20 Women’s Stories on How They Learned to Set Boundaries
Why does it take burning out before we say no?
I didn’t realize until my late 20s that boundaries were a “thing” you could set. That you could tell someone “no.” Then it took several more years for me to actually start doing it, and only because I was forced to as a result of people hurting me and losing my trust — not because I’d finally gained the ability to set healthy boundaries all by myself.
But we all have our teachers, and those were mine.
Now, in my mid-30s, I can honestly say that I set boundaries.
But I still feel guilty about it.
Someone recently asked me for advice in working with one of their clients, and probably for the first time ever — I declined.
I honestly didn’t have the time. I’ve barely kept up with my own clients in recent months. As much as I love helping people — it’s who I am — I’ve come to a place in my personal and professional life of max capacity. For my own mental, emotional, and entrepreneurial health, I have to say no to things I’d otherwise do without a second thought.
I did feel bad about declining. But I also got over it. And I found that it’s less stressful to say “no” than to sign up to do one more thing on an already toppling list.
As a woman, especially, I think many of us have been socialized to say “yes” and be “nice” and “volunteer to help” when we don’t feel like it. Unless we have a really good excuse, like a broken limb or a fever above 103. That’s how I feel, anyway.
And it shouldn’t have to come to that! Someday, I hope to say “no” without guilt, just because I’d rather spend my day taking pictures of flowers and trees, or scrunching my toes in beach sand.
Today, I’d like to have an honest, open discussion about being a woman and setting boundaries. I asked 20 women to tell me their thoughts on boundary setting. Maybe you’ll find some tips you can use. Maybe you’ll just find camaraderie (because none of us are boundary-setting experts).
And hopefully you will find a bit more strength — because after reading what these women have written to me, I know I have.
When did you realize that you can set boundaries?
I still struggle sometimes with setting boundaries as it’s in my nature to want to help everyone! I have definitely been getting better about this just over the last couple of years — after nearing burnout many times I had to make decisions to not always say yes, and be okay with that. I can’t say I regret any of the times I’ve had to say no so far!
How do you set boundaries in your personal and/or professional life?
I don’t so much worry about this in my personal life — I find it’s easier for me to decide what’s important or not. If I’m ever put in an uncomfortable situation, whether at work or personally, I make sure to be direct, but kind and understanding, as early as I can now. When I was younger, I would often let comments or issues that bothered me slide off to the side instead of deal with them head on, because I felt that was easier. I know now that’s not true — that addressing your concerns quickly helps you avoid the negative snowball effect that can crop up because of unclear communication.
Val Geisler, Systems Strategist for Freelancers
I’m still learning to set boundaries and I find they get tighter the more I practice them. Running a business, being a mom, working online… all of these things required me to set boundaries.
However, I only actually set boundaries when I decided that my personal happiness and wellbeing was the main driver of all of those activities. If I can’t show up as my best self, I’m letting everything drop.
When I set boundaries I’m happier. I’m taking care of myself and, by extension, everyone around me.
Actually my first reaction to your question was a chuckle — not sure I’ve learned to set boundaries or even realized they’re mine to set. I feel the need to justify my boundaries. As if others have more say over what I do than I have. Setting boundaries means saying no, and I still struggle with that in a major way. So I’m not sure I’ve arrived at a place where I know I can set boundaries. I need to work on that.
Kaleigh Moore, Copywriter
For me, setting boundaries is an ongoing process that I’m still working on. I have a lot of room for improvement.
In my personal and professional life, many of my boundaries are around my time. I’ve become much more protective of how I spend/invest my time — and with whom — so that I’m only doing things that I truly see value in. Often, that means saying no to opportunities, putting hard lines around my availability, and being less of a “yes” person in general. The power of no is incredible for establishing boundaries, and saying it more often has helped me become happier, healthier, and more sane.
Shayla Price, B2B Marketer
I set professional boundaries by stating and reiterating my expectations. In the work environment, it’s important to stay consistent in your actions. Someone will always test your boundaries. So, don’t waver to please others.
As the CTO of HausCall, it was really important for me to create boundaries for my own sanity. Before I had a team of engineers, it was not uncommon for me to work around the clock on our product. In some ways, that can obviously be good for production — but as a manager, this can easily be a terrible habit to create. When I hired my team and realized how responsible I was for their career growth during their tenure with our company, I felt comfortable establishing healthy boundaries for their success and mine.
Using messaging tools such as Slack allows me to still stay on top of things without work requests, questions and concerns coming directly to my text inbox all the time. The ‘do not disturb’ has also had its fair share of value here!
I am REALLY anal and crazy about boundaries, in my personal life and in my business life. I realized I could set boundaries about a year and a half into running my own business (late 20s). I was super burnt out, THOUGHT that I maintained solid boundaries, but kept feeling bulldozed by clients. I just wasn’t very good or deliberate at managing my relationships.
One of the things I did was start creating processes that all clients had to follow. For example, I won’t work with a client unless they schedule a 15 minute call with me first. It seems small, but unless I get the client on the phone, I won’t know if they’re a good fit or if the project is a good fit. It’s also a quick compliance check– if they can’t follow my process at the very beginning, I probably don’t want to work with them. One of the other things I did was only take client meetings on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and never after 4:30 pm. This means that I have “meeting” days but that Monday and Friday are reserved for quite working, or working no my own business.
Here I am in my early 30s, and I didn’t realize I could set boundaries until pretty recently. I’ve always equated being a good friend, teammate, and family member with doing whatever anyone asks of me. If someone needs help, you help. If someone’s having a get-together and invites you, you’d better be there. Saying no is rude, so never, ever say no. I think this is a common thing we teach little girls — always be polite and take care of everyone else before you take care of yourself.
The thing about that is that, eventually, you run out of energy. I realized this when I barely made it through the day without falling asleep, because I’d taken my neighbor to the airport at 4am that morning.
She’d texted me the night before: “Hey. Can you give me a ride to the airport tomorrow? At 4am?” Three grimacing emojis.
I said yes, of course, and I showed up at 4am on the dot with my trunk popped. She got in my car and said, “Wow! I can’t believe you actually said yes. My husband is mad at me for asking you because he thought it was really rude. But I told him you said yes!”
I couldn’t stop thinking about that the whole way back home. Why did I say yes? Well, because I thought I couldn’t say no. It was that simple.
The fact that even the askerwas surprised I said yes made me think pretty deeply about my personal boundaries and that they were basically non-existent.
Would saying no to someone result in something terrible happening?
Would it make someone swear me off as a friend? Of course not.
Others say no all the time, and it’s fine. I gave myself “permission” to say no to things I don’t want to do — things that won’t bring me joy or things that just don’t interest me.
It was honestly very difficult to start doing this, but I quickly realized that it meant I had more time and energy to spend doing things I loved. It’s so cliche, but life is just too short to waste your time doing things for the sake of doing things.
I realized that work boundaries were important in my mid-twenties when I began doing consulting. Learning how to set healthy boundaries with clients and boundaries with others in my life in order to maintain balance as a sole proprietor was incredibly valuable.
In my personal and professional lives, I try to live by the rule of “full body yes,” which my friend Sue Heilbronner turned me on to. The idea is that if something doesn’t feel right on a cellular level, I don’t say yes to it. It’s kept me from some nice-seeming opportunities that I know weren’t right for me (perhaps at that time). It’s an ongoing practice.
Amy E. Dixon, Press Release Queen
I started setting boundaries when I realized I tend to be more loyal to my companies than they ever were to me. I’d been taken for granted and/or taken advantage of, and then tossed aside. I don’t know if I aged out of sucking it up, or stopped being afraid of owning my wellbeing.
Lauren Van Mullem, Copywriter for Coaches
I used to work late into the night and during weekends — and I’d say the most success I’ve had with setting boundaries is to stop doing that. But I’m not great at setting them across the board. I want to help everyone, as much as I can, as much as they’ll let me. For me, the #1 cardinal sin is selfishness, and generosity of spirit is the ultimate good. Recently though, a relative stranger asked me for help, and I gave her all the help I could, even though I didn’t really know her. That opened the floodgates to her asking me to do more and more things for her, and there was no reciprocation. This is not my first rodeo with a narcissist (I’ve been burned before — over-givers attract them like ants to a picnic!), so this time, I recognized the signs early on. And I shut off the giving. Funny thing — as soon as I set ONE boundary with her, she disappeared. Boundaries are magical things!
Whitney Antwine, Digital Marketing Coach & Keynote Speaker
Setting boundaries is a direct reflection of your self-respect; and for me, that came right around the time I turned 30. I made a conscious decision to work 8-hours a day, not keep work email on my phone, and commit to taking a lunch break every day. I still can’t help that feeling of guilt when taking care of myself over my business, but I understand its importance on my well-being. When I’m taken care of, I’m able to focus productive energy on my work.
Natalie Smithson, Digital Innovation Copywriter
I realized I had to set boundaries when children came along. I was fiercely protective over theirboundaries, and it took me a while to recognize I could do the same for myself. I put boundaries in place for my business, which in turn protected me and showed me how effective it is to use them. Now I’ll put up a boundary quicker than you can say ‘Could you just… ?’ and “No” rolls off the tongue with no effort at all.
Beauty does not equal weakness and kindness does not equal naïveté. I give people the benefit of the doubt that they will be respectful, but the first time a line is crossed, there needs to be action/conversation on my end to ensure where the line lays.
Marijana Kay, Freelance Writer and Content Strategist
I don’t think I realized the importance of setting boundaries until I burnt out at a full-time job and realized I wanted to work for myself. Months after making that transition into running my own small business, my work life and personal life were spilling into each other. I had to draw a line to stop looking at emails at night and not let non-urgent personal matters creep into my working hours. I’m easily distracted, and that cycle was taking up all of my energy. Over time, I’ve gained the ability to block off time for work and put my phone and laptop down when it’s time to focus on my husband, family, friends and hobbies. It’s still a struggle, but I’m getting there.
Tracy Oswald, Leads with Love, Big Change Coach, Keynote Speaker
For me it’s about not rearranging my priorities to respond to everyone else’s “emergencies”. A lot of the time all we have to do is say “No.”. No further explanation is needed.
Your question got me thinking about how my lack of boundaries led me to getting sick with pneumonia and how our limitations are opportunities to create space in our lives. It took a physical and mental collapse to finally give myself permission to stop feeling like I wasn’t trying hard enough. It shouldn’t have to be that way.
There’s this quote from Nathaniel Branden’s Six Pillars of Self Esteem:
“People with high self-esteem have strong personal boundaries. And practicing strong personal boundaries is one way to build self-esteem.”
I think to set boundaries you have to know yourself really well and be confident in who you are. Sometimes you only really figure out who you are in your late 20s. I saw Michelle Obama speak and I forget exactly what she said, but she talked about the significance of being true to yourself and how that happens later in life.
I most recently went through an exercise of writing down my core values — which are: integrity, curiosity, adventure, passion and perseverance. I know that if something doesn’t align with those values, my boundaries are being pushed.
Thank you to all the women who gave their unvarnished stories of struggles and successes in boundary-setting.
How are you at setting boundaries? When was the first time you discovered that you could? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments!