I was recently inspired to start a blog series on the topic of boundaries. The first post explained what boundaries are and why they’re important. Then I followed up with a four-step process for establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries.
This time, we explore common mistakes when starting to establish and enforce boundaries. Setting boundaries is hard, but you can make it a little easier by avoiding these blunders. Here are 10 mistakes we often see, along with our tips for setting boundaries that last.
1. Prioritizing everything
There’s an old saying that if you want something done right, do it yourself. It’s true that handling everything yourself gives you more control, but how many things can you realistically do in a single day or a single week?
Can you really drive the kids to school every morning before heading to work, or would it be better to join a carpooling group? Do you really need to create a flashy PowerPoint presentation for your upcoming meeting, or would it be okay to use a basic, pre-made template? Is everything on your schedule truly mandatory?
Most people need to pick priorities and either eliminate or outsource the rest. This often means saying “no” or asking for help, but many people are reluctant to do that. Instead, they make everything a priority and do everything themselves, but they end up overscheduled and burned out. In contrast, our clients who are willing to prioritize and delegate have an easier time setting and maintaining boundaries.
Do you proudly think of yourself as a “helper”? Maybe you get a lot of satisfaction out of helping colleagues, friends, and family members. That’s understandable since the drive to help others seems hard-wired into our brains. But there are downsides to focusing too much on other people, particularly in terms of setting boundaries.
You might believe that you can’t stop helping certain people because they need you. Unless you’re talking about young children, though, you may actually be over-functioning. People who over-function typically have weak boundaries. Ironically, they also rob the people they’re trying to help of the opportunity to help themselves.
3. Dismissing your own needs
You may have been raised in an environment in which your needs were minimized, dismissed, or ignored. You may also have experienced invalidation in your adult relationships. For example, when you complained about having to work 50 hours a week to your colleague, they might have said, “That’s nothing! I always work at least 60.”
If you’re accustomed to other people dismissing your needs and opinions, you might have internalized this behavior. When you’re not able to meet certain standards, you may be very hard on yourself. This self-dismissal is even more likely if you spend a lot of time comparing yourself to others.
Setting and maintaining boundaries requires accepting that you are entitled to your own needs, values, and priorities— even when they don’t align with other people’s.
4. Succumbing to FOMO
When you scroll through social media, what do you see? You likely see a lot of people living their “best lives,” traveling a lot, and doing lots of interesting things. Exposure to this kind of digital content can induce a state of boundary-sabotaging FOMO (fear of missing out) if you’re not careful.
Culturally, there is this idea that the more you do, the happier you’ll be. But if you’re so worried about missing out that you say “yes” to everything, you’ll exhaust yourself. If you want to succeed at boundary-setting, you’ll need to get comfortable with the idea of occasionally sitting things out. Before accepting that next invitation, ask yourself, “Do I really have the time, energy, and desire to do this? Or am I just afraid of missing out?”
5. Giving in to fear
It’s only natural to worry about how your boundaries may be perceived by others. If you have weak personal boundaries, the people in your life probably aren’t accustomed to hearing the word “no” from you. They might argue, complain, or try to manipulate you into doing things their way. Understandably, you might be reluctant to set boundaries with them.
Avoiding boundaries may spare you some discomfort in the near term, but, in the long run, you will be exhausted and exasperated unless you set reasonable limits. Ironically, letting your fears prevent you from setting boundaries may damage the very relationships you’re trying to protect by allowing frustration and resentment to build.
Some level of apprehension is unavoidable prior to setting boundaries, but it’s possible to exert some control over your fears. Instead of focusing your attention on worst-case scenarios, consider other possible outcomes. What if people are understanding and supportive instead of judgmental and abrasive? If you set your boundaries calmly, confidently, and compassionately, things may turn out better than you expect.
6. Being too subtle
Even if you’re determined to set some new personal boundaries, your fears might prevent you from communicating them assertively enough. For example, maybe you’d like to set a boundary with your parents that they should not to call you during work hours (unless it’s an emergency). However, you’re worried that they might take it personally, so you’re reluctant to have the conversation.
Instead of clearly telling your parents what you want, you might try a less direct way of getting your message across. You might be short with them when they calls at bad times or make off-hand comments about how busy work has been. Or you might just ignore their calls. None of those are likely to get you the result you want (them calling less often during work). Even if they sense your negative attitude, they might attribute it to something else. Since they’re not sure what you want, they’ll continue overstepping your boundaries without realizing it.
That’s why it’s so important to clearly communicate your boundaries. You can’t hint, punish, or manipulate people into compliance. If you have a personal boundary that’s important to you, you need to spell it out in no uncertain terms. In these circumstances, being clear is kind.
7. Covering too much ground
If you’ve just recently discovered the concept of boundaries, certain issues may have been festering for a long time. There may be quite a few volatile emotions built up in your relationships. If this sounds familiar, be careful not to swing from one extreme to another—from being totally boundaryless to laying down rigid, all-encompassing boundaries.
For example, perhaps you want to draw certain lines with your spouse. You might plan to sit them down and outline all of your new boundaries in a single evening, but we advise against that. Laying down too many new boundaries at once will likely overwhelm your partner and put them on the defensive. Instead, we recommend starting with small boundaries to build up your skills and give your partner time to adjust.
Avoid making personal boundaries too broad or too absolute. For example, perhaps you’d like to bring your own lunch to work instead of always going out with colleagues. If you’re new to boundary-setting, you might assume that the only way to set this boundary would be to tell your colleagues that from now on, you won’t ever join them for lunch. But it’s probably not necessary to be so inflexible. There may be times when you do, in fact, want to join them. Rather than making a blanket statement, it might be better to handle invitations on a case-by-case basis: “Thanks for the invitation, but I won’t be able to join you today.”
This is an extremely common error among beginners. They want the person they’re speaking with to understand why they are setting boundaries, so they provide lots of detail and examples. That way, the other person will see where they’re coming from and not take it personally (they hope).
The problem with providing too much detail is that it opens the door to debate. For example, you might tell your father-in-law, “I can’t host Christmas this year because we just moved, and the house isn’t ready.” He might respond with an offer to help you clean or a suggestion to hire a maid, in which case you’ll have to explain why that won’t work.
If the person you’re talking to is known for being reasonable and seems genuinely curious, it’s okay to answer a question or two, but it’s not your job to convince them. Your boundaries are valid, whether or not anyone else understands them. Ultimately you don’t need anyone else’s understanding or blessing to move forward with a boundary. By keeping your communications short and to the point (i.e., “That won’t work for me”), you send the message that your boundaries are not open for debate.
Apologizing may seem like an ideal way to soften the sting of a boundary: “I’m sorry, but I won’t be able to lend you my car anymore.” However, it does send a subtle message that your boundaries are somehow invalid or dubious. If you’re unsure about your own boundaries, why should anyone else take them seriously?
There are better ways to soften the blow of new boundaries without apologizing. For example, you could start with a compliment, acknowledge the other person’s feelings, express your gratitude, or suggest some alternative way the person might get their needs met. You have a right to your boundaries, and you don’t need to apologize for them.
10. Giving up too easily
Setting boundaries is hard! There will always be some discomfort, even for experienced boundary-setters. You may be tempted to give up or let things slide a little if you receive pushback or start feeling guilty, but don’t give up! If certain people in your life are fond of overstepping boundaries, you may need to reiterate them multiple times before they stick.
It’s essential to expect some level of discomfort when setting boundaries so that you’re not taken off guard. You must also keep in mind that these feelings will pass—unlike the distress caused by failing to set boundaries in the first place.
We can teach you how to set healthy boundaries
We’ve found that many of our executive and successful clients tend to have great boundaries in certain areas and poor boundaries in others. This oftentimes results in misery. As executive coaches, we can support you in establishing healthy boundaries in service of creating a life you love. And, if you’re prone to feeling guilty when setting boundaries, stay tuned for our next post, which addresses that very topic.