Defend Your Boundaries to Take Back Control

Learn how and when to draw the line after someone asks too much of you.
September 18, 2014

One summer, I was struggling with feelings of resentment toward a family member. Let’s call her Carol. I loved Carol very much, but every time I saw her number on the caller ID, I  got a sick, overwhelmed feeling. I started avoiding her calls. I realized, thanks to a candid chat with a friend, that I was steering clear of Carol because she always wanted something from me. And I always said yes. I was so invested in having Carol think well of me, that no matter what she needed or wanted, I figured out a way to make it happen and ended up creating chaos in my life as a result.

A friend suggested I write NO in big letters on a notecard and set it on my coffee table. Then each time Carol called, I  was to sit down and stare at that notecard until I got the gumption to just say no.

Boundaries are tricky—we don’t always realize that we’re unhappy or unproductive because of a lack of boundaries. It’s much easier to blame someone else for our distractions, resentments or messes. But in truth, we’re in charge.

Property Lines

The trick to being in charge is recognizing what we have control over—and what we don’t. John Townsend, Ph.D., is a business consultant, psychologist, leadership coach and co-author with Henry Cloud, Ph.D., of Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life. He says the best way to define a boundary is to think of it as a property line. “It’s a demarcation in our lives between those things that we are responsible for and those things we can’t be responsible for,” he says. “For example, you and I are responsible for our own careers, and we might want to help each other and support each other, but we can’t take on each other’s careers—or our feelings or our relationships or our money or our time.”

Once we establish what we have control over, we also determine the areas where we can make choices. Townsend says problems and dysfunctional relationships result when we try to take on somebody else’s areas of responsibility—when we trespass on their property.

Sometimes this trespassing looks a lot like helping, taking the form of big favors, as in the case of my relative Carol. But other times, trespassing just looks like someone copying you on every email they send to a client.

“There are so many distractions,” says Anne Katherine, therapist and author of Boundaries Where You End And I Begin and Boundaries in an Overconnected World: Setting Limits to Preserve Your Focus, Privacy, Relationships, and Sanity. “We run the risk of being sidetracked from what matters most to us,” she says.

Think a lack of boundaries doesn’t affect you or your productivity? Katherine suggests we do a little self-assessment to see how far afield we’ve strayed from what’s really important to us on any given day. “Take a look at how straight a line you are following in terms of what matters to you. What are your three favorite things to do? How long should it take on all three? Put those into your schedule for this week, and next week, check back. If you didn’t do them, what got in your way?”

Cloud, a clinical psychologist, has just published Boundaries for Leaders: Results, Relationships, and Being Ridiculously in Charge. He believes the adage holds true: If everything is important, nothing is. In his latest book, he says it best: “As a leader, you always get what you create and what you allow.”

Why We Trespass

If I know that ultimately I’m responsible for both my feelings and my time, why did I have so much trouble saying no to Carol? Why did I let her sudden urge to remodel her living room, or her cat food emergency, deter me from my own priorities?

Townsend says our failure to enforce boundaries usually comes down to three reasons. “The first is a fear of losing the relationship. If we look at the neuroscience, we’re highly relational people,” he says. This means that not only do people matter to us, but also that we want to matter to other people. This is tough when we’re in a relationship with someone who has a bad reaction anytime we say no. The other person withdraws and pulls away. “Nobody wants that, because we don’t want to be isolated,” Townsend says. “So the No. 1 problem with starting to set limits and enforce boundaries is a fear of losing the relationship.”

That was certainly one motivation in my inability to turn down Carol. She had a way of cutting me off emotionally if I did something that displeased her.

Townsend says there are two other factors in neglecting our boundaries. “The second reason is if we set limits and say no, we’ll have to deal with other people’s anger, and that’s hard.”

When we say no to certain people, they get defensive, mad, irritated—even throw a bit of a tantrum. “None of us thinks that’s a pleasant experience,” Townsend says. “Either in one’s business or personal life, nobody likes it when people are upset with them. Though some of us do what psychologists call conflict-avoidant behaviors.”

Ever spent your entire relationship with someone “walking on eggshells”? Townsend says this is an example of conflict-avoidant behavior, a tool we use when we don’t want to trigger someone’s anger and deal with the consequences. It also signifies a relationship where we aren’t defending our boundaries—if we ever set them in the first  place.

The third reason we neglect our boundaries is guilt, says Townsend. “We all feel a certain amount of responsibility for not hurting other people, and sometimes that gets exaggerated.” We may tell ourselves that we don’t want to say no to someone because we don’t want to deflate their confidence. Or maybe as bosses we’re afraid of making team members unhappy and decreasing morale.

You can bet that if you’re feeling resentful at someone for how often they impose, dominate or persuade you against your will, one of those three reasons is behind your inability to act.

Drawing the Line

I heard a theory about relationships that goes like this: “If you’d be uncomfortable if that person walked into the room, there’s a deeper issue you need to address.” Most of us spend a lot of time skirting issues like boundaries and self-responsibility. It’s hard to defend ourselves when people throw fits if we disagree with them. And it’s tough to draw a line in the sand with people we see as fragile.

But getting the courage to set and maintain boundaries is essential not only to our own well-being and self-esteem, but also to healthy relationships.

First, sort out what’s in your power to change and what isn’t. “The brain loves control,” Cloud says. “It goes to high performance when it feels like it is in control, so focus on the things you can control that lead to results, not the things you can’t.”

Then find some people to be on your side. Now I’m not talking about starting a land war here. Anytime we take what feels like a risky step, whether in business or in our personal lives, we need to feel like there are people supporting us, cheering us on.

“Your friend did the right thing,” Townsend says to me. By encouraging me to say no to Carol, my friend was there for me. So when I finally did start saying no to Carol, the ensuing defensiveness and silence didn’t hurt as badly, knowing I had other people in my corner. The presence of a support system helps our brains register the idea that we’ll survive any kind of negative impact of boundary-setting.

If we’re really afraid of losing someone as a consequence of saying no or of disagreeing, Katherine says to keep in mind that not setting boundaries ultimately will end the relationship anyway. She cites the example of someone trying to convert you to his or her political or religious view. It’s annoying in the beginning, and after a while, it can become downright disrespectful. Eventually you’ll get so tired of the behavior that you won’t want to be around that person. “So setting a boundary is actually the way to save the relationship. Because by not setting a boundary, you will eventually bow out,” she says.

Katherine also recommends asking ourselves whether we are putting someone else’s feelings above our own to our detriment. When we say we don’t want to hurt our friend or colleague by setting a boundary, Katherine suggests asking ourselves, Am I protecting them to such an extent that I’m going to feel bad? To be free in life, we have to be willing to disappoint people,” she says.

Townsend says a fear of conflict is another common block to moving forward. “Most of us did not grow up with really good models of how to handle conflict. So conflict skills are hard to come by. You have to develop new ones. What I’ve found to be really helpful with my coaching clients is to role-play, to actually practice the conversation with a friend who’s safe.”

When you say, “I can’t be on your committee or go to dinner every Tuesday or stop working to talk about office gossip,” practice letting your friend get irritated at you. You’ll experience the anxiety that comes with that reaction. “When you finish, you think, OK, the world didn’t fall apart. We still like each other,” Townsend says. “That builds up structures in your brain that give you courage to do it in a real  situation.”

Because Carol didn’t have a lot of friends, I thought if I turned her away, she’d become depressed and lonely. But Townsend says we usually exaggerate our influence. “Most people in our lives can really take a no,” he says. “They’re not very fragile. They may be upset or they may be disappointed, but they’re not going to go ruin their lives. That’s something we create in our brains when we make people more brittle than they actually are. You’ve got to give other people in your life the respect that they are adaptive and resilient.”

Enjoying Your Space

Once I started saying no to Carol, when saying yes would have overcommitted me, I not only felt better about our relationship, I also felt a great deal of freedom. I got my time back to spend on the things that were important to me. I was able to say yes to my goals and keep commitments that I might have broken to accommodate her requests.

Townsend says this increased freedom is just one of the many benefits of setting firm boundaries. “One of the things people find is they feel more energy and more creativity,” he says. “It’s kind of amazing. Like when you stop being co-dependent on other people, rescuing other people or enabling other people, all of a sudden the energy that’s leaching out of your business and your relationships comes back into you.”

Another benefit is the start of new healthy relationships. “Healthy people like to be around people with boundaries,” Townsend says. “Unhealthy people don’t.” So once we start drawing lines, we’ll learn who our real friends are and make more healthy friendships. All of these benefits add up to increased confidence, better concentration and higher productivity.

For leaders, the benefits extend to more effective leadership and happier teams. “A lot of times, we don’t make the connection between our personal issues and our leadership,” Cloud said in a recent talk. “Working on your completion as a person is the first service of leadership.”

He suggests thinking of yourself as a boat that moves through life toward different objectives or missions. Behind you is a wake that fans out in two directions. On one side, you can see the effectiveness of your mission. Did you meet your goals? Was the strategy executed fully? Oftentimes, Cloud says, leaders focus only on this side of the wake. But the other side contains the relationships we leave behind. How do people feel about the mission? How do people feel about you now that the goal is reached? Cloud asserts that leaders with integrity get positive results on both sides of the wake. And the only way to do that is to work on your own boundaries and issues.

“Start with baby steps,” Townsend says. “Some people have been so used to saying yes that saying no or confronting can be a little scary. So just do little things at first.” If you can’t find the courage to turn down a meeting, set a boundary about how long you can stay. If you feel rude not stopping work every time someone comes by your desk, establish a do-not-disturb hour. Start small. Townsend says, “As you feel more confident that people still like you and things won’t fall apart, you’ll start to have bigger and larger and more productive boundaries.”

Does your business culture fuel empowerment and confidence? Find out how to inspire healthy boundaries on your team.

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