Ep. 145 Setting healthy boundaries


In this week’s podcast, Anna looks at the importance of setting healthy boundaries.

Why do we need boundaries? What kind of boundaries are we talking about? Why is it so hard to set those boundaries and, above all, stick with them? We’re looking at how to decide on the right boundaries, how to proactively communicate them, and how to keep them in place.

*Resources mentioned during the episode*

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Setting healthy boundaries


Hello there, and welcome back to the Reimagining Success podcast, where we’re talking about setting boundaries, setting healthy boundaries. And this is something I’ve talked about in the past, it’s something I’ll talk about again, it’s something that’s very important. Perhaps in particular in the context of working from home, where work has perhaps tended to blend, not always in a good way, with personal life. Also in the context of working for yourself and building a personal brand, we’ve talked a few weeks ago about how personal does a personal brand need to be and what are those boundaries between your professional personal brand, what you share on social media and so on, and who you are as a person. Because of course those are two different things. So looking at setting healthy boundaries, why is it so important to set healthy boundaries? Well, so many reasons. I took a big breath there thinking of where to start.

Ultimately it’s about making space for you and what matters. We’re talking mental health, we’re talking physical health, we’re talking your identity in a way.

Allowing others to trample on us, to interfere, to unduly influence us to not stick to what we believe in, our values, to not protect ourselves, to not stand up for ourselves for what we believe in. On so many levels this can be quite damaging. If you set healthy boundaries, you can understand and value your own needs. And of course, in order to set boundaries you need to understand and value your own needs. You can also and you should also understand and respect other people’s needs and their boundaries. You can then confidently say no, and likewise accept when other people say no, not take it personally if a client doesn’t want to do something, or even your partner or friend says no to you and so on.

Poor boundaries looks like this. It looks like people pleasing, doing what other people say or ask for willy-nilly without really thinking about if it’s the right thing, if it’s something you want to do, if it’s something you can do. It’s also oversharing. We talk about personal branding, but sharing too much personally, professionally, online, offline, getting too involved in other people’s problems, either friends or colleagues or clients. Taking on too much, and as a result resenting other people, blaming other people, being angry, burning out, getting into difficult financial pressures because maybe we’re agreeing to do things we can’t actually do, don’t want to do. We may end up burning out. So having healthy boundaries helps you to, of course, avoid all those problems, avoid burnout, and it helps you to have more autonomy, more freedom, and to maintain your own identity and value. So we’re talking some pretty core things here, right? It’s much bigger than just, “Oh yeah, I’ll just finish working at 6:00 and I’ll turn my email off.”

So what do boundaries look like? What are they? Well, ultimately they’re a way of limiting, a way of creating space to protect yourself.

Setting literally a boundary between you and other people, other people’s problems, work, whatever that looks like, mentally, emotionally, possibly physically as well. What are you going to accept? What are you going to put up with? Where will you draw the line? So we have personal boundaries, physical boundaries, really your personal space, sexual boundaries, intimacy and so on, mental, intellectual boundaries in terms of your thoughts, your beliefs, your opinions. Emotional boundaries in terms of your feelings, financial boundaries in terms of who you’re willing to loan money to or not and so on, what you’re willing to pay for.

Professional boundaries, keeping personal and professional separate. I think of myself as a coach, also a therapist. I imagine even more so teachers, it’s very easy to get drawn into the work we do with our clients, to care so much, and that can be really draining. That’s why I can only do a certain number of individual calls, or group calls for that matter, with clients a day, especially when we’re talking really core values and priorities and difficult topics. When it’s a bit more business strategy and so on it’s easier to keep those boundaries, but of course I do end up caring for … I start by, to be honest, caring for my clients and may work even with colleagues and friends and so on. So it’s really important to have that healthy boundary there as well. As I mentioned in the introduction, your personal brand, there’s a line between what you do and don’t share and so on.

So again, personal, professional, physical, mental, emotional, financial, all sorts of colours and shapes and sizes of boundaries. Now, why is it so hard to set these boundaries? Well, I don’t know about you, but I can quite easily feel quite guilty and uncomfortable. I can feel quite unsure as well. I know during the COVID experience I’ve felt often, and I feel often this way in politics and so on as well, I feel torn in two directions. I don’t necessarily, and this is perhaps an issue I don’t give myself enough time and freedom to explore, to reflect, self-reflection is really important on what my point of view is. And based on that point of view I can then set boundaries and parameters and agree certain principles and say yes, say no. It’s very easy, for example, in corona to either get pulled in one extreme of people who have been very, very careful and strict, of course especially when it was really at its worst, fingers crossed, worst, and at the other extreme people who didn’t follow rules, didn’t wear masks, and so on.

I often felt caught between the two, because of course we have people in our board of friendship and family group at the two extremes. And I always felt a little bit washed and wished and pushed around, not really clear on what I stood for. And that can be challenging. And again, in politics too I tend to fall somewhere in between the extremes of the spectrum, as I think many of us do. And if you haven’t clarified what’s important to you, in fact, this comes to the bigger discussion that I always talk about defining success. If you don’t know what success means to you, then it’s easy to get pulled in the direction of what other people think, whether it’s your parents, society, colleagues, friends, partner, and so on.

So coming back to why it’s so hard to set boundaries, we can feel guilty, uncomfortable.

It feels like it’s out of our hands, out of our control. It might be a demanding boss. “Oh, they’re constantly contacting me, I’ve got to answer right away. Emails in our office, we have to be available 24/7, I’ve got an interfering mother-in-law,” which I don’t, by the way, I should say, when I give that example. Overbearing partner, again, I don’t, but it’s easy to blame others, right? But we have to understand that we can’t change other people’s behaviour. That’s so critical. It’s relationship 101. If we’re arguing with someone, we can’t change what they’re doing, we can only change how we respond, what we will and won’t put up with, how we handle something, someone. And in doing so, either we block and protect ourselves from other people as they continue to behave as they do, or perhaps if we’re lucky we actually do influence them as they learn to accept and respect our boundaries.

And so certainly professionally, clients, friends I think too, hopefully the right kinds of friends, will begin to admire, respect, and stick to the boundaries we set and understand that. Of course, it is harder to implement new boundaries with existing relationships compared to starting from scratch with somebody. Okay, so most importantly, how do we set these healthy boundaries? Well, first of all you have to decide what they are. Of course, define success. Start with that all-important self-reflection. When you’re defining what your boundaries are, consider these different areas. Consider personal, professional, physical, mental, emotional, financial. I’m sure there are other areas too. Start small. So by all means, as ever, think big. But if it’s challenging enough for you to say no to small things, try to really start small, some small tweaks and changes that you think actually this would be such an improvement without being overly dramatic, big dramatic changes that you’re never going to stick to.

Likewise, chopping and changing. One week saying, “Oh, I don’t work weekends,” and the next weekend go, “Oh, that’s fine. Don’t worry, I can take a call on Saturday.” That’s confusing to your clients. Telling your partner that, “This is okay, that’s not okay,” and then the next time doing something different. By the way, this is the same for children, right? If we tell them one thing is okay to … I’m having this with my daughter at the moment, she’s wanting to sit in my lap during meals, she wants to sit in the big chair. If I begin to allow her to do that, unfortunately she won’t sit, as I’m experiencing now, in own chair. So that leads to confusion. Sometimes you’re allowed to do this, sometimes you’re not. Children, partners, colleagues, clients, it’s the same for all of us.

Start small and be consistent. Decide how rigid they are. Are they flexible, are they loose, or are they absolutely non-negotiable?

“No, I will never take a client after this time. I will never charge less than this amount. I will never lend money to a friend or family member or above X amount.” I will never, I will always, whatever those rules are. Or is there flexibility? “I will usually not, however, under certain circumstances,” and probably I’d encourage you to think about what those extreme circumstances would be and how often those circumstances happen. How flexible can you be? When do you want to be flexible?

Get really specific. So let’s take physical boundaries. I always give this, working from home, working for yourself, close the door to your study, shut down your laptop. I’ve seen families, we haven’t got to that stage yet, but put your phones in a bowl ahead of dinner if you’ve got older children or so. You might put them in a drawer, box, whatever you need to do, turn it off. And of course you could have different boundaries with different people. That’s something else to think about, another nuance. You might have a list, I’ve seen somebody mention a VIP list of your close family members, your friends, your partner, where you don’t necessarily … You should still have boundaries, but perhaps you will be more honest, more authentic, more open and true than you would be to anybody in the office or someone you’re just chatting to on social media and so on.

So you might want to have, just like you can have on Facebook and I think on Instagram, you can have your close friends and everyone else. Consider that in your real life as well. So define what they are. Start small, be consistent. Number two is to set them early and communicate them clearly. So as I said, it’s much easier if you’re starting with new clients, “Hey, this is how I work.” Don’t just put it into the bottom of the Ts and Cs, terms and communications. Be super clear, discuss it in a call. I always say when I give clients access to my WhatsApp, I put it into the text on the actual app. I tell them, “Hey, I’m available, usually I reply within 24 hours Monday to Friday, these are my office hours.” And I always say, “No, I don’t do calls over weekends,” for example, and so on.

So communicate it clearly, especially if you have existing relationships now. Have a call with people. If it’s about your partner, your family, your friends, then have a conversation. Maybe don’t just email them or something, depending on what it is. You can put it in your email signature. I always say this, I run a time management webinar masterclass for some corporate clients, and I always say, establish these rules. Of course agree with them with your boss, and then put them into your email signature. So for example, I’ve seen lots of people say, “PS, I check my emails twice a day. If you need to really get ahold of me, then call me on this number, get me on Slack, chat, whatever, come on over to my desk,” if that’s what you want, if you’re in the office.

So communicate it proactively, be super clear, and include it. Reinforce them again and again and again.

I’ve got a client at the moment struggling with some of her clients who just aren’t getting the hint. And at some point, unfortunately, there are certain clients we just have to grin and bear it, finish up with them, and then probably not work with them again. But generally being super clear is something that people should respect, should appreciate. And if they don’t, then they’re probably not the people you want to work with. Obviously if this is your partner or someone closer to you, it’s harder to say no to them altogether and move away, but that’s always an option too.

Related to this, by the way, I’d love for you to celebrate and I encourage you to celebrate when other people set boundaries. So if I’m working with someone, my graphic designer will say, “Unfortunately, I’m now heading off on holiday for two weeks.” And although the business person and me and the self-motivated, excited, “I want to get this done” person in me is disappointed because I think, “Oh no, I want to do all these things,” I always say, “Amazing, of course. Please don’t by any means jeopardise work late into the evenings and so on.” And in fact we had a situation a couple of months ago in a previous holiday where we were sitting both of us on a Friday evening late at night, and I just got too tired to finish. And I thought, “You know what? Yes, I had wanted to do this. This doesn’t make sense for you or for me. Let’s put a pin in it, pocket it for now, and come back in a couple of weeks.” And hey, those two weeks or 10 days, whatever it was, passed very quickly.

So if someone else sets boundaries, respect them. Because otherwise why on earth should they respect yours? Celebrate, help them to stick to them by saying, “Yes, of course, absolutely. I wouldn’t want you to take a call outside of the usual hours,” And so on. Next, use technology and tools to your advantage. Of course they can unfortunately lead to you trying to be always on and reachable at any hour, but it can be as simple as signing out of email, turning off those notifications, setting your phone to silent, and so on, using auto response, whatever that is. An out of office email is always a good one. So use tools and tech to your advantage. Learn to say, “Thank you, but no.” Or, “Unfortunately I’m not able to do that.” There are lots of ways of saying not right now, no but, yes but, agreeing on your own terms, I can’t do it but here’s someone else who can, I can’t do it this week but I can do it this other date, and absolutely I’ll get back to you, not tomorrow but in three days’ time. There’s ways of doing that.

Practise saying no and practise not giving a reason. You don’t have to, certainly don’t have to give the full picture of, “No, I can’t come in on Monday because I’ve got this, I’ve got the dentist and then I’ve got to go to …” Whether it’s you wanting some time for your family or wanting to go for a run or just not wanting to work in the evenings, this is your prerogative. You don’t have to explain yourself unless you have that kind of relationship. For me, I role model that kind of behaviour to my clients because that’s the business and that’s my message. But for you it might not be part of your business and your brand and so on. So there’s certainly no reason to give a reason.

And then finally, adjust as needed. Of course these aren’t completely set in stone. If you need to set firmer boundaries and if you need to communicate them more clearly, if you’re happy to make them more flexible, if you want to make them more rigid, if you want to add more, take away, you can absolutely do that. Again, we don’t want to be chopping and changing all the time to lead to confusion. That’s why it’s best to start small and then we can layer things on. If you’re starting a business, you might not yet know the kind of clients you want to work with, the kind of hours want to work, the kind of thing that’s in scope and out of scope. But 100% as you learn that, as you realise, “Hey, I don’t want to be doing this aspect of the work, I shouldn’t be involved in that, I need to charge more for this,” that’s something you can and should add into the mix.

So setting healthy boundaries, we’ve talked about why it’s so important, what happens if you don’t, what kind of boundaries, why is it so hard, and a few suggestions there on how to define those small, consistent boundaries that you’re going to communicate actively, and above all really practise reinforcing, sticking to those, and evolving if needed. Hope you found that helpful. Have a think, and I think you may need to listen to this again, take some notes if you’re on the move now and you maybe haven’t been able to sit down and actually think about this and write down your own boundaries. But have a go at writing down some little rules, have a chat to your family, think about how you want to communicate it to your clients, and so on. Above all, really reflect on what kind of boundaries would be most helpful for you at this stage. Thanks so much for listening, and I’ll see you next week. Bye for now.

If you’re ready to start to reimagine what success could look like for you, here are some of the ways in which Anna can support you:

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