What is a boundary? From Merriam Webster Definition of boundary: Something that indicates or fixes a limit or extent.
Many of us think that trying to limit how someone else should behave when they are around you is setting a boundary.
- You should meet your comments.
- You should never ask me to work over the weekend.
- You shouldn’t send me a meeting invite if you see I already have a meeting on my calendar.
- You shouldn’t expect me to respond to email immediately.
- You shouldn’t be late.
- You should work hard.
- You should be respectful and kind.
- You shouldn’t leave garbage on the kitchen counter.
Those might feel like boundaries, but they are not effective. They are rules you are trying to set about someone elses behavior. The clue about this is that they all start with “you should”. But as you know, it is very hard to control the behavior of another person, and not everyone agrees with someone else’s “shoulds”. The consequences are missing from these boundaries. What happens when others don’t behave in the way you think they “should”?
Often, our consequence is that we get mad because we think they have violated our boundary. Being annoyed with someone or nagging them about how you want them to behave is the exact opposite of motivating. Being mad about it is not an effective way to set a boundary, and it hardly ever works. Humans hate to be told what to do. For most of us, when we hear the words “You should” followed by some kind of expectation, It has two impacts.
- We get annoyed and stop taking action.
- We get mad that someone is trying to control us.
So, if a boundary isn’t a rule about how someone else is supposed to behave, then what is an actual boundary?
A boundary is a decision about what YOU will or won’t do when you experience a violation.
To be effective, you need to decide what you will or won’t allow, and then you must plan what you will or won’t do if someone violates the boundary.
An effective boundary is focused on YOU and your behavior. Not them and theirs. It has a structure of “If you <action or inaction> then I will <consequence>”
Here are a few examples of boundaries.
- If you come into my home without my permission, then I will ask you to leave. If you do not leave, I will call the police.
- If you tell me that you will do something at a particular time and then you don’t, I will tell you that I am disappointed, I may mention it to your manager, and I will find someone else to do the work.
- If you send me a meeting invitation and I already have a commitment on the calendar, I will decline your invitation.
- If I invite you to a meeting and you decline, I will consider if it can wait or needs to happen without you, and then I will either reschedule or invite someone else.
- If you are late, I will start without you.
- If you act aggressively, I will say that I cannot tolerate that behavior and then I will leave the room or the meeting.
- If you leave your garbage on the kitchen counter, I will put the garbage on your pillow. (Added for humor, I don’t really do this.)
Yes, these boundaries still consider someone else behavior, but there is no expectation that they have to behave differently. The boundary doesn’t expect someone else to change at all. All it does is describe how you will respond. Boundaries assume that humans will be humans. Everyone will behave exactly how they want to, and then you will take it upon yourself to respond in a way that aligns with your values.
Setting effective boundaries requires you to do self-reflection work and be brave in following through.
Think it through and decide ahead of time. Explore what your boundaries are.
Answer these questions to decide what your boundaries are and how you will respond.
- What will you tolerate?
- What will you say nothing about?
- How many hours will you work weekly?
- How many hours will you work without a break?
- Will you work nights or weekends?
- Will you answer your work phone after hours? Are there certain kinds of calls you will answer? Won’t answer?
- When will you accept a meeting scheduled over top of another meeting?
- What will you do when someone is behaving aggressively?
- What will you let distract you from something you are currently working on?
Intentionally decide what your limits are, and then do not forget the most important part. Make decisions about what you will do when someone else behaves in a way that violates your limit. It is about your action. Not theirs.
It isn’t even necessary to tell someone else what your boundary is. It is only necessary for you to recognize it and respond as you have decided.
Setting boundaries in this way shows the other person respect. It allows you to treat yourself with respect. It does not require the other person to change their behavior at all, and it allows you to live in alignment with your values.
It is a win-win for everyone.