Boundarylessness is at the root of so many interpersonal issues it would take an encyclopedia to list them all, and still we wouldn’t be done. And here’s the root cause of the root: not having enough clarity about what you really want, and not believing you can have it. That you don’t matter enough.
Which brings me to “Boundary Myth #1”.
Myth #1: Setting Boundaries Is Hard (as in too hard for little ole me)
The Naked Truth: If you clearly know what outcome you are creating, setting boundaries is very straightforward and unemotional. You value your future self as much as your now self.
When I was a kid, I loved to ski. ⛷ On an average teenage school day, getting me out of bed took an alarm, several kind-tone wake-up attempts by my mother, and then the final pulling of covers off the bed with not-so-kind-tone exhortations. On ski days--which started much, much, much! earlier--I was out of bed before the alarm went off. One thing I wanted to do, so it was easy--even though earlier and therefore harder--the other I did not want to do, so it was hard. Same activity, different context.
Same principle goes with setting boundaries. If you are REALLY clear on what you want, AND you are aligned with that outcome, it’s quite easy to motivate yourself to have conversations that you otherwise might avoid. You change the focus to be about your creative intention and the actions become much more obvious.
The problem is that people often go to set a boundary from the same dynamic as the problem exists. In other words, they are in the drama, a.k.a. “victim orientation” (more on that coming in another article series). The communications they can conceive of making feel aggressive or otherwise unaligned because they are sourced in the drama dynamic.
As Einstein said, “We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them”.
When we shift ourselves out of drama into “outcome orientation”--into an empowered stance--the right moves and what to say becomes a whole lot clearer and we feel aligned and motivated to do it.
That requires that we actually know what we want long term. Sometimes what you really want is hidden underneath a few layers of shoulds, so you might need to pause and get still, or talk to an ally before addressing the situation. That’s why a big focus of my “Empowered Boundaries” online course is the art of using a tool called “The Outcome Frame.” It helps you dig down past superficial urges to core, meaningful desires.
Once you have clarity, boundary setting is like getting up super early to do something you want to do, it may be harder, but it’s easier.
Boundary Myth Buster Tip: get clear on what you really want (a few layers in) before deciding what to do.
And Remember: You Matter.
Have you ever had someone dance around and give you a bunch of lame excuses why they couldn’t do something? Or worse yet continue on doing something that you eventually learned they didn’t feel good about doing. It’s a terrible feeling isn’t it? You wonder why they don’t just say “no”?
And yet, how many times do you say “yes” just to keep the peace? How many times do you just keep doing something out of inertia, when it’s not actually creating a positive outcome? Or get involved in long explanations of the reason you can’t do this or why that won’t work as well as blah de blah…
I hate when I catch myself squirming.
Underlying the squirming and passivity is “Boundary Myth #2.
Myth #2: Saying “no” is mean.
Translation of belief that underlies this myth: "I’m responsible for other people (for their feelings, their success, their experience), so I can’t say 'no'".
The Naked Truth: If it’s a “no”, the kindest and most respectful thing to do is to communicate that clearly as soon as you know.
I like Oprah’s suggestion for saying no respectfully: “No, that doesn’t work for me.”
And then stop talking. That’s the hard part for me. No excuses, no explanation necessary.
When I introduce this to participants in my “Empowered Boundaries” class, I often get a lot of pushback, mostly from the people whose natural tendency is to participate in the drama of life from the “Rescuer” stance. They don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.
My experience is that the fewer words I use to explain my “no”, the more respected the person feels. They can move on and solve their problem a different way. Saying “no” cleanly is actually more respectful of another person’s ability to solve their own problems. It’s the dancing around and half commitments that are exhausting for everyone.
If it’s your boss, you may have to be willing to renegotiate priorities, but you need to do it from a place of understanding and communicating what you want to focus on, and what the organization needs. If this happens routinely, then we have a different problem. Articulating your “no” allows you to know what problem you actually have.
When you have clarity, saying “no” is actually saying “yes” to your priorities. You are saying “Yes, I matter. My work matters. My time matters. My likes and dislikes matter.” Your focus is on the outcome you are creating and you feel empowered.
You are saying “YES!” to LIFE.
We all need a safe space to get non-judgemental feedback on how we are currently holding ourselves, and a chance to practice something new. That's why I created the horse assisted workshop Horse Sense: the Energy of Healthy Boundaries.
Boundary Myth Buster Tip: if it’s not a “Hell Yes!” Then it’s a “no”. The more immediately and simply you communicate the “no”, the better for everyone involved.
And Remember: You Matter.
One of the most common bugaboos around boundaries is this one, “Boundary Myth #3”.
Myth #3: If I set a boundary, if I assert a preference they don’t like...they won’t like me (and I’ll be alooooooone, FOREVER).
The Problem: If you don’t set boundaries, if you don’t articulate your needs and wants and preferences, no-one knows who you really are. So you’ll feel alone whether you’re with people or not. And meanwhile, you are exhausting yourself and everyone around you.
The Naked Truth: When you assert yourself, you don't lose the relationship, you strengthen it (or it’s a bad relationship).
Respect ==> Trust and Intimacy
It drives me crazy when I ask someone what time they want to meet, or what restaurant they want to go to or some question about preferences . . . and they reply with “I don’t know, what do you want?”
They’ve just put the responsibility for the decision back on me. It’s tiring to be around.
The same syndrome can also manifest as the self-talk of wondering/guessing what the other person wants and trying to do that, instead of what you actually want. It drives me crazy and yet I’ve been known to do just that thing in certain circumstances. Eew. It’s reactive over-compliance internally referenced as “being nice”. Double Eew.
It’s the opposite of self-leadership.
The worst part about it is that if this is constantly the pattern, the other person will stop asking your preferences, and eventually, you will have a complaint like “they are so bossy, they never listen”. Well, what came first? The chicken or the egg?
Kids who grow up with a lot of “shoulds” often have this issue as adults--especially if they are the youngest of several siblings. There’s a lot of deeper work to do to help with this tendency, and if you recognize yourself in this description, here’s something small you can do to get the healing started and begin taking responsibility for your own self-leadership.
Start by simply noticing what you like and don’t like during the day. You can do it silently and when you are willing to vocalize your preferences, that helps even more. It can be simple stuff. I don’t like these curtains. I like the taste of this toothpaste. It’s a neutral statement with no expectations of change.
Life involves other people and there are negotiations, but it’s important to know and vocalize preferences. If you’re in a situation where some negotiation might be appropriate, instead of “I don’t know” say “I prefer xxxxx, what about you?”
If you are pretty confident in expressing your druthers but are interacting with someone who has lost their core in this way, take a breath. If possible, inject a little time and space into the interaction so that they can find themselves. Recognize that they have a muscle that needs to be developed and keep your energy cleanly out of it, just like you would if they were out of shape. Not your responsibility to help them develop and not an opportunity to dominate.
Boundary Myth Buster Tip: State your preferences and be willing to negotiate from a place where you know what you like/want, for you. This one is about sovereignty over your own experience.
And Remember: You Matter.
So far we have only discussed boundary violations from the point of view of feeling that someone else crossed your boundary. But what about when you are the aggressor?
Oh no, not me. I’m nice
Here’s what I know. Boundarylessness is about drama and the roles in the drama triangle change really really rapidly and constantly. Guaranteed there are situations in which other people think of you as the persecutor.
Yep, you. And yep, me. We are ALL guilty. And claiming responsibility is actually an act of empowerment.
Which brings us to Boundary Myth #4.
Myth #4: Only my way works.
Variation: I'm the only adult in the room.
The Naked Truth: There’s a difference between challenging people and trying to control them.
Challenging is about leadership and involves as much active listening as speaking. It’s about creating agreements and following up on them. It’s about holding the other person as a basically good person and working out any problems without going into judgement. When you are in an empowered stance your energy is focused on moving with intention towards the the things that are yours to do. Other people (or horses!) are invited to follow. Other people might be asked to do a task but it is their choice and the consequences of doing or not doing are theirs.
Controlling is about domination. Controlling has implicit expectations that have not been formed into agreements. Weirdly your internal dialogue might feel weak, like you are begging or even the victim. But the paradigm is win-lose and your survival instinct is trying to win. You want to be right and be seen as being right.
Check your energy to know which you are doing. Is your energy contained but open? (you are challenging, yay!) Or is it feeling manipulative? Is there an edge to it? Does it mean something about you, if they don’t do x? Have you assumed ownership of their problem? (you are being controlling, rut row!)
Boundary Myth Buster Tip: If people are not “being accountable” check your energy. You might need to (re)negotiate agreements.
And Remember: You Matter.
The first thing that comes to mind when we think of a lack of healthy boundaries is when we overextend ourselves, usually in order to please others, and feel trapped into doing “too much”. Like we are the only givers in a world of takers.
But organizationally, boundarylessness can take other forms. It can be a lack of defined roles and a lack of work agreements leading to conflict between team members. It can be a “boss from hell”. It can be a lack of systems so that promises made are not kept in spite of good intentions. It can be a lack of communication skills on our part (ouch! I hate when three fingers are pointing back at me).
Boundary Myth #5: I don’t matter.
Variation: You matter more than me.
The Naked Truth: You matter. You absolutely have a purpose in this life and you matter.
And that means your not speaking up to assert healthy boundaries matters--and not in a good way.
Think of setting boundaries like having a yard. Your yard has a fence and you get to decide what goes on in your yard. To be able to focus on your own yard, and make it into the best yard ever for you, you need to have set up and articulated the boundaries and made sure there aren’t any big gaping holes in your fence.
You need the time and space to articulate what you actually want in your yard. What feels fully aligned for you. What has heart and meaning. That's why when I teach self-leadership, I teach both the foundational skills of healthy boundary setting and getting to clarity/finding core alignment. These are like two sides to the same coin of mattering.
That way you can let the good in and keep the bad out. And not vice versa!
Boundary violations not only occur when you don’t mind your fence, they also occur when you are busy meddling in someone else’s yard. And that includes doing their work, solving their problems. The motivation might be for good, but the truth is you are outside of your yard physically or energetically and that’s when things get messy. In the long-term allowing boundary violations helps no-one.
Yards and fences (boundaries) have gates. Being over-boundaried, not letting anyone in, is also a problem. When you have healthy, empowered boundaries you get to decide who you let in, for how long, and what goes on in your yard.
And, you get to change your mind.
Boundary Myth Buster Tip: Decide slowly...respond quickly. In other words, take a breath to pause and plan--insert time--when responding to requests. If you realize you agreed to something that doesn’t work, renegotiate as soon as possible. When there’s been a boundary violation address it immediately, as soon as you become aware.
Always Remember: You Matter. Your needs matter. Your contribution matters. Your time matters. Your likes and dislikes matter. Your purpose matters. You Matter.