Boundaries has become a bad word. Somehow it has become associated with not being nice or helpful - even selfish or insensitive. That is total baloney.
Boundaries help you make decisions about what you will (or will not) do and what you will (or will not) accept. Without boundaries you float through life like a plastic bag, constantly feeling taken advantage of or overwhelmed.
When you feel taken advantage of and overwhelmed you cannot help but become frustrated, irritable, and resentful. Not nice for you. Not nice for others.
Setting boundaries comes down to two things:
1) Knowing your core values and making decisions based on those core values; and
2) Giving yourself permission to say "no"
It is not just that you are uncomfortable setting boundaries. Most people do not even know what their core values are, so they cannot consider those core values when making decisions. Secondly, most people also associate the word "no" with "not being nice." We all want to please or help other people, and most of us are super worried about being liked by others too. Getting to know your core values and learning to make decisions, even saying "no," based on your core values is how you start setting boundaries.
Do you know your core values?
I have found that most people do not. When asked, most people parrot values they believe should be their core values without really reflecting on them. This can also be very telling.
A good exercise to figure out your core values is looking at what you say your priorities are and whether your priorities are reflected in your actions.
For example, when I asked Amanda to name her top three priorities in life, like most women I have asked, after a struggling a bit, she gave the following ordered list:
I then asked her where was she on the list. She was confused. Not only did she not have herself on the list but, when prompted, she did not know where to place herself on the list.
That is concerning. You cannot support others if you are depleted yourself. While I would suggest you should be at the top of the list, just being on the list is a good start. This is not selfishness, this is self-preservation.
Second, I asked Amanda to consider the order itself. I asked her to think about how she spends her time each day and whether her time reflected the priority order. The point is not the order, each person can legitimately have different orders of their priorities, the point is whether what you say is your priority is demonstrated by your actions.
Upon reflection, Amanda determined that she was placing helping others above her children because she constantly missed sporting and other extra curricular events in which her children participated. Often time with her kids, and even celebrations of their milestones, were delayed or haphazardly organized because she was so busy with helping others.
Sometimes life will cause you to choose one activity over another. Sometimes a lower priority in general may cause a specific situation or activity to become the higher priority for a temporary time. Knowing your priorities, what is most important to you, will help you make sure each decision reflects your priorities one at a time as well as your overall core values.
Amanda also determined her husband was no where to be found on the list or in her actions. She said her husband had mentioned several times he did not feel important in her life, but until this exercise, she had completely discounted his complaints as being too selfish and not understanding how busy she was.
Amanda realized she had never thought about what her priorities were and was not making decisions based on what was important to her or what she wanted her life to reflect now and in the future.
Again, the point is not about the order of the list but what is on the list and whether the list is actually reflected in your actions. While you should always be on the list, everything else is subjective.
But if your actions do not match what you say is most important to you, you will feel overwhelmed, frustrated, and resentful - as will those you care about.
Though core values are subjective, everyone has them - whether they know them or not - and we act on those core values, even if we do not articulate them. Core values can be the same as our beliefs or they can be different. For example, we may believe "life is not fair" but have a core value of "fairness." The belief is how we see the world ("not fair") but with a core value of fairness we always strive to be fair ourselves. Likewise, we may believe the world is full of possibilities but our core value is safety/security so we do not act on opportunities out of fear - fear of getting hurt, fear of being wrong, fear of failure, fear of disappointment, fear of not being accepted, etc.
Core values can be represented by a word or a phrase. Here is a list of over 500 words describing possible core values. Though core values are generally positive attributes, core values can also be negative when not balanced or taken to the extreme. Examples could be belonging, being the best, control, etc.
Take a moment to look over the list of core values. Write down or circle the words that resonate with you. You may like most of them, but that does not make them your core values. Core values are the attributes you feel strongly about - things you would end a relationship over, would make a decision based on, or would confront another person about. It may even be a word you often hear yourself saying when talking to others.
Now take your chosen list of words and compare them to how you live your life. For example, if you chose the words "responsible" or "reliable," consider whether your actions reflect that. Do you follow through on what you say or promise? Do you keep your word? Are you on-time or constantly late? Is being on-time even a core value to you?
Similarly, if you chose family, consider how you define family (spouse/kids v. spouse/kids/parents/siblings v. spouse/kids/parents/siblings/in-laws v. all immediate -/+ extended v. anyone you love, etc.). Then consider whether your actions, your daily and weekly activities, demonstrate that family (however you define it) is the most important thing to you. There are no right answers but defining "family" to you will help you understand how even the core value of family can be reflected differently by every person.
Knowing your core values will also help you set boundaries for how others can treat you. A core value of respect requires that you give respect as well as have conversations with others who are not showing you respect. Having a core value of peace might require that you learn to let things other people do go - but if you are feeling resentful about it, peace may not be your highest core value and you need to discover what core value you are neglecting that is leading to your negative feelings.
Note that many core values are subject to how the word or idea itself is defined. Even the hierarchical order of core values (or priorities) can change from person to person. Both can lead to different actions by different people in the same situation.
Giving Yourself Permission to say "No"
"No" is a complete sentence. "No" rarely requires an explanation, especially a detailed one. We often explain our "no" because we feel we need to justify it. We are trying to make it softer. Get the other person to "agree" with us that "no" is the best answer.
Unfortunately, our justifications usually make it worse. We are either not convinced by the justification ourselves or we open up the discussion to changing our "no" to a disgruntled or guilty "yes." You then feel resentful because you really did want to say "no."
I attended an International Women's Conference in Rapid City, South Dakota. After the event was over, I had planned to drive to Mount Rushmore. A friend of mine, who lived locally, invited me to join her as she drove some of the other out-of-town attendees by the monument and surrounding areas. I thanked her but said "no," without explanation.
I could have explained to her that I actually wanted to enter the park, not just drive by. I could have explained that she was taking them on a time-scheduled tour because she had to be back home by a certain time for an appointment and I wanted the freedom to explore. On the surface, perhaps it seems like explaining those things would have been "nice."
However, my perspective is that she would have felt bad that she had a previous engagement. Perhaps they had chosen not to enter the park because they were on a budget and I might have made them feel bad that I was choosing to pay the entrance fee. Perhaps they would have tried to accommodate me by offering to enter the park, and thereby missed other local attractions (by skipping entering the monument they ended up driving through another park and saw a herd of buffalos up close and personal).
When you say "yes" you should feel good about it. At first saying "no" may come with guilt, but as you start saying "no" based on your core values you will notice the guilt will lesson - as will the feelings of being overwhelmed and resentful. You will then be able to enjoy the times you say "yes."
Know that core values are totally within your control. If you want to have the core value of "ethical," for example, you simply define for yourself what ethical means to you and begin making decisions based on that definition. If you want love to be your core value, start focusing your actions and reactions based on love - choosing to see the world with love. Likewise, you have the power to change your core values by making a choice to do so and then taking actions that reflect that choice.
Knowing your core values and making decisions based on your core values allows you to set boundaries for yourself and others. Boundaries will make you happier. Boundaries will allow you to make others happier too, particularly those on your real priority list.
Do you know your core values? Are they clearly reflected in your actions? How is your relationship with boundaries?
* Deedra is originally from Arkansas; an attorney in Scottsdale, Arizona; a thought-leader and keynote speaker; founder of The Ambassador Project; and has a blog at Follow Deedra on Twitter @askdeedra