Setting Boundaries 101: Protect Your Time, Energy and Nerves

Key Takeaways

  1. Learn the importance of setting boundaries to protect your physical and mental well-being while realizing your ambitions.
  2. Discover the consequences of neglecting boundaries, from burnout to toxic relationships.
  3. Understand the psychology of why we struggle with boundaries (e.g., blind spots, low self-efficacy) and how to overcome it.
  4. Use our hands-on guiding questions to identify and (re-)define your personal boundaries.
  5. Apply our practical tips and strategies (like “saying no gracefully”) for setting and maintaining boundaries in various contexts.

Juggling the many balls of self-realization – work, planning, networking, learning, etc. – can take its toll, but it shouldn’t leave you feeling drained or overwhelmed. If that’s the case, chances are you’re not setting boundaries effectively.

In this article, we’ll explore the role of boundaries in protecting our time, energy, and sanity as a “boundary” condition for a successful ascent. Specifically, we’ll discuss what boundaries are (and what not), why they’re mission-critical, the psychology of why we struggle with them, and hands-on guiding questions and time-tested strategies for asserting, and maintaining them (e.g., “how to say no gracefully”) in various contexts (e.g., in private vs. work-related settings).

Why Boundaries Can Make or Break Your Success

Let’s set the stage by clarifying what “boundaries” mean (and what not). Boundaries are the rules and limits we set for others and ourselves to protect our needs and values. They include, for example, defining acceptable behaviors and communications styles or setting limits on the time, space, and energy we spend with someone (or something).

It’s important to emphasize that boundaries are not “involuntary barriers” that restrict us from experiencing new things or connecting with others – which may be due to deeper psychological causes such as fears of failure, perfectionism etc. – but intentional means of self-care.

It’s all about our needs: These examples will help us understand the variety of boundaries in a more nuanced way: For instance, to protect our needs for safety or privacy we can set “physical” boundaries, such as limiting physical touch or claiming personal space. But we can also set “mental” boundaries, e.g., by controlling how much we reveal about ourselves to others or the influence we allow others to have on our feelings.

Before we dive into the practicalities of boundaries, I want to emphasize the importance of setting boundaries and potentially fatal consequences of neglecting this (for our physical, emotional, and mental well-being).

Without boundaries, we get pulled into a downward spiral of overwhelm, toxic relationships and loss of (self-)respect: For example, if we do not set boundaries around our time and energy, we find ourselves overcommitting which can lead to burnout. If we’re not conscious of our boundaries in relationships, we end up feeling exploited or disrespected. At work and in our private lives, we must be wary of becoming a “yes” person and its negative impact on our ability to prioritize our own needs (which is essential since no one else will).

On the other hand, boundaries empower us to advance in an upward spiral: By recognizing and communicating our needs and expectations effectively, we enhance our relationships in terms of mutual understanding, respect and getting what we want (i.e., “win-wins”). Additionally, we can generally boost our productivity by diverting our focus away from “time and energy vampires” (people and activities) to those aligning with our goals.

Why Most People Struggle with Setting Boundaries

Given the clear case for setting boundaries, why doesn’t everyone do it? In fact, this is a very common problem for various reasons. A set of psychological preconditions must be met to set boundaries:

  1. We must be aware of the need to set boundaries.
  2. We must believe we are able to set boundaries.
  3. Setting boundaries and its consequences must appear desirable enough.
  4. Lastly, we must believe we deserve to set boundaries (and reap the benefits).

If we fail at any of these steps, we fail to set boundaries overall. Diverse internal and external factors can impair this process in many ways:

  1. The required self-awareness must “get past” our blind spots, because boundary behaviors are typically unconscious and habitual, and thus not something we typically “consciously” think about (without a significant “nudge”).
  2. Our belief in our ability to set boundaries can suffer under the influence of an “external locus of control”, low self-efficacy, or traumatic experiences (“a burnt child dreads the fire”): we don’t even try because all efforts seem futile anyway.
  3. The desirability of boundaries decreases in our perception if subconscious factors like our natural fear of rejection (#socialanimals), and conflict or risk aversion are at play and overemphasize the potential drawbacks (i.e., “potential losses loom larger than gains emotionally”).
  4. Finally, inferiority complexes or the – for “up-and-comers” typical – imposter syndrome make us question if we even deserve effective boundaries’ benefits. Also, socio-cultural influences shape our perception: For example, “up-and-comers” from more “collectivist” cultures may be socialized to put others’ needs over their own.

Ironically, there’s a strong overlap between the above factors and those underlying the aforementioned “unhealthy barriers” which we can mistake for “healthy boundaries” – evil in disguise. Becoming aware of these problems and factors is the crucial precondition for everything else. With this foundation, we can now move on to the practical part of this article.

Start by (Re-)Defining Your Own Boundaries

The first step in setting boundaries is to identify and define them. With self-awareness we can understand our own values, beliefs, needs, and priorities as well as our current boundary-setting behaviors (or lack thereof). This includes the critical (self-)reflection about the above socio-cultural and psychological factors. Concretely, to define our boundaries, we can ask ourselves practical guiding questions like:

  • What are my (non-negotiable) values, beliefs, and long-term priorities?
  • What are my physical, emotional, and mental limits?
  • What are situations, triggers, and warning signs (i.e., typical thoughts or feelings, e.g., anger when my “me time” is disturbed) that my boundaries are crossed?
  • What actions do I currently take to protect my needs (in these situations), and with what results?
  • What are the underlying reasons (e.g., the mentioned socio-cultural and psychological factors) for my actions and how can I address them (or who can help me with this)?
  • What would be more desirable results, i.e., what behaviors and communication do I expect in my relationships to feel safe and respected?
  • How can I adapt my behavior to effectively set, communicate, enforce, and maintain boundaries and achieve these results?

This “exercise” sheds light on situations where we have effective boundaries and areas where we should either set new ones or strengthen existing ones. It’s key to emphasize this process is not a “one-off”, but requires regular (e.g., annually) self-reflection to ensure our boundaries keep up with our evolving priorities and limits.

For example, through this reflection we could learn that we’ve been living with a rather “external” locus of control which means that we may have fallen prey to the belief that it is not our own responsibility to set boundaries and behaved accordingly. We’d need to shift to a higher degree of self-efficacy. This could work, for example, by starting to set smaller boundaries and gradually building up to bigger ones: Each of these incremental confidence boosts or “wins” makes the next iteration feel more natural and easier.

Put it into Practice: 10 Tips for Asserting and Maintaining Boundaries

While the questions above already point you in the right direction to improve your “boundaries game”, I want to give you more actionable strategies to get you started. Luckily, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel: Let’s take a look at these ten tried-and-tested tips for communicating and maintaining our boundaries over time and in different contexts. This will help you get started on your journey from being a “yes (wo)man” to saying (and showing) “no” gracefully:

  1. “Straight to the point”: For many it can be dreadful to say “no”, but it’s a key ingredient of effective boundaries. Practice in an assertive yet polite way, e.g., say “Thanks for your offer, but I cannot commit at this time.” Remember, if we don’t communicate our boundaries clearly, we cannot expect anyone to know and respect them. Direct communication commands respect and manages expectations – most people appreciate a clear no (vs. “beating around the bush”), and don’t really care for its reason as it’s not their business.
  2. “Provide reasons”: While I try avoiding this as it can make you feel “cornered”, often unnecessarily, good reasons can sometimes help defuse tensions etc. For example, try a “[…] because I’m already working at capacity” cleverly combined with “[…] but we can ask X (e.g., your boss) to re-allocate my resources.” to get you out of the line of fire. Most “requesters” are too conflict averse and will just leave you alone.
  3. “Broken records”: If your counterpart is tenaciously repeating the same request again and again, like a “broken record”, then just mirror them by respectfully repeating your “no”. If they don’t have any convincing arguments, they’ll inevitably have to give up. In more extreme cases of boundary-pushers, you may consider reducing/ending exposure to such individuals or seeking help from third parties (e.g., your mentor).
  4. “Leaving doors open”: You may give a “conditional no” by specifying the conditions under which the “no” could become a “yes”. For example, with an “after I finish my project, I can help you with that” (but only if that’s true!). However, try to avoid that strategy as people will sometimes remember it and then ask you again (when you already forgot that).
  5. “Consolation money”: If the relationship matters to you, give them “at least something”. For instance, connect them with someone else who could help, or send them a link/resource that can help them solve their problem themselves.
  6. “It’s not only words”: Non-verbal cues are just as important in setting boundaries as verbal ones. Firstly, enforcing physical boundaries can literally mean defending your physical integrity against aggressors. While I don’t encourage violence, I encourage protecting one’s needs and loved ones. So, you may consider practical self-defense training (e.g., “Krav Maga”). Secondly, make your verbal cues work by reinforcing them with matching body language and tone: Incongruence is the surest way to be misunderstood.
  7. “Mind the context”: While the above tips should fit most contexts, it’s key to emphasize this article is written from the perspective of an “individualistic” Western culture. I recommend learning more about the values and norms of different cultural systems to adjust your approach and better navigate our globalized world. You can start with Trompenaars’ framework of intercultural differences. (There are also relevant articles in our pipeline.) Apart from cultural settings, we must mind other contexts as well such as…
  8. “Private vs. professional settings”: In the rather structured business world, we have different tools at our disposal than in the “wild west” of private relationships. For example, at work our boundaries and what behaviors we can expect from our colleagues are typically (more or less) defined via roles, responsibilities, and company policies. In personal relationships, we often need to be more flexible and empathetic in understanding each other’s needs and “negotiating” playing rules on an individual basis.
  9. “Enter digital”:  As mentioned, we also say “yes” and “no” through our behaviors. In the digital age, this means setting limits on the personal info we share online (click here and check out this related article on the impact of oversharing on our personal brand), the intensity and frequency of use of our (work) smartphones, computers, and other “smart” devices, and the “game rules” of our social media interactions. Overall, less is more.
  10. “No more guilt trips”: It’s natural to have a bad conscience when we say “no” occasionally, especially to people we like. However, it’s mission-critical to also remain on track after setting boundaries. Remember that protecting our needs is not a selfish act (if we do it in a fair and ethical way). Ultimately, prioritizing our well-being empowers not only our own journey but also our ability to care for those around us.

Putting it All Together: Boundaries Empower Our Journey

As up-and-comers, we always have the next big move in our mind’s eye. These carefully planned, powerful jumps take a lot of time, energy and a calm demeanor to prepare and execute. We cannot afford to allow any distractions or “vampires” to suck these valuable resources and jeopardize our ascent.

However, by understanding what boundaries are, their importance and strategies to effectively define, assert and maintain them in our relationships, we can – respectfully – “discipline” our surroundings to not interfere with our plans.

Please take a moment to reflect on the provided guiding questions above. What was a memorable situation where your boundaries were violated (or respected) and why? What strategies do you know or use that are not covered in this article? Please share your experiences and views in the comments, so we can learn from each other.

Cheers, John.

Recommended Resources for the Go-Getters

Here are some resources for the hungry ones to dive deeper into today’s topics:

  • “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High” by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler: We can lose our calm when there’s (supposedly) a lot to win (or lose), and the quality of our decisions often drops as well. This book’s title says it all.
  • “Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No To Take Control of Your Life” by Henry Cloud and John Townsend: This book offers a comprehensive and hands-on guide to setting and maintaining healthy boundaries in all life areas.
  • “The Power of a Positive No: How to Say No and Still Get to Yes”: In this book by one of the most respected experts on negotiation, William Ury, you will find a framework for saying “no” in a way that saves face and creates win-win situations.
  • “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ” by Daniel Goleman: With this best-seller you can learn the ins and outs of emotional intelligence which is a key skill for understanding and communicating our boundaries.

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