Setting or strengthening boundaries is very difficult for a lot of people. In my experience, it’s most difficult for people who grew up as “good girls” in a context where goodness (and even worthiness itself!) was about helping others.
This context is established at home, in school, at church and synagogue, and in activities. For example, the Girl Scout promise includes the pledge “to help people at all times” (emphasis mine). An impressionable girl might take this quite literally.
As good girls become adult women, this training can translate into a sense of obligation to say YES to every request that comes in. It can also mean that when they see an opportunity to help someone, they don’t even see it as a choice — they just jump in. I had a client whose neighbor mentioned she was having difficulty deciding among three bids for renovating a bathroom. My client immediately jumped in and spent the evening at the neighbor’s house helping her decipher the proposals. My client didn’t have the time to spare and suffered as a result.
This automatic focus on helping others is not a recipe for a good life. It’s also not a recipe for a life of selfless service, because it’s not sustainable. Living by a policy of always saying yes and always jumping in to help leads directly to burnout.
What’s missing is the counterbalance: the responsible and appropriately self-reflective voice that asks, “What can I afford to do in this situation, if anything? What do I want to do?”
Whether or not you were ever a good girl or a good boy, you may feel guilty saying no to requests for your time, money, focus, or any other resource. But feeling guilty doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing anything wrong. It often means you’re doing something out of your comfort zone, or something new.
Saying YES to every request or always jumping in to help doesn’t lead to your doing your best work, however you define it. Whatever you choose to DO with your life, you can’t also DO everything else. That’s what setting boundaries is all about.
When you say “no” to collaborating on yet another project, or when you resist the temptation to put on your superwoman cape and dash in to help someone, you’re not saying you don’t value those people or initiatives. Rather, you’re saying you currently have other priorities and you are fully deployed with those priorities. That boundary allows you to remain in service to your chosen priorities. Having weak boundaries is functionally equivalent to having no priorities. Anything and anyone can come in and get some of your time (or focus, money, staff, etc).
Many people who are disappointed with their results and accomplishments (or lack thereof) are actually suffering from weak boundaries. They don’t accomplish what they want because they don’t protect their ability to focus intensely on creating those results and accomplishments. They were being “good” and “nice” and helping other people instead. But think about it — your priorities and commitments ALSO help other people, don’t they?
Making your best positive contribution in the world requires that you protect your ability to stay focused on what you are doing. Strong boundaries allow you to bring your best energy to those commitments, whatever they are.
You may be managing a department, doing oncology research, growing your own vegetables, running a university, doing marketing consulting, working in your town’s recycling center, or any of a million other kinds of valuable, productive work. Whatever short list of commitments are closest to your heart right now, you can’t give them your best shot if you aren’t also prepared to resist the infinite number of other “opportunities” competing for your time and attention.
Becoming skilled at this requires that you make your peace with missed opportunities. You can’t do everything right now. I’m sorry, but that’s just the truth. But with strong boundaries, you can do some things very, very effectively. And when you want, you can choose your next set of priorities. For more on this topic, check out one of my blog posts from earlier this year.
What’s your best boundary-setting strategy? Please share your experience in a comment below.
Short term coaching for strengthening boundaries is one of my specialties. Contact me if you’re interested in exploring this.