Boundary setting for beginners
Updated: Apr 1
And approaching other difficult conversations
Trigger warning: sexual assault, rape
You can skip straight to points 3 & 4 where I don’t mention these things, if you’d still like to read my practical tips.
What to expect in this post:
1) Why boundary setting is important to me
2) What helped me
3) Boundary setting at work
4) Boundary setting in your personal life
During my #InspiringFigures interview at the beginning of the month, Paw asked me “what have you recently learnt?” and I knew straight away I was going to talk about setting boundaries. At first glance setting boundaries might not sound as exciting as learning a new programming language or a more tangible skill. But I promise, for people who struggle to say no to things they don’t want to do, or for those that take on too much, learning how to set boundaries is *the* most empowering feeling. Imagine having more control over your energy and time! Dreamy.
I talk a lot on Twitter about how I’m learning to set boundaries and the little wins I’ve had. Lots of people have asked for tips and I find it useful to summarise my thoughts in one place, so here we go.
1) Why it’s important to me
For as long as I cam remember I’ve been desperate to fit in. I can giggle at it now and I am absolutely in love with my hair, but being the one of the only ginger kids at school made me stick out like a sore thumb. This of course, meant I was the butt of a lot of jokes and cat calling. I’m reluctant to call it bullying because some of it felt good natured and I was friends with a lot of the people making fun of me. Even so, I really didn’t like it, it upset me a lot. But I was unequipped to ask people to stop, or to do much about it at all, so like most little girls, I went along with it. Upon reflection, this is probably where my inability to constructively say how I feel began.
Later when I was a young teen, I was sexually assaulted a number of times. In fact, my therapist determined what happened to me as “grooming”. Regardless of whether she was right or not, or whether I believe that or not, I found myself unable to express how I felt about what was happening or equipped to do much about it. Living in a country where I would have been put in prison, my family deported or worse if these things were ever officially raised didn’t help. I should probably be bitter about that, but I’m not— I still have a lot of love for the UAE. I was then in relationships that were fun, but unfortunately, pretty abusive (emotionally & physically yay) and even though we were kids, I got cheated on a lot. My parents tried to intervene but I was unable to express how I felt or what was actually going on. I didn’t feel like I’d be heard, not just by my parents but by a lot of my friends as well, and in fact on many occasions I wasn’t. I was also scared that if I got others involved these relationships and what not would have to end. And who would love me then? Anyway, thankfully they did end but in my penultimate year at school I was raped on a night out. Again, I found myself in a situation where I was unable to say how I felt or to stop something I didn’t want to happen, to happen. I’m not entirely convinced they’re related, maybe they are, but I started to fuck up at school. I got bad grades for the first time in my life. My relationship with my family was unhealthy. My soul focus was having fun and getting pissed, which was great. But things started to feel a little out of control. I didn’t want to end my A Levels with REALLY crap grades. The summer between year 12 and 13 I had a lotta time to think (god damn I miss expat kid summer holidays- the shortest one being THREE MONTHS off), and although I didn’t realise it at the time this is probably where my journey setting boundaries began. Which is not to say, everything that happened to me was because I unable to set boundaries.
There will be people who had perfectly healthy childhoods who still struggle to set boundaries, especially if they’re not a white cis male (hell, even those guys might struggle at times). So, 10 years later and after some successful attempts at setting boundaries I’m here to provide you with my top tips. For me, setting boundaries in a personal context is different (and harder) than in a professional or transactional setting, so that’s how I’ll split my advice, but obviously do whatever worlds for you.
2) What helped me
First things first, things really started to change for me when I started seeing a good therapist (and by good I mean, I liked her). We clearly had a lot to work on, but the therapy centred around:
Reprocessing some of the memories to try and break PTSD cycles
Determining how I felt and thought about myself during traumas
Deciding which things were true or false about those moments e.g. I always thought I was being complicit when actually I was placating to keep myself safe
Figuring out which thoughts and feelings about myself (and sometimes others) I was carrying into (safe) present day situations
Deciding which thoughts and feelings were true or false in (safe) present day situations
Coming up with strategies for when I may get triggered in future, practising phrases, coming up with plans to protect myself in the future etc
Going into this level of detail might not be necessary for you, but chances are if you’re reading this your experiences have rendered it hard for you to set boundaries. It’s really worth talking these through with a professional. Therapy is not just for sick people or those that have experienced trauma. The good thing about learning how to set boundaries while you’re seeing a therapist, is that you can discuss you results with them. This reflection served me well, but you could always just write it all down if you can’t or don’t want to see a therapist.
3) Setting boundaries in the workplace or transactional settings (for me, this was with my personal trainer)
Request a specific meeting or conversation in which you can raise your points. This may seem daunting, but if you don’t do it this way the conversation is unlikely to happen, and trust me you want the conversation to happen. Or, the conversation might accidentally happen when you or other person is not expecting it or in the right frame of mind
Write down your thoughts. It might be hard to remember what you want to say when crunch time arrives. Or if you’re like me, you might stumble over your words. Refer to the the document while you’re having the conversation and if you feel embarrassed you could always say something like “sorry, I’ve got crap memory so I wrote down my thoughts”
Frame the conversation from your perspective. How does it impact you? How does it make you feel? Is it getting in the way of you reaching your potential?
Make sure you give the other person the chance to speak. This can be hard when you feel like you’ve got certain points to make. And if you’re anything like me your anxiety will make you want to say it all NOW WHOLE YOU’RE ON A ROLL. But try as hard as you can to take a breath and listen to what they have to say, you’ve got this
One of the best leaders I have ever worked with, told me that normally, when you set a boundary you’re well respected. It took me some time to believe her. But now I do. And now I *know* if I set my boundaries constructively and they aren’t respected, I’ve done what I can and I’ll start distancing myself from that person. Note, I’m not that good at doing this yet. That being said my normal, hope for the best, expect the worst motto doesn’t apply here. Hope for the best and EXPECT the best my babies
Don’t have a coffee just before you have the conversation, the adrenaline will be enough
Don’t minimise your experiences. Chances are if you’re a woman or LGBTQIA+ person your experiences will be minimised enough. And if they’re not, the other person’s intentions will become apparent. Click the tweet below to see some things you can say that will help with this
4) Setting boundaries with friends and family
I struggle setting boundaries with these people the most. They’re certainly the cohort I’ve let things slip with the most, because well, they’re friends and family. I love them so I’ll always go above and beyond, right? Wrong. By consistently not respecting our own boundaries and adhering to every single friend or family’s whim we set the precedent that it is okay. This can lead to a number of things: unhealthy co-dependence, a growing resentment or social burn-out.
Just like with professional boundary setting, set some time aside to specifically call out to yourself the things you'd like to change and why. I strongly suggest writing it down. Personally, having things written down makes them feel less daunting. And knowing exactly what you want to work on or change, enables you to *actually* start making changes
Mute conversations/ notifications. Yes even conversations with people you like. There’s very few people I don’t have on mute and even fewer apps I have notifications on for and it HELPS. It means I’m more in control of when I receive and see messages. In theory, this should mean I get less distracted and enables me to be more present. Whether this is true or not is unimportant, because it feels good
Take 5 minutes before you reply to a message. I’m bombarded all day, every day with messages. My family & friends don’t live in one place, so it makes sense and it’s lovely, but it’s also exceedingly overwhelming. I also happen to be the go to “I’m having a crisis” person for a lot of my loved ones. As someone who knows what desperate feels like, I find it very hard not to reply instantly, even when I’m in a bad place myself. Taking a moment to breathe before responding to a crisis message gives me space to figure out what to say and gives me time to decide whether I’m equipped to reply
Actively try and stop yourself from doing things you normally would. For me this looks like waiting before I agree to future plans, pausing before replying to messages and stepping back from some of the emotional labour that usually falls in my lap. This might look different for you, I’m happy to help you identify some key changes you could make. My DMs are open on Twitter @Botting_Ella
Start small. Personally, I think it's even harder to make progress when setting boundaries with your loved ones than it is in the workplace. Drastic changes won't happen overnight, so go easy on yourself while trying to be firm. Remind yourself that if you slip up, the progress isn't lost, it's stored. Practice setting personal boundaries with the friends you think will receive it well. This practice will make it easier to set boundaries with those that you think won't respect it as much
Set your boundaries away from group chats. All that good natured banter makes it difficult. Message the person directly
Wise words from Florence Given: “You cannot surround yourself with people you have outgrown, because you will constantly be shrinking yourself to make them feel comfortable about your growth. Tell them exactly how you’re feeling.”