an important part of our self-care and wellness because they let others know what is and isn’t acceptable to us, and they provide some space between us and another person’s actions. Boundaries can also be used to help you achieve your goals, such as by making sure you have time to take care of yourself, instead of being pulled away by other people’s needs.
See each boundary as a practice run. You set boundaries in order to learn more about yourself and your values — not because you’re trying to change someone else’s behavior. So, if someone doesn’t respect a boundary you’ve set, just accept that outcome and move on. It can often be helpful to think of boundaries as practice runs for setting the next one with that person. For example: “This didn’t go well this time, but next time I’ll try doing it this way.”