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Establish your boundaries

I realised this week that I see a lot of discussion about establishing boundaries and how critical this is for your wellbeing, but not a lot of discourse on how to work out what your boundaries are.

If you’ve grown up in a certain way, if you’re a people pleaser, if you have been in toxic relationships (and I include work relationships within that), you may have lost sense of what boundaries you need. Here’s a couple of tips on how to understand where you need boundaries.

Think about situations you dread. It could be a phone call from a particular ‘friend’ that you know will always end up with you being asked to do something, a meeting with a colleague where you seem to take more actions, a conversation with a family member where you feel that you have to explain and talk about more of your life than you feel comfortable with. That sense of dread or nervousness is giving you a good indication of someone pushing on a boundary you’ve maybe not even fully recognised yourself.

Imagine what a better outcome to this situation is. That you don’t end up doing an extra shift, or baking two dozen cupcakes, or discussing aspects of your life you don’t want to. Know the outcome of the boundary you want to put in place.

Come up with at least 5 different ways of this happening and then order them 1-5 in your order of comfort. I guarantee that there’s not one of them that you feel totally comfortable with or you would be doing it already. You’ll probably have a really direct intervention as your least preferable; something like ‘No’ or ‘I don’t want to discuss that’. Think of these as goals to build towards. At the other end of the scale you may have things like deflection or delay.

Practice a key phrase. Sometimes the reason we say yes to something we don’t want to do is because it is easier than figuring out a way to politely and non-confrontationally say no. Whilst I do want to remind you that saying no is not rude or confrontational, if yes is your default setting, you might want a different phrase to use instead. It could be something like ‘I’m only going to be able to do that if I have another shift off instead’, ‘I’m already doing x so I won’t be able to do y as well’, or (one I saw recently) ‘My plate is as full as I would like it to be right now’. You don’t have to give any reason for saying no, but if you’re not already doing that, the likelihood of changing an always-yes to a flat-out no in one step, is very small. In terms of people breaching boundaries of privacy, your phrase may be ‘That’s too long a story for now’, ‘Oh, I don’t want to get into that now’ or ‘Meh, it’s done, I don’t want to overthink it.’

Keep practising this. Say it out loud, say it to other people, role play situations. You have to actively really want to change it, to put new boundaries in place, to make that change.

Don’t be put off by negative responses. I’m sure you’ve all seen the quote ‘The people who react to you establishing boundaries are those that benefit from you having none’. It’s true. In all likelihood, the people who lean on your boundaries are unaware that they are doing so. When you change your behaviour, they don’t know why and they don’t like it because your new behaviour is less helpful to them. That’s on them. But their reaction may be hard on you. But it’s only going to be hard on you in the short term and the long term benefit of having your boundaries in place are vast. So don’t give up if it feels horrible the first couple of times.

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