Episode #37: 8 Tips for Setting Boundaries for Better Relationships

Flower growing between white fence posts

Setting and holding clear boundaries allows us to support our well-being and the well-being of those around us. When I reflect on my own crash and burn, I can see clearly that my lack of boundaries led me to push myself to my ultimate limits, until my only option, as I understood it, was to throw grenades into certain areas of my life and relationships. I couldn’t survive that way anymore. And I was not the only casualty. This episode explores lessons I have learned (and continue to learn) about how to set boundaries in support of healthier personal relationships.

TRANSCRIPT

Intro

Welcome to the Freedom from Empty Podcast: Building Strong, Effective, Resilient Leaders and Humans. My name is Booth Andrews, and I am your host. Thank you so much for joining me for this episode. 

Transcript

“Resentment is what happens when we say ‘yes’ when we should have said ‘no.’” I saw this quote recently, and while I cannot remember the source, it rang so very true for me!!

This episode explores tips for setting personal boundaries aka saying “no” when we need to say “no.”

When I was growing up, boundaries were not an option. We were not allowed to say “no.” We were not allowed to protect or defend ourselves. We were held responsible for everything. If we were unsafe or unloved or deemed unlovable or not taken care of and protected. That was all our fault. If a grown up was angry or in a bad mood, that was our fault too. And if something was wrong, it was our job to fix it! We were taught to suck it up and shut up. 

I would like to say that I am the only one who wasn’t taught (or allowed) to set personal boundaries, but the truth is that many of us were not taught (or allowed) to develop this incredibly important skill as children. Indeed, we were hard-wired to please, to say yes, to fix, to perform, and to ruffle as few feathers as possible. 

In hindsight, my own lack of personal and professional boundaries not only led to my crash and burn and my chronic mental health condition, but also to seething anger and resentment that ultimately prompted me to act outside of my own values. 

My lack of boundaries led me to push myself to my ultimate limits, until my only option, as I understood it, was to throw grenades into certain areas of my life and relationships. I couldn’t survive that way anymore. And I was not the only casualty. 

Setting and holding clear boundaries allows us to support our well-being and the well-being of those around us. Let me say that again. Setting and holding clear boundaries is good for us and good for others. 

But what if we have never practiced setting boundaries? What if we’ve never had the chance? What if we don’t know how? Here are some tips from my own emergent experience with setting boundaries: 

  1. Our brain isn’t always helpful. If we haven’t had a lot of practice setting boundaries, particularly if boundaries were frowned upon or obliterated when we were young, our brain is going to tell us all of the reasons we should say “yes.” So we cannot exclusively rely on our brain to steer us in the right direction. Take a moment to write down on a piece of paper all of the reasons our brain is telling us to say “yes”. Then take a few breaths to reflect on those impulses before responding. Recognize that you have a different choice now.

  2. Body awareness is key. Sometimes in order to even realize we need to set a boundary, we need to be in tune with our bodies. What is our body’s reaction when the request is made or after we say “yes?” Breathe into your heart, chest, throat and belly. Do you feel open and expansive or heavy and constricted? If heavy and constricted, we may want to reconsider our answer or say “no.” 

  3. Boundaries get easier with practice. Just like any other new skill we are trying to develop, boundaries get easier with practice. If you are super uncomfortable with setting boundaries, practice setting them either verbally or in your own mind. Practice in the mirror. Repeat your boundary-setting response(s) in your head or out loud until you can say them with a sense of comfort and groundedness.

  4. Self-care begets better boundaries. When we are running on empty, we find it hard to be self-aware, to pause before we “auto-respond”, to maintain perspective that in the overwhelming number of cases, setting a boundary will increase our capacity and increase our productivity. The more we invest in our own well-being consistently over time, the more we will be able to utilize our perspective and our executive functioning to recognize that setting a boundary is the right, and also a safe, choice.

  5. BREATHE. Whenever we do something that makes us feel uncomfortable such as setting a clear boundary, we may find ourselves immediately anxious. Our brain is saying “What were you thinking? Now __________ (person) thinks _____________ (insert terrible fear) about you! You are so ___________ (insert unkind descriptor here). When these thoughts start flooding your body and brain, exhale deeply for as many breaths as you need to remind your body that you are safe and well and that everything really will be okay.

  6. Buy yourself some time. My auto-responder for requests from adults is to say “yes.” My auto-responder for my kids is to start with “no.” Both of those responses though aren’t necessarily helpful. If the answer isn’t a clear, resounding YES, then say something like this, “I need a moment to think about this request. I will get back to you in ____ (this many days, hours, etc.).”

  7. Process with a safe friend. Someone who is a safe friend and who is not in the middle of the situation or relationship or who is not as intimately familiar with the voices in our own head can help us process a situation and determine if and what boundaries would be useful. 

  8. Communicate simply, kindly and clearly. People cannot read your mind. And you do not need a soliloquy or an essay to explain why you are saying no. Be clear. Be kind. Keep it simple. 

Part of my healing journey has been re-learning what I can do and stay well. The first time I committed to working for someone else again, I remember being afraid . . . afraid that I couldn’t trust myself (and my brain) to show up consistently for someone else. This was after I had been working for myself for a couple of years doing project based work that allowed me to have “bad days” or even “bad weeks.” I negotiated a 30-hour work week for work that I knew I could do without significant emotional or energetic output. In other words, it was work that fit easily into my skills sets and experience. 

When I started working side hustles while growing this business, I was very careful to select work that wouldn’t cost me a lot energetically. Because I wanted to be able to do the work and have something left to apply to my own business. 

When those side hustles got a little out of control and I found myself working TWO side hustles that required approximately 25 hours per week EACH (even on a short-term basis), I moved my bedtime back to 9pm because it became clear that I couldn’t stay well without more sleep. 

When I moved back into my ex-husband’s house, I was terrified. It was the right decision for both of us financially and ultimately has turned out to be such a gift to us and to the kids, but I didn’t know if I could move back in and stay well. When I extricated myself from our marriage, I was very, very, very sick. And I didn’t know if I could live in the house again or in such close proximity to my ex, and stay well. We had never had good boundaries or good communication during our marriage (hence one of the reasons it imploded). 

I shared my fears with a couple of dear friends, and they helped me think through what boundaries I need to communicate up front. I invited my ex to lunch to discuss them. And I chickened out sitting across the table. And so I sent them in an email and offered to sit down and discuss. But he accepted them without comment. 

Within 24 hours of moving all of my things back into the house, I found myself panicked and crying and texting one of my friends. “Oh my god, what have I done?!?! My ex was engaging in some behavior that was very triggering for me . . .FLASHBACK CITY.” What had I done?!?! What was I thinking?????

I texted him from the basement that I was not okay. And would you believe that he came downstairs and we had a reasonable conversation about what was happening and what I needed? I couldn’t believe it either. 

I remember thinking how ironic it was that while I imagined I had a lot to learn about staying healthy in relationship, I had imagined that I might get to learn those things with someone NEW. But it turns out that I got to go back and learn (at least some of those things) with the very person to whom I was married for 18 years. 

I haven’t gotten so much better at recognizing what I need and articulating that to my family: when I am not feeling well, when I need to leave a situation that is causing a panic attack, when I need to rest, when I need a hug, when I need to have a conversation about the bedtime routine. 

I will admit that when it comes to my ex, most of these communications still happen in writing via text or email. But sometimes they happen in person. I remember shaking one day when I asked him to come talk to me about an issue that I saw that needed to be addressed. And again, the conversation went better than my trauma-informed self would have imagined. 

In Episode 30 of this podcast, I shared a story about saying yes when I should have said no, and immediately becoming so very angry, but then realizing that I had failed to set a boundary when I needed to set one.

I STILL have an auto-response of YES when someone asks me to do something, particularly if it is my ex-husband or in response to my perceived emotional or physical need of one of my children, but I am learning to take a breath and assess what I need TOO. 

All of the tips I have shared today are ones that I have learned on my own journey as I learn to hold space for what I need to stay healthy and to preserve time, space and energy for my own personal goals and objectives. I hope you will give them a try and let me know if and how they make a difference in your life too!

Outtro

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