Setting, Keeping and Not Feeling Guilty About Your Boundaries

boundaries

Are you guilty of talking about your boundaries only AFTER they’ve been crossed? You’re not alone. 

What Does Boundary Crossing Look Like?

One of my clients checks her 22-year-old daughter’s text messages for grammar before she sends them to her professors. 

Another has paid her 24-year-old son’s rent three times so he doesn’t get evicted. Her son has a degree in computer science and a job that can easily afford his $1,000 a month rent.  

Yet another continues forgiving a cheating partner even though she wants to be in a monogamous relationship. 

 These are intelligent, hardworking, incredible women. They make outstanding decisions in other parts of their lives and if you met them, you would never in a million years place them in these situations. It’s not that these women aren’t smart—they lack boundaries. They love people hard and when they love someone, they struggle to tell them no.

When I think about these women, I think about protection. When you are grammar checking your daughter’s text messages, paying your perfectly capable son’s rent and choosing to spend time with someone who continually trounces your values, you’re not protecting yourself. You are not standing up for your own values and saying, nope, sorry this doesn’t work for me. 

Creating parameters around your values is how you create boundaries. Boundaries establish how other people interact with you, what you’re willing to do for them and how far they can push you. Think of boundaries as invisible lines around your emotions, your values, your actions and your desires. 

Boundaries are very personal and differ widely from one person to another. What works for me, isn’t going to work for you. A hard stop for you might be something that doesn’t bother me at all. It doesn’t matter what your boundaries are or how they’re different from your sister’s or best friend’s. What matters is that if you fail to have strong boundaries or don’t enforce your boundaries, people can treat you however they feel like treating you. They can monopolize your time, convince you to do things that don’t sit well with you and they can put you in situations that are emotionally damaging for you. If you’ve ever felt as if people “run you over,” don’t pay attention to your needs/wants, or disregard your feelings, it’s time to check in with your boundaries. 

How Does Boundary Breaking Happen?

Boundaries are funny things. Some people are taught to establish them early in life. People who know how to do this include the friend who has been telling you since go what she expects from you and when you’ve wronged her. This person never hesitates to say, “Hey,I love you, but that doesn’t feel good to me.” Other people don’t even know what a boundary is. Others still, feel confident in their boundaries for years only to wake up one day and think, “well what the hell happened to my boundaries?” That last scenario is what happened to me. 

When I was young, I was a fireball. Even though I never would have identified my boundaries as “boundaries,” I had strong ones. I knew what I wanted for myself and from others, I knew what I considered acceptable behavior and I had no problem walking away from people or situations that violated those boundaries. 

But something happened when I turned 25.

At 25, I started working for a large and powerful law firm. I worked 60-80 hours a week as a litigator. My time was definitely not my own, but I thought “hey, they’re paying me six figures out of law school, I’ll just do what I need to do.”

I didn’t even think about the conditioning behind that mentality or whether it worked for me. I just did it. 

On our 50-person team, there was only one female partner. She was in the room when one of the other partners—an older male—gave me the review that brought me back to my boundaries. We had these reviews every six months and mine were always excellent. During this review, something felt different. My instincts, of course, were correct. The male partner started off by saying that everything was fine. I’d done well that year and they had nothing negative to say about my performance. But then the bomb dropped.

“Everyone thinks you’re great and likes working with, but…”

As he told me some story about not quite being able to put his finger on it, but he thought I wasn’t as committed as I needed to be, I watched the female partner’s face just drop. Her male counterpart was doing to me what he had done to so many of the other young woman who had worked at the firm. As soon as the young women got married (they knew I was in a relationship), he would fire them in this passive aggressive way assuming that “family life” would drastically interfere with their commitment to the firm.

I had recently taken a week off of work to have a surgery related to endometriosis. Now, I had never taken a period of time off of work previously. I had missed more vacations that I can count, but I had to deal with a health issue and so I took some time. During the week that I had off, I got emails from the partners 24/7 that said things like “I hope you’re enjoying your week off. Can you help with x, y, z?” So I worked while I was recovering and in pain. When I returned to the office, my hormones where totally out-of-control so behind closed doors, I would often burst into tears. I remember telling one of my girlfriends, “Everyone in this office is mean to me every damn day. Why is it bothering me now?” Well it was bothering because my hormones were all over the place. However, I didn’t let this side of me show. By simply being in a relationship and taking time off of work, the partners assumed I was no longer committed to my job. After I reiterated over and over again that I was still committed, I left that office, found a new job within a week and never looked back. 

The funny thing about boundaries is that sometimes you don’t know they’ve been crossed or that they’re missing until they’re violated. 

An Ever-Changing Process

I’m not sure why, but I have an easier time setting boundaries in my personal life than I do in my professional life. Because I can take a lot from people, I often let things that bother me go for too long. Then I’ll wake up and have a “why am I taking this shit” kind of moment? When you set and stick to your boundaries from the beginning, these moments happen less frequently. 

If you find yourself setting and sticking to boundaries in one area, dissect what you’re doing in that area to set and stick to boundaries and try to do the same in other areas of your life. Establishing and voicing boundaries is a practice.

For me, the giant hurdle with boundaries isn’t setting them, it’s sticking to them and not feeling guilty about it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve drawn a hard line with someone who has crossed a boundary and then tossed and turned at night thinking, “Was I too harsh? Was the right move?” The answer is yes. If someone crosses your boundary, you don’t need to feel guilty about it. 

These are some of my favorite tips for setting boundaries:

  1. Be firm but kind. Saying no or this doesn’t work for me can be hard for women because we don’t want to “be mean,” but there are a million ways to say what you need without aggression.
  2. Set them early. When people know what your boundaries are up front, they know the parameters they can work within. Too many times we fail to tell people what our boundaries are and then expect them to miraculously follow them.
  3. Say no and mean it. If something feels like it’s crossing a boundary or moving into space and you don’t want it to, pass. 

 

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