Overworking to meet a client’s ever-escalating demands. Checking email in the evenings and on the weekends. Catching up on work on your days off. Taking on a client you know isn’t a great fit for you. Letting invoice payments drag on and on.
These are common examples of boundaries my clients are likely to struggle with. Not only are they frustrated at being pushed in these ways, but they often carry anger or shame at not being able to stand up for themselves in the first place. It’s exhausting, and it often costs them significant time and money.
Setting effective boundaries can be a huge challenge, especially if the business owner is already loose with processes and scattered in their work.
Let’s go through the basics of what a boundary is and how to set a boundary, then we’ll look at common reasons they might not be upheld.
What is a boundary?
When we picture a boundary, often the image that comes to mind is of a fence. We imagine that the sturdier the fence, the more effective the boundary will be. To me this feels isolating and less nuanced than the reality of boundaries. A boundary is simply a way of taking care of yourself when someone acts a certain way. Boundaries are something that happens within you; they don’t require the other person to change or behave any differently. They can actually be quite loving, and they can support a growing sense of self-worth within you.
Boundaries can feel scary, especially because we’re worried about what other people will think when we uphold them. This fear should be honoured because without recognizing it, you’ll have a hard time sticking with your new behaviour. But the truth is, you’re only thinking about setting a boundary because something already isn’t feeling good to you. There’s a risk to you one way or another. I can’t say that upholding a boundary is always going to feel good in the moment, but it likely will feel better in the long run. This is a way of making and keeping promises to yourself, which is critical in building your self-trust.
How to Set an Effective Boundary
The process is simple to explain, and of course much more difficult in practice. I’ll give you the prompt questions but know this is much easier to work through with a coach that can make you feel safe and help you dig deeper. You may want to journal on these questions to get your thoughts out on paper.
1. Who is the boundary with? This could be another person, but it could also be a part of yourself or something more amorphous.
2. What is happening that doesn’t feel good? What are they doing, saying, being that doesn’t feel good?
3. What is your current behaviour when that happens? What do you say or do? How do you respond? What happens?
4. What boundary do you want? What will you do to take care of yourself when this happens?
5. What would that give you if you established that boundary?
6. How will you know you honoured the boundary? What will be different?
These questions seem straightforward, and they’re a powerful place to start. It does leave out an important part, though, which is how you then feel about the boundary. What feelings come up for you? What do you think could happen if you did this? What could go wrong? What if it isn’t as clear-cut as you think it will be? Unfortunately, these are hard to address in an article since they’ll be different for every person in every situation. If you’re having trouble with this, please talk to a coach or therapist (someone removed from the situation) to help you process this.
Another way people sabotage boundaries is by coming up with them in the heat of the moment. These boundaries created out of anger or hurt will likely be harder to uphold than ones created during a calm time and from a healthier place. It’s easy to over-do or under-do a boundary when we come from this place.
The reality is, in certain cases no one even has to know about the boundary you’ve set. You don’t have to declare it to the person, you don’t have to have a big confrontation about it. Just decide what it is, then follow through with the promise you made to yourself.
Let’s go through some examples together.
The most obvious (and common) one is responding to messages outside of your business hours. Instead of telling your clients “Do not contact me outside of these hours” you would say something like “I don’t respond to messages outside of these hours”. You’re setting the boundary and letting them know what to expect. Then it’s up to you to hold that boundary and not look at messages outside of those hours. There isn’t any drama in this, it’s simply coming from a part of yourself that feels resourced and confident.
What if a client is pushing you to do more and more work outside the scope of your agreement? Ideally you would set the boundary when you set the agreement (“I will do this work for this price at this rate, any extra work will be re-negotiated or billed at x rate”) but even if you didn’t, you can’t expect the client to change and stop asking or pushing. The only thing you can do is set the boundary to protect yourself. This likely means you share with them what is included and how you can help them with the rest (at an additional fee, or whatever you decide).
Notice both of these examples are pretty surface-level, but deep down there is something going on. I don’t use the word “protection” lightly here, even though the real danger is limited. It’s the perceived danger that’s important. The person needing these boundaries is likely feeling out of control, taken advantage of, and it’s pushing at some very real fears they have. For some people these scenarios feel obvious (“Just don’t check your email”) but for others this is one of the scariest things they could be faced with. It all comes down to how your self-doubt is showing up.
And one final example. What about when a client, or even a family member or friend is always gossiping or speaking badly of others? You can’t expect their personality to change, but you can decide not to participate in those conversations. You can simply say something like “I don’t like to gossip, let’s stick to the facts on this” and hold that boundary. This one will be especially difficult if you haven’t fully answered the questions about “what doesn’t feel good” or about “what will it give you to hold that boundary”. It may also need some extra processing with someone you trust.
To me, honouring boundaries is easier when I remember my core value of leading by example. I know that if I hold my boundary, they might eventually see a different way of being in the world, and maybe they’ll have the confidence to honour some of their own boundaries someday. Boundaries almost always come back to honouring your values, so you can also revisit those if you’re feeling stuck here.
Before I wrap up, I wanted to address one last thing: Should there be exceptions? Is it more realistic to hold your boundaries firm sometimes and loose at other times? Maybe. Only you will truly know. Notice what exceptions come up and notice how they feel. Are you slipping into old patterns or was the boundary just too rigid or wrong to begin with? Are you not honouring the boundary out of fear, or has the boundary just changed? Maybe your boundary wasn’t strong enough. This is a great opportunity to revisit it and make sure it’s still serving you.
Takeaways and Next Steps:
· Boundaries are something you do to protect yourself, not something you can expect of others
· To start, notice where you’re feeling resentment or frustration and see if a boundary could help
· There are 6 steps to establish an effective boundary — journal your answers to get clarity
· The second part, after deciding the boundary, is to pay attention to what comes up after you start upholding it
Looking for an alternative to the mainstream business advice you read online? Stephanie gives you permission to do business on your own terms. No nonsense, thorough, and immediately useful, her wisdom cuts to the chase of what you really need to succeed. To get articles and behind-the-scenes business insights delivered right to your inbox, subscribe to her weekly Field Notes here.