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How Setting Boundaries Can Set You Free

Boundary: noun, plural boundaries.

1. something that indicates bounds or limits; a limiting or bounding line.

Let me first say that I kind of suck at setting boundaries, but have been recently reminded of how important they can be to creating personal freedom. In general, most of us probably recognize the value of boundaries. Kids need them for safety and support while they test their (and yours!) limits. We know that kids who grow up without boundaries, or in a “permissive” environment, experience lower self-esteem. On the athletic field, boundaries define a space and the associated rules for the game. No boundaries = chaos. Businesses set policies to limit their risk exposure and to clearly communicate what they will and won’t accept in terms of behavior so everyone can get along.

If boundaries are so helpful, why is it so hard for some of us to set, maintain and respect them?

If you happen to be a helper-giver-fixer-people-pleaser, it can be really hard to say, “No,” to requests for help. You want to help. It’s how you express love. It’s a strong value of yours. It’s what you taught to do to be a good citizen. It may even give you energy.

But at some point, there are too many requests, or a line gets crossed, and that’s when things go bad. Does this sound familiar?

Someone crosses a boundary you may not even know you had, and your response is to be angry, resentful—and then because you’re a good helper and team player—you feel guilty about being mad and resentful. And then you spend some time analyzing (Am I right to react this way? It’s really the other person’s fault, right?) and rationalizing and just trying to rid yourself of all of these icky feelings because what you really want to feel is peace, love, and happiness because, at heart, you’re a helper.

Often the reason we relax or don’t set boundaries is because we want to be liked, accepted or approved of. Those are powerful, universal feelings and they can be difficult to ignore. However, there’s an error in thinking that we impose on ourselves:

“If I say ‘Yes,’ do this favor, etc. then I will be liked, approved of, even loved.

And sometimes it’s true that you will get approval for all your good deeds. You will be liked. Until you have nothing left, you’re burnt out and crabby. A very wise person once asked me, “You’re going to pay either way. Which way would you rather pay?” Did I want to be liked—and also crabby, resentful and a real pain to be around? Or did I want to be happy?

Back in the day I was a high school English teacher way, and I am sorry to say that my desire to be liked and to avoid confrontation made me relax my boundaries and rules. As a result, my classroom was a little, shall we say, unruly. And it was exhausting just trying to get kids to be quiet so I could explain what we were doing that day. Students didn’t like me more because of ever-changing rules—if anything, they respected me less and were disappointed. It’s no fun watching someone you like letting their boundaries get trampled.

The truth is, people like you for you. And that is freedom.

You may get accolades for always being the yes-person, but there’s a price to pay. In relationships. In sleep. In health. In finances. In productivity.

If you want some great examples of how to say “No” at work, check out this article by Behance.

Another very wise person explained it to me this way: If you set no bounds around your energy expenditure (e.g., commitments), then there’s nothing to contain it, and it dissipates. Poof!

If setting boundaries is a challenge for you, what’s the price you’re paying right now? What’s the thinking pattern that causes you to relax your rules? How would your life be different if you could set and maintain your boundaries?

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