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3 Tips That Help Me Set Boundaries

The current pandemic has forced people to do things that would have seemed unimaginable five months ago: homeschooling their children, working from home, cancelling weddings, vacations and special events, etc. Among all the things people are being compelled to do, there is one behavior that seems to be universal: Set boundaries.

With the lives of our friends and families at stake, people are suddenly feeling the importance of setting clear boundaries and navigating the touchy process of communicating them to others.

This morning I was walking a friend’s dog in town and a woman crossed the street asking if she could pet him. As she closed the 20 feet separating us, a thousand factors were running through my head. The woman just walked out of a B & B, which means she is a temporary visitor. The owner of the dog is in the high-risk category. The woman had a mask on, but it was not covering her nose. (I’ll never understand this.) I was listening to a podcast that I did not feel like pausing. The woman was friendly, and to her credit, did ask if she could pet the dog. So I had the opportunity to say no.

Before I knew it, I found myself saying a hesitant, “Sure,” as I let Bo out to the end of the leash giving me and the woman a scant six feet distance. She said a quick hello and we went on our way.

I walked away flustered and angry that the woman had the gall to ask to pet someone’s dog at a time like this. Has she not watched the news? Doesn’t she understand social distancing? Did she arrive here from another planet?

And then I heard my therapist’s voice ask me, “Why didn’t you feel like you had permission to say no?”

There you have it. The root of my anger, frustration and anxiety around setting boundaries is that a piece of me still has a hard time giving myself permission to do it. All those emotions are really directed at me. At my lack of action.

Despite this momentary slip up, I’ve actually become quite proficient at setting boundaries and respecting them.

Here are a few tips I’ve learned along the way that might be helpful if you’re having a hard time.

Figure out what your boundaries are:

Many people who would describe themselves as a “pushover” don’t know how they ended up this way or where things went wrong. It’s likely they can’t pinpoint when people started crossing the line in the sand because there was never a line drawn. You can’t expect people to respect boundaries that don’t exist.

When I started my first business, I was so worried about making money and getting clients, I never took time to set parameters and limits on what services I offered. I catered to every request and answered every phone call. I ended up resentful and exhausted.

Eventually I righted the ship and developed a clear sense of which clients to accept and which clients to turn away, but it was bumpy ride.

I discovered that it’s easier to start with boundaries in place from the beginning than to try introducing them into an existing relationship. Which brings me to my next tip...

Set boundaries the way you vote: Early and often.

Don’t wait for a conflict to arise. Get out in front of it by establishing your deal-breakers and preferences right from the start. It gives you a point of reference if you feel that things are starting to get out of hand. Saying no can be easier when you are clear on what you're saying “yes” to.

On my dog walk this morning, I might have been able to respond more quickly and confidently if I was focused on the health of my friend, the importance of wearing masks, and respecting my personal time. When I can see clearly where the lines are, I know when someone is crossing them.

Practice makes better:

As my present slip up demonstrates, learning to set boundaries is an ongoing process that takes practice. That being said, it does get easier. If this scenario happened five years ago, I would have giggled and smiled through the encounter then walked away cursing the woman for her audacity and rudeness. I would have completely missed my complicity in the situation.

In many other situations, I find I’m more often successful than not in letting people know when they are infringing on my space and time.

“But people are so volatile right now!!!”

I acknowledge that in the current times tensions are high and there is plenty of shame, blame and fear going around. Yet I think the rules hold up. Here are some questions to help you think about them in the present context.

Figure out what your boundaries are:

  • What factors are important in determining your boundaries?

  • What precautions are you following and when?

  • What precautions do you expect others to follow when they are in your presence?

Set boundaries early and often:

  • Who do you need to inform of these boundaries?

  • What is the language your will use to inform people of your boundaries?

  • How can you learn what others’ boundaries are?

Practice makes better:

  • What are moments when you feel your boundaries weren’t respected and what will you do next time?

  • What have been successful moments when you asserted your boundaries?

  • What are small actions you can take to establish your boundaries?

It can be stressful for many people to do this work, especially for those or avoid conflict and confrontation at all cost. In my experience, when I ask someone to honor a line I have drawn or support a decision I’ve made, their response is very telling of our friendship. The ones who push back and negotiate are the ones who always seem to bumping up against my boundaries (and patience.) The ones who graciously acknowledge my request are those who I rarely need to be told.

“The only people who get upset about you setting boundaries

are the ones who are benefiting from you not having any.”

~ Unkown.

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