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Stone walls by Andy B licensed under Creative Commons

Getting better at boundaries

How to understand what your boundaries are and to get better at standing by them, for less stress and a more creative life.

New: This is the audio version of the post below — stream here or download to your device.

Being boundaried is not just about pushing back on the things you can’t accept.

When we have a clear sense of our own boundaries, we have a clear sense of who we are — distinct from our family, friends and colleagues, but better able to play the role we are suited to.

The trouble is that very few of us understand what it means to live in this way, and both our education and work systems encourage us to lose a sense of who we are, in favour of obligation and expectation.

It’s this loss of connection that contributes to relationship difficulties, mental health issues and a general loss of our enjoyment in life as we struggle to say yes to what’s good for us and no to what isn’t.

I’m going to map out my experience of going from unboundaried to having a much clearer (but not perfect) connection with my own needs, and I hope it offers some useful insight to others.

What are boundaries?

It might be helpful to start with dispelling some common myths about boundaries.

When we use the word ‘boundary’ we bring a set of assumptions that are based on our use of the term in a physical sense.

The definition of the word is ‘a line which marks the limits of an area; a dividing line.

This makes us think of a piece of land or a house. Something with fences or walls — edges that everyone can see. Therefore any transgression is a deliberate act.

When we mistakenly adopt this idea in an emotional or relational sense we come to believe that:

a) everyone should know what our boundaries are, without asking or being told.

b) anyone who seems to overstep our boundaries does so knowingly and should be treated as having done something ‘wrong’.

Of course, there are some commonly accepted boundaries that we, as a society, have largely agreed on — not using abusive language or not touching someone inappropriately, for example.

But while dealing with these kind of situations can be difficult or tricky, hopefully you don’t have to deal with them on a regular basis.

It’s more likely that the reason you’re probably reading this is the hundreds, maybe thousands, of little bumps and knocks that aren’t so obvious but cause us pain, stress and upset.

To explore different ways of working with boundaries, I’m going to create a bit of a false dichotomy by talking about ‘work’ boundaries and ‘relational’ boundaries.

In reality, how we work with our boundaries in any one aspect of our lives mirrors every other but for the sake of giving a clear explanation, let’s look through these two, distinct lenses.

How do you start saying ‘no’ at work?

Over the past 20 years of working in offices and busy team environments, I’ve gone through three distinct relationships to my boundaries.

1. Saying ‘yes’ to everything.

In the early years of my career, I would take on nearly anything that people asked of me. This might be a small task, a request for a meeting or a big new project.

There were a number of reasons for this:

  • I wanted to please others and be seen as helpful and productive
  • I wanted to progress in my career
  • I was afraid I might be seen as lazy or uncooperative.
  • I worried I might be passed over for opportunities in the future.

Needless to say, people naturally came to me with more and more stuff, and at various points I became overloaded, overworked and very stressed.

At one point in particular, this behaviour contributed to a spectacular burnout that impacted me for years but there were also lots of less dramatic but no less cumulatively damaging experiences that stemmed from being a ‘yes’ person.

2. Saying ‘no’ to everything.

Once I’d recognised this pattern of mine, I felt that the strong and healthy thing to do was to start saying ‘no’.

This in part came from an overriding sense that it was someone else’s fault that I’d got so overloaded and stressed out.

If they had been more caring and observant about what was going on for me — or self-aware of what they were asking of me — then I wouldn’t have suffered so much.

Forget that I had continued to say yes to everything that came my way and never said anything was wrong… They should have just known, right? (They shouldn’t, of course — it was my responsibility to speak up).

So, the obvious answer was to just default to ‘no’, driven by a strong sense of resentment and the fear of the consequences of saying yes.

Naturally people quickly understood that I was ‘don’t-go-to’ person and stopped coming to me with requests. I found myself not being invited to meetings or to join new projects and I would feel anxious that I was missing out.

Bugger, I thought. I can’t win.

3. Acting with discernment

Eventually I came to realise that I needed to learn how to say yes to the right things and no to the wrong ones.

I know this sounds stupidly obvious but this was not a skill I possessed. At no point in my education or my career had anyone shown me how to do what I wanted, rather than what was expected of me.

All I’d learned when it came to the game of ‘work’ was that if you meet people’s expectations then you stood a better chance of getting on. My focus was always outward.

My ‘no’ phase was simply a reaction to that — I had got no better at knowing what I wanted, just inverted the learned behaviour.

What I had to learn was how to listen to what I needed. Was this a project that I’d find interesting? Do I really have enough time and energy to take something else on? Does working with this person feel good or does my experience tell me that I’m going to be tearing my hair out in a month’s time?

This required being sensitive to all the ‘wrong’ thoughts (‘I like this person and I want them to like me’ or ‘if I take this on, it might get me closer to a seat on the board’) and recognise them for what they were —insecurities that would just get me in trouble if I allowed them to dictate my actions.

Instead I had to learn how to set clear boundaries within and for myself based on what was going to be good for me based on what would allow me to do good work, go home at the end of the day and be a good partner, or dad.

The only thing that would allow this was being a good friend to myself, and letting that person put the boundaries in.

How do you use boundaries to build better relationships?

When I look at how I’ve changed my relational boundaries I can see a similar pattern emerge.

The difference is that instead of it being about my own ability to say yes or no to the right things, it’s also about my respect for other people’s needs and process.

1. Having no boundaries.

When I was younger my sense of boundaries was incredibly poor (as reflected in my relationship with work). As someone with no clear sense of where my boundaries ended and someone else’s began, my behaviour was marked by my ‘helpfulness’.

If I perceived someone to be struggling in any way whatsoever (or simply that there was something I could do that would make their life easier), my default response was to offer help or to try and get involved.

This could be as small — yet still very annoying — as providing solutions every time a conversation touched on a question they didn’t yet have the answer to (even if they didn’t want one) or as interfering as trying to get people to read particular books or take up counselling.

I guess I believed that this is what made a good human — wanting to help others and caring about their suffering.

The trouble is, when most people behave in this way, they aren’t doing it for other people at all, they are doing it because it causes them discomfort to imagine other people are suffering, even when they’re not.

This lack of boundaries also surfaced as not knowing how, or when, to refuse other’s help and ideas. I imagined that it would be rude to say ‘no’ and that I’d upset people. Or that perhaps they just knew better than me and I should just do what they say.

Needless to say, this lack of boundaries ended up with me being involved in other people’s lives in ways that weren’t healthy and potentially disempowered them, and making decisions based on what other people thought I should do, rather than what I wanted for myself.

2. Being all boundaries

The thing about trying to help everyone you meet, and accepting nearly every idea or solution that someone offers you, is that you end up confused, overwhelmed and resentful.

You lose a sense of yourself, you become a kind of blurred existence, where your needs are indistinguishable from those of others.

Eventually, after a number of cycles of this, I came to realise that it was my lack of boundaries that was the problem, but without knowing what healthy boundaries looked like I simply turned it on its head.

I was allergic to others offering me help. Any time they did without asking me first or me requesting it I would feel angry and judgemental of them.

And if I saw someone struggling, I wouldn’t offer help. Instead I was more likely to leave them to it or even blame them for their own suffering.

This wasn’t a particularly pleasant way to live. It felt pretty lonely and judgey but it did feel like progress. I’d started to disentangle myself from this disconcerting rollercoaster of being pulled about by my experience of interacting with others and started to take control.

3. Developing healthy boundaries

Having healthy boundaries means knowing when to say yes, when to say no, and when to offer your time and energy to others.

For me, this had to start with listening to my needs and checking in on those of others.

If someone looked like they were struggling, I had to ask myself: is it really my place to step in here? And if I do, how do I make sure my help is wanted and needed?

More importantly, I had to check the need behind my urge to help. What am I feeling right now and how is that affecting my perception and intention? Am I just about to offer help because I feel uncomfortable that someone else is upset? What if they just need some time to process their difficult feelings? Whose need am I serving by stepping in?

And I had to check why I might turn down offers of help from others. Am I about to say no because I don’t want to seem weak? Or because I feel that the other person just wants to use the opportunity to make themselves feel good or knowledgeable?

Eventually I became better able to sit with my own ‘stuff’ when I saw someone was upset and, if I did want to ‘help’, I would always check for consent first, then focus my effort on listening not fixing.

If someone thought I was struggling, and offered to help by providing some kind of solution, I would pause to check whether this might actually be what I needed, and if I said yes, I did so without shame or resentment, knowing that I could turn that into a ‘no’ at any time I wanted.

How to start living with healthy boundaries

Nobody wants to be pulled from pillar to post by their interactions with others but if you’ve spent a long time living this way you might not know where to start.

Changing these seemingly hard-wired reactions might seem like a daunting or impossible task but every time you make a different decision, the feedback loop between your body and mind works to embed the learning, bit by bit.

Just having read this far and knowing the different ways of relating, might have been enough to initiate a change but these three little hacks, when practiced repeatedly, will nudge things in the right direction.

Stop helping and learn how to sit with discomfort

The biggest reason people struggle not to lean into other people’s lives is because they can’t deal with the feeling they get when they perceive others to be needing something.

But you need to recognise that no one wants your non-consensual help and, in the end, it won’t help them to resolve their situation.

Whatever you perceive the problem to be, it’s not your problem, it’s theirs. And whatever solution you put forward or foist upon them, it’s not their solution, it’s yours.

When you think you’re helping others there’s a very good chance you’re only helping yourself — to escape from the discomfort you feel at the idea of just witnessing or stepping back.

Instead of reacting, learn how to pause the moment you know you’re just about to slip into ‘helping’ mode.

Feel the feeling you get when you hold back.

Get close to it and recognise it for what it is. Not proof that you need to do something but simply a discomfort in your own body.

Take breath. Count to ten.

If you’re sure someone might need help, check for their consent first and make sure the other person feels safe to say ‘no’.

Stop saying yes and learn how to listen to your needs

The root of an unboundaried life is an inability to know what you want or need.

When we can’t identify what we want in a situation, we default to what we think someone else might think of our choice or what kind of outcome we don’t want.

This kind of life-as-risk-management is normal and you should have no shame if this is familiar to you. We have all been taught that what other people think or feel about us is very important and that if we make bad choices, then it will mess our lives up.

In my experience neither of these things are true (with exceptions, of course) — what you think and feel is far more important, and if you’re doing your best then every decision you make, even if it is imperfect, is going to take you a step closer to being more in control of your own experience.

Listening to your needs sounds simple but it’s a life-long practice. Practice recognising thoughts or feelings that stem from looking outside of yourself for reassurance or validation (the ‘external locus of evaluation’) and learn to ask: ‘What would be good for me?’

And if you really don’t know, the option is always available to not to do anything. As a very wise friend once told me “When you don’t know what to do, there’s nothing to do.

Learn the value of a gentle ‘no’

The hardest thing for someone who struggles with boundaries is saying — and hearing — a ‘no’.

When someone offers you something you don’t need, or tries to tell you what you should be doing practice hearing them out before calmly and clearly turning them down.

Feel your resistance to the idea of saying ‘no’ or perhaps your desperate rush to say it. Like I’ve explored here, sometimes we struggle to say no to anything and sometimes we just want to shove our ‘no’s down the throat of everyone who opens their mouth. Both are the same thing, a reaction based on a habitual behaviour or embedded belief.

The key here is to know that when you choose to do what’s right for you, you’re doing everyone a favour.

We’ve developed this idea that a ‘no’ is a negative thing. This is clearly bullshit.

No means not leading someone to use their precious time and energy in a way that’s not actually helping.

No means making an active and discerning choice for yourself. No means more space in your life for other things that will actually support you, which might just be more space.

And if you’re a habitual helper, practice hearing ‘no’ and not taking it personally. ‘No’ is the sounds of someone saying ‘thanks, but that’s not what I need’. ‘No’ is the sound of someone doing what’s best for them. Celebrate it.

Becoming boundaried

When we talk about boundaries, really we’re talking about our ability to listen for what’s good for us and to stand for that.

When we stop assuming others should know, instead taking responsibility for being clear and learning how to be firm with ourselves, first, then everything else will generally fall into place.

Boundaries are about delineation and agency — this is me, and I get to say what I need. That is you, and you get to say what you need.

The more we can act on these very simple ideas, the more we can respect each others’ right to exist in this way, the better able we are to serve ourselves and each other, in ways that feel good.

If this piece helped you today, there’s a good chance that you’ll get a lot from my six-week online course ‘Working with Healthy Conflict’

It pulls together ten years of learning and practice, built on my life-long exploration of how to deal with the trickiness of being human.

During July I’ve halved the cost of the course, to support everyone who’s working through the emotional and psychological impact of the pandemic.

Watch the trailer and find out more at www.howtofightwell.com

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Max St John

Max St John

Showing people the way home by connecting to what’s there and working with what is. Get clear, fight well, move naturally. www.maxstjohn.com

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