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How to set boundaries

Do you struggle to set boundaries?

You might struggle to set boundaries if:

  • you have a schedule full of obligations or events, but few excite you;

  • your work constantly bleeds into your personal time; or

  • you say "yes" to people and things that you know are unhealthy for you.

If you identified with an example above, or you simply know you need help setting or reinforcing personal boundaries, I have great news! Setting and maintaining boundaries – saying “no” or enforcing your standards and values – is a skill that can be learned at any life stage.

Not only will boundary-setting increase your self-esteem, you may find yourself with more time, energy, money, and inner peace!

Let's get started drawing lines in the proverbial sand, shall we?

What are boundaries?

Boundaries began as literal property lines defining territorial or spatial areas. See the Oxford English Dictionary, defining “boundary” (noun) as “a line that marks the limits of an area; a dividing line.” Example: "the eastern boundary of the wilderness."

While we still use the word to describe property limits, today's typical "boundary" discussion frequently involves much more personal and emotional tones such as how others are treating and respecting (or - more often - not respecting) our feelings, time, and personal space.

Indeed, the topic usually arises with friends and clients who feel another person has disrespected them and the need to "establish a boundary" with that person. By "establishing a boundary" with someone else, they typically mean having a firm conversation with the person about what he/she can or cannot do around the boundary-drawer. But this type of boundary-drawing is not, in my opinion, the first and most important step in establishing boundaries.

What is the first and most important step in establishing boundaries?

Start with yourself.

Boundaries determine what you do. You are responsible for upholding whatever internal boundaries you set for and upon yourself.*

*I’m not saying that you will never communicate your boundaries to others; that is part of boundary-setting and something we'll explore separately.

As a recovering people-pleaser, I used to frequently “go along” with what other people wanted, often disregarding my own desires and well-being.

Why would I say "yes" to doing that thing that my gut told me wasn't right for me? A few reasons, one of which - and our focus for today - was that I lacked clarity on my values.

What are your highest values?

I consider my highest values my life non-negotiables or deal-breakers. Today, my top three values are service, relationships, and health. We could break these broad umbrella values into myriad examples and smaller bites, but when I'm unclear how to proceed, knowing these three helps me reorient and align my actions with what's best for me.

Here's a personal example of how knowing and following my top values helps me set boundaries:

A huge component of my personal "health" value is my relationship with food and my physical body. (If health is a top value for you, you may define it differently.) I've worked very hard for more than a decade to heal my relationship with my body and to learn to eat healthfully and in a manner that works for me.

Part of honoring my personal health value is to eat when and what I want and not to eat something just to please someone else. (This boundary shows up big-time during the holidays, with so much blatant emphasis on over-indulging.)

How do I maintain my boundary in the real world? Am I standoffish, anti-social, or overly rigid or restrictive when I honor my food boundaries? No! I go out to eat frequently. I enjoy cooking and trying lots of different types of foods. I order dessert, French fries, and steak. And I feel good about my food choices . . . because they are my choices.

In my people-pleasing days, I'd order a burger at the burger place because that's what you do at a burger place and everyone else is having one, so I'll just go along and do the same so I don't stick out, even though I don't really want a burger . . . And then I'd feel yucky later because I ate something that didn't sound, look, or maybe even taste good to me, but most importantly - that I didn't want to eat in the first place. I hadn't trusted my (literal) gut and honored my body's desire for something different.

Today, I'll go to a burger place and order what sounds best to me, regardless of what everyone else is ordering. I can say "no" to the cheese fries (although I'm usually a "heck yes" for any type of fry!), order a salad, and feel comfortable about my choice, even if someone comments on it. If I wanted a burger, I'd have ordered one, thanks very much!

How does all of this tie into setting boundaries to protect your big-picture values?

Despite how it may sound, my "eat what I want" boundary does not arise from weight concerns. Rather, it springs from my desire to be as mentally and emotionally healthy as possible.

When I went along with what everyone else did, even if it didn't feel right for me, I was mentally and emotionally unhealthy. I regularly disrespected myself. And I suffered physical, mental, and emotional consequences.

Today, when I honor what feels right for me, I demonstrate to myself that I respect myself. This is how we build self-esteem, and it is the first step in setting boundaries.

If I'm not honoring my own boundaries, how can I reasonably expect to share and enforce them with you?

How can you begin to set and maintain healthy boundaries?

Practical Application: Developing awareness of value misalignment

Reflect on and write (pen to paper is best!) your answers to the following:

  • Over the past week, have you said "yes" or gone along with something that didn't feel right to you? Write about it.

  • What didn't feel right about the situation?

  • What were you hoping to gain from saying "yes"/going along with it?

  • What was the result?

  • If you'd trusted your gut and said "no," what might have happened?

  • Is there a personal value you undermined by saying "yes"? Which one?

  • How could you better honor that personal value next time? (This may be a boundary for you to implement!)

Finally, make a point to practice honoring your personal value! With so many holiday events and family gatherings this time of year, you'll probably have ample opportunities to clarify and honor your values by setting personal boundaries for yourself.

As a recovering people-pleaser who put myself into all sorts of ridiculous situations that were totally misaligned with my true values and desires, I love working with others who struggle to set and maintain boundaries. If this is you and you’d like some help boundary-building, schedule a Complimentary Clarity Call today!

Rooting for you,


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