Boundaries are one of our most essential tools when it comes to staying sane and managing our multiple responsibilities. Whether it’s clarity around work responsibilities, structure around your time or knowing just what is and isn’t acceptable when it comes to communication, forget diamonds – boundaries are your very best friend. So when boundaries don’t work, things can really get challenging.
Today I want to share a quick guide to handling boundaries when people in your life ignore them, clash with them or don’t seem to understand them. But first, let’s get clear.
What are boundaries?
I think Brené Brown has the simplest definition I’ve seen:
“Boundaries are simply: what’s okay and what’s not okay.”
It’s a great way to look at boundaries. They’re your way of defining what you need to be at your best.
You can create boundaries around all sorts of things – your needs, your time, your relationships. But what happens when someone crosses them, or you need to change them?
When boundaries don’t work
There are a few different reasons why boundaries might not work. Sometimes we’re all too aware of the problem; other times, we’re called to pay closer attention to subtle signs. Do any of these feel relevant to you, right now?
When people ignore a boundary
Sometimes it’s really obvious that a boundary just isn’t being respected.
You’ve made it clear that you need to know when your friend’s going to pop round, and yet she keeps rocking up unexpectedly.
You’ve made the boundary clear, and the other person isn’t honouring that. Time for an important conversation – below, I’ll give you a process for exactly how to do it.
When you need to make a new boundary
This one can be a lot more subtle to spot. How do you know when a new boundary is needed?
One of the big giveaways that it’s time to take a closer look at the boundaries in your life is anger.
Perhaps a colleague keeps handing over tasks that you really don’t enjoy doing, or your partner’s expecting you to pick up the slack when they get lost in a new project.
If you’re finding yourself losing your temper, or noticing feelings of resentment or frustration bubbling up, it’s probably time to look at your boundaries again.
When your boundary clashes with someone else’s
One of the trickiest situations we have to deal with is one where our boundaries clash with someone else’s. So you come across a colleague who’s been working on their assertiveness, but it seems as though you’re expected to deal with the fallout of the tasks they’ll no longer tolerate.
Or maybe your Mum has a strict boundary around Christmas being just for family. Your friend’s going through a really rough patch, and you know you don’t want her to spend the day alone.
Could be your boss, your kids, or your parents – realizing that your boundary contradicts or infringes on theirs is always complicated.
So how do we deal with situations when our boundaries just don’t seem to work?
Is it selfish to have boundaries?
Now, for a lot of us – especially when we’re fairly new to setting boundaries – it can be tempting to wonder if the energy it takes to maintain them really worth it.
It could be a big one: You’ve told your partner that you can’t be in a relationship with someone who drinks so much they’re not in control any more.
Or something minor, but still important: You can’t drop everything, yet again, because your sister’s too disorganised to finish work on time.
From awkward conversations to tough decisions like leaving a job or relationship, upholding a boundary can feel like more trouble than it’s worth. After all, you’re a nice person – you hate letting people down – and the last thing you want to do is introduce conflict.
Are boundaries selfish?
Let’s return to Brené Brown, whose ground-breaking work on vulnerability has changed the way many of us relate to boundaries. She says
“One of the most shocking findings of my work was the idea that the most compassionate people I have interviewed over the last 13 years were also the absolutely most boundaried…
What I think that [a lot of us] do is that we don’t set boundaries.
We let people do things that are not okay or get away with behaviours that are not okay and then we are just resentful and hateful.
Me? I’d rather be loving and generous and very straightforward with what’s okay and what’s not okay.”
So, far from being selfish, setting clear boundaries is an act of great compassion. It means the people in our lives know where they stand. And it allows us to cultivate healthy, balanced relationships rather than simmering with suppressed rage at what we’re having to put up with.
And if it feels hard, remind yourself of this: you only need 10 seconds of courage to set the principles that will save you huge amounts of resentment, conflict and energy in the long term. I’ve learned it’s far better to cope with that little bit of awkwardness than the huge heap of resentment that builds up when you agree to things you don’t want to do.
Big decisions around boundaries can be hard. But the truth is, you only have one life. Is it worth spending it locked in a job, relationship or situation that’s causing you huge stress and resentment, simply to make things easier for the other person?
How to handle a boundary that’s not working
Here’s a 3 step process you can use when a boundary isn’t working.
But first, something really important to note: Don’t wait to be at a time when your boundaries are being crossed to have this conversation.
Instead, give some thought to what’s going on. What’s the boundary you want to create, re-instate, or uphold? Find a time to talk about this outside of the situation.
So if your team member’s perpetually late, don’t wait til they’re sidling guiltily into their seat (and you’re boiling with rage). Choose a time when you can be proactive about the situation before it flares up.
1. Acknowledge the past
If this boundary is one that you’ve let slide before – or perhaps not even been aware of – it’s really important to make it clear that this is changing.
So, start by acknowledging how things have been.
“I know I’ve been working later than I’m supposed to these past few months”
“In the past I’ve stepped in to do the school pickup when you’re running late”
Stay factual, rather than using emotive language. This conversation is one that requires you to be in a calm, clear place, and you want the other person to feel receptive and ready to listen – not to be instantly on the defensive.
2. Set your boundary
This is your chance to get really clear – remembering that defining this is ultimately the most compassionate thing you can do.
Don’t fall into justifying, explaining or rationalizing your decision.
This isn’t a debate or a discussion – it’s you simply stating what’s true for you.
“I’m not going to be able to do that any more.”
“I’m no longer willing to take that responsibility”
3. Collaborate together
If you’re finding your boundary clashes with someone else’s – and that person is someone who’s important to you – then this will be a vital part of finding your new way forward.
How can you find a way that meets the other person’s needs and still respects your boundary?
What do you both need to be in place to feel good about the situation?
This is why it’s so important that this conversation takes place when you’re not feeling triggered or fired up. When you’re calm and collected, you’ll be in a much more resourceful place when it comes to finding a solution that works for everyone.
Are boundaries a challenge?
If boundaries are something you find tricky to navigate, take a look at our free guide, when we explore this and other boundary conversations and principles in a lot more depth.
It’s called Enough is Enough: How to Gracefully Set Unshakeable Boundaries… and it does what it says on the tin!
How about you?
Are you the Queen of unshakeable boundaries? Have you got a particularly sticky boundaries conundrum going on right now, that you’d love to get someone else’s take on? Share in the comments below – someone else might have just the words of wisdom you need.
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