Woman holding phone, looking doubtful or worried.I’m always hearing I need to set better boundaries on people, but I’m never entirely sure what that means. I don’t want to be rude, or spring a bunch of new demands on others. But I feel overwhelmed about 90% of the time.”

OK, let’s see if we can’t simplify the process. Suppose there are three types of boundaries that we should all maintain.

First, time boundaries. Such as: “I have to be there by 3PM, and I can’t stay longer than 5.” Time boundaries protect your schedule, so you’re not continually falling behind.

Second, performance boundaries. As in, “I need to do such and such now, and I can’t be distracted.”

Third, role boundaries. As in, “that’s my responsibility, but that other thing isn’t. So I’m not doing it.”

Almost all our problems with boundaries come up in respect to these three realms. To set an effective boundary, you need to:

  1. Know precisely what you need. Clear and definite, that’s the ticket.
  2. Practice articulating the boundary. Use a recorder or the mirror. Example: “I can’t, I have to pick up the kids at 4 and I can’t be late.” Or “Sorry, Ethel, I’d like to help you, but I have to get X done now.” Or conversely, “Oh, that’s Marcus’ job, not mine.” Your tone should be clear but not dramatic, matter-of-fact rather than emotional.
  3. Anticipate the objections you’re likely to hear. Again, this is usually easy because you’ve heard them before. Think of polite answers to these objections. Or with some people, it’s better not to answer,because they’ll just argue with you anyway. In that case, smile and depart the scene.
  4. Start out by setting a boundary where it’s not all that difficult. There are probably a couple of people in your life who are real challenges — save those until you get a little practice in.

By the way, there are always a few who seem incapable of hearing and accepting the word ‘no’ at face value. They’ll test your resolve. Often, they’ve got their own little pathology working. In that case, you’ll probably need to make your point by ‘voting with your feet’ — in other words, actions, not just words. We’ll go into that in additional detail in another article or blog post.


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