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10 Ways to Build Better Boundaries

Recognize your limits and learn to say "No."

Key points

  • When your boundaries are clear and well-defined, you should feel more secure and confident.
  • When your boundaries are weak or non-existent, you can feel overwhelmed, anxious, and insecure.
  • Building boundaries is a skill worth developing to improve wellbeing, relationships and career.

Boundaries are an important factor when it comes to your career, life, and well-being because when you have effective boundaries, you’re honouring and protecting what you’ve declared is most important to you. However, as we know from our recent survey of more than 1200 women, a significant number of women struggle to say no and set boundaries.

This is in line with several studies which show that women find it more difficult to set boundaries than men. The reasons for this are social, historical, and cultural. Historically, women have been socialised to prioritise the needs of others over their own. In many cultures, women are expected to be caretakers, and as a result, they may feel guilty or selfish for setting boundaries. In addition, the likeability penalty means that women face more pressure to be accommodating and polite, which can make it harder to say "no" or set limits.

A study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that women were more likely than men to report feeling guilty for setting boundaries in close relationships. Additionally, a study published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology found that women were more likely to report experiencing anxiety and stress when setting boundaries in the workplace.

All of which is to say you’re certainly not alone if you struggle with setting and maintaining boundaries. However, it’s worth spending time developing this skill so you can improve your well-being, your relationships, and your career and protect the things that matter the most to you. When your boundaries are clear and well-defined, you feel secure and confident. When they are weak or non-existent, you can feel overwhelmed, anxious, and insecure. Here are 10 tips to help you build better boundaries:

1. Recognise Your Boundaries

The first step toward building better boundaries is recognising your limits and knowing where you need to set boundaries in the first place. This means being honest with yourself about your physical, emotional, and mental capacity, and thinking about your needs, your wants, and what’s most important to you. If you are wondering where a boundary might need to be set, often you can be guided by your emotions. Any time you are feeling angry, annoyed, or resentful toward someone, that is often a sign that one of your boundaries has been crossed. Or it could be that you actually don’t have a boundary in place, and you need to have one there.

2. Communicate Your Boundaries

Once you’ve identified your boundaries, the next step is to communicate them clearly to the people in your life who will be impacted by them. This may involve setting limits on your time and energy, saying "no'' to requests that you can't meet, or expressing your feelings and needs. Communicating your boundaries is a muscle that you build over time. Depending on the type of boundary you’re setting, and who it impacts, it may need to be negotiated and agreed upon first. Be assertive and direct, but also respectful and empathetic.

3. Learn to Say No

One of the most important aspects of building better boundaries is learning to say "no" when necessary. We know that so many women find saying no difficult, especially when they are used to putting others' needs before their own. However, it is essential to set limits and prioritise your own well-being. No one else can do this for you. Saying no is something that gets easier with practice, so start small. Is there one thing you can say no to this week to practice building that muscle?

4. Set Boundaries in Advance

Set boundaries in advance when possible, so that others know what to expect. For example, if the boundary you’re setting is around your working hours, let your boss know that you can't work past a certain time each day. If you have an event to attend and you can only stay for a certain amount of time, let the person hosting the event know that before you arrive.

5. Avoid Overcommitting

Be realistic about your time and energy. Don't overcommit yourself to things that you can't realistically do. A good way to ensure that you don’t fall into this trap is to practice giving yourself time to respond to any request. Remember to always pause when a request is made, rather than responding by default with a “yes." Once you’ve taken a few moments to pause, you may find that you know the answer you’d like to give already, or you may want more time to think about it. A great practice to get into if you struggle with overcommitting is to let the person know that you need to take a look at your calendar and that you’ll get back to them within 48 hours (or whatever time frame feels appropriate to you).

6. Surround Yourself With Supportive People

Spend time with people who respect your boundaries and support your efforts to build better ones. One of the things that people often struggle with is the pushback they receive on their boundaries: It’s not necessarily setting the boundary that’s difficult, it’s upholding it when someone challenges it. You may have heard the saying that the people who disrespect your boundaries are those that benefited from you having none. The more you surround yourself with people who care about your well-being and respect your boundaries, the better you’ll be at protecting your time and energy.

7. Create Physical Boundaries

Create physical boundaries when necessary, such as by closing your office or study door when you need to focus on work. Another example is keeping your phone and other electronic devices in a separate room at night when you’re trying to sleep, so that nothing omitting blue light is in your bedroom. Sometimes you need to create physical separation and space in order to have a healthy boundary.

8. Set Consequences

Set consequences for people who violate your boundaries. As we’ve already stated, sometimes the most difficult part of the boundary building process is having a plan in place for what you do when you get pushback on a boundary. For example, if someone continues to text you after you've asked them not to, stop responding to their texts.

9. Seek Support

Building better boundaries is not always easy, and it can be helpful to seek support from others. This may involve talking to a therapist or counsellor, or confiding in a trusted friend or family member. If the boundaries you want to build relate to your professional life, you might like to find a mentor who you’ve identified as having a healthy sense of balance and who sets boundaries well and ask for their help and support, or join a coaching community to get expert support. Having someone to talk to can provide valuable insight and encouragement as you work to build stronger boundaries.

10. Practice Self-Reflection

Take time to reflect on your progress and assess how well your boundaries are working for you. Be open to feedback from others and make adjustments as necessary. Building better boundaries is an ongoing process, and it may take time to find the right balance for your needs and lifestyle.

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