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Three steps to better boundaries

Updated: Jun 22, 2022

Boundaries are an important part of looking after ourselves. But I regularly speak to clients who have got themselves tied up into knots about how to manage other people's expectations, and what they should and shouldn’t be “allowing” in their lives.

As with many things, the best way to approach this is to take a step back and look at the issue with fresh eyes. So I’ve identified three steps to better managing your boundaries.

Step 1: Reframe

The first thing you need to do is reframe how you approach boundaries. Too often we see them in terms of barriers we put up to keep certain things (overwork, toxic behaviour, stress) out. But, really, boundaries are about putting up a barrier to protect what’s important to us.

What is it that matters most to you, that will most ensure you have the balance you want in your life? And what do you need to put in place to make sure that you have enough?

A useful phase to help articulate this is “I need X to do Y.” If spending time with your family matters, then you could tell yourself “I need to make sure I finish work on time so that I can put my children to bed.”

Step 2: Be really clear

This reframing makes it easier to approach the next step, which is being able to set out your boundaries really clearly.

I often suggest clients do this by drawing two columns on a piece of paper headed “OK” and “Not OK”.

Try to be as specific as you can. For example, working late occasionally on a big project is OK, but missing bedtime more than twice a week isn’t. A friend snapping at you when they’re having a tough time might be ok, but putting you down isn’t.

Everyone’s lists will be different. The important thing is to think as clearly as possible about where your red lines are and why.

Now is also the time to be honest with yourself about what it is that trips you up. Do you say yes because you are a people pleaser? Or because you worry that you’ll miss out on something if you say no? Are you afraid of conflict? Understanding what is driving your behaviour is really important in being able to tackle it.

Step 3: Practice

Now that you have a really clear sense of what your boundaries are and why, it’s time to stick to them. And the key to that is practice.

Start small and build up. Here are some ideas:

  • Start by saying no to those close to you more often. You may be surprised by how they react (or don’t react!).

  • Focus on one area of your life at a time, for example making time to exercise, and use the success there to motivate you to move on to the next.

  • If you find it difficult to say “no”, find alternatives: “I haven’t got time for that this week, could it wait until next week?” or “I’d love to, but I’m already committed to something that day.” or “I can’t do that because I need to do this.

Very few of us manage to get it right all the time, but protecting your own mental and physical well-being is well worth putting in a bit of effort.

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