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How To Set Boundaries That Stick

When working with women clients one of the most frequent issues that comes up is boundaries and the lack thereof. As women, we seem more predisposed to saying yes, when we want to say no, to being polite and going along versus speaking up and saying what we really think and feel. Don’t get me wrong, men struggle with boundaries too, but heck, we're women and I wrote this piece first for a women's magazine.

I have my own struggle with boundaries. If you have followed any of my writing you know that I grew up with an Army Colonel dad. In his household there was little room to disagree or say, “You know, that yelling that you are doing right now? That really isn’t working for me. I’m gonna have to leave if you don’t stop.” To speak up like that was paramount to insubordination, which was met with, well, a strong counter attack. I grew up suppressing my real feelings, thoughts and wants in order to keep the peace and please my father.

Now, of course, that probably isn’t your experience. So maybe you’ll relate to one of my clients.

Georgia is an office manager for a small accounting business that is growing fast. While she loves the work she does Monday through Friday, her boss, the owner, continues to call her on the weekends for emergencies. She has yet to let her boss know the impact of his calls, reasoning that, clearly, it must be obvious.

Tammy’s parents divorced when she was twelve, but both still live in Sacramento. Tammy escaped to the Pacific Northwest and breathes easy having over 750 miles between her and her family. She reluctantly makes her annual pilgrimage home. When in Sacramento Tammy feels like the rope in a tug-of-war, each parent pulling on her, wanting more of her time. Tammy feels unable to speak up and share how extremely uncomfortable she feels.

Sharon has a dear friend who shares common interests in outdoor activities, books and shopping. However, her friend, having gone through a tough divorce, gets incredibly negative when it comes to men. When she starts complaining, Sharon feels like she is being sucked down a big, black hole and doesn’t know how to stop it.

If you relate to any of these gals, read on. Each is suffering from a lack of being able to boundary effectively in their key relationships.

What is a Boundary?

I frequently hear people say, “I just need to set better boundaries.” Then, when I hear what their “boundaries” are, they sound more like walls, demands or rules others must follow. Sorry gals, those are not boundaries.

So let’s first talk about what Boundaries are NOT:

  • They are not tacit. Boundaries do not exist in a relationship unless you speak them out loud, which hopefully starts a dialogue.

  • They are not about stopping, controlling or managing someone else’s behavior. Boundaries are about sharing your preferences in a relationship, which are often driven by your core values.

  • They are not about rules, obligations or threats. Instead, they are about making choices and are flexible in nature.

Boundaries are personal preferences that you take responsibility for and speak up about, all driven by your core values. They are unique to you and provide you a path for making choices. So let’s dive in.

Speaking Up

Boundaries are drawn when you define yourself and your preferences out loud. Unless you speak up and share your boundary, other people don’t know they exist. I know, you might think, “Well, isn’t it obvious?” From your point of view, yes, but the other person may have no idea they are bumping into your boundary. It is your responsibility – however intimidating it may be, to speak up and let the other person know or continue to suffer in silence.

Let’s see how Georgia tried dealing with the boss calling on the weekend. First, Georgia tried ignoring his calls, until the guilt got to her, at which point she would pick up the phone. Next, she scheduled weekend activities, hiking or camping where she didn’t have cell service. This left her tired and cranky. Finally, Georgia snapped.

Saturday when her boss called, she picked up the phone and blurted out “You can’t call me on the weekends!” However, because of the bad cell connection, her boss didn’t hear what she said. Georgia’s courage evaporated, and she carried on as if nothing was wrong.

That is when Georgia called me.

About Your Preferences

So the tricky part about boundaries is that they are not about someone else and their behavior. Really? Yes. They are about you and your preferences, driven by your core values.

When Tammy was visiting her tug-a-war parents, here is what happened. She was with her Mom when dad called, and Tammy reacted, “You have to stop calling me about visiting you when I am with Mom.”

Now, you might think this seems like an overreaction. While it is a strong, and maybe effective response, it is not a boundary. It is all about her dad and his behavior and we don’t know why that’s an issue for Tammy.

Sharon was so fed up with her friend’s complaining tirades about men that when she started in again, Sharon stood up and said, “I’ve had it! Stop being such a victim. You need to move on!” Sharon stormed out of the coffee shop, leaving a stunned and hurt friend alone with her latte.

I got the call from Sharon, in tears, about how she had ruined her relationship shortly thereafter.

How To Set A Boundary

The clients I work with often feel so proud “coming out of the boundary closet” that, as you can see in the three examples, when they finally do speak up, it is not a boundary, but, rather, a demand of how the other needs to change.

The key is slowing down and checking inside as to why is this behavior bothering you. What is the core value that you are bumping into? Once that is recognized it is much easier to make it about you rather than them.

Georgia with the weekend-calling boss needed to figure out what was driving her frustration. What core value was being bumped? Georgia realized that she valued rest and rejuvenation, which the weekend calls interrupted.

She gave it another try, “What I want you to know about me is that I am committed to this job. I give my full focus Monday through Friday. However, I notice you frequently call me over the weekends, which is not working for me. My commitment for my weekends is to rest and recover from the week. So my preference is that I don’t get calls on the weekend. How are you with that?”

The boss was surprised, but appreciated and seemed to respect Georgia’s clarity. He realized that he went into the weekends unprepared so he often called Georgia to fill in the blanks. To solve that issue, they agreed to have an early Friday morning meeting, to get him prepped for his weekend work. Georgia felt strong and empowered.

Tammy with the tug-a-war parents, realized that the crux of the issue was that she really valued focused quality time with each of her parents. So Tammy talked to both of her parents saying, “When I visit one parent, you each tend to call me with changing scheduled requests. I am uncomfortable trying to manage an emerging schedule. My preference is that we work out the schedule before the visit and then not vary it.”

While her dad agreed and stopped the behavior, her mom continued to both call and text while Tammy was with her dad. As a result, Tammy chose to turn off her phone while she was with her dad.

Sharon with the negative friend, realized that she valued self-responsibility, which was being bumped by listening to her friend continuously blame men for her problems. Here is what she said, “I realize that I got really upset and surprised you. What you probably don’t know, because I haven’t told you, is that I have a hard time being around you when you are venting about men. I am uncomfortable listening to what seems like complaining for too long, because then I think I have to fix it. ”

Her friend was hurt but could hear Sharon. Her friend countered with how important it was for her to vent. They agreed that Sharon would listen to her friend for five minutes, but then it was important for the conversation to move on. They had some bumps, but their system worked for them.

Bad News: Not Entitled

And ah, the bad news: You are not entitled to have your boundary accepted or valued by others. I know, that sucks, right? Well, we don’t get to control the world, which is what makes it interesting.

Remember, boundaries are not about changing the other person.

So Why Do It?

Well, because you matter.

Speaking up about how something is impacting you and what your preferences are – is you coming forward on your own behalf. Sure, that person may continue to do the behavior that isn’t working for you, and that is their choice. Then you have other choices you can make, like Tammy deciding to turn off her phone while visiting her dad.

Keep in mind that when you speak up, stating your boundary, that is only the start of the dialogue. If you can remain curious and open about the other person, you will be amazed at how you may influence each other.

As for me, I have to admit that I still initially make it about other person’s behavior. I know, I know. Kettle, black. This comes from years of repressing what I felt and trying to manage or control others. These days, my partner Susan is the benefactor of my managing behavior. The good news is, she usually is quick to point out how much I am talking about her “wrong behavior” without sharing what is important to me. Her reflection quickly puts me back in my own shoes, where I get to figure out what core value is being bumped, and then we start to chat.

And in the famous word of Mick Jagger, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try real hard, you just might find, you get what you need.” Sing it with me!

CrisMarie Campbell and Susan Clarke are Master certified life coaches, business consultants, speakers and authors of The Beauty of Conflict. They believe real relationships are the key to creating great business results. They’ll take your team from mediocre to great.

Interested in coaching? Check out CrisMarie’s executive coaching and personal coaching, or Susan’s personal coaching and equus coaching.

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