I recently had a client who got serious about turning her calling into a career, and she told me that in order to do so, she needed to create more space in her schedule for her business. She needed to focus, prioritize, and cut out distractions.
“Great!” I said. “What’s keeping you distracted?”
Her reply was instant: “Other people.”
Then she asked one of the biggest and most important questions I get asked on a daily basis: “How do I set a boundary or say 'no' without upsetting other people?”
The truest answer I can give is that you can’t. It completely sucks when someone has a temper tantrum over you being yourself or setting a purposeful boundary around your time, attention, or emotional engagement, and there is absolutely nothing you can do to prevent or control this. There are, however, a few things you can do to navigate the expected fallout.
I will be the first to admit that I am in process with boundaries. Just last month, I botched a boundary-setting opportunity big time.
It was the end of a long week, and there was nothing I wanted more than to sink into my bath with a book, a glass of wine, and no regrets about shutting the world out for a while. Then my husband came home early from work and proceeded to blare the TV at decibels that literally rippled the water in my tub. He had no idea he had crossed my boundary—he just wanted to watch baseball. I rose from the tub, wet and fuming, and began to close all of the doors between us to drown out the noise. He made an innocent joke about my shutting him out, and I was wracked with guilt.
Did I seriously upset him? Am I being a bad partner? Should I rearrange my evening?
Instead of carving out a sacred space to focus on what I needed in the moment, I ended up softening the boundary I had intended to set. I closed one of the doors between us but left the other one open. Instead of unwinding, I spent the next hour in a rapidly cooling tub, angry, resentful, and bombarded by sports noise.
I sincerely hope that as you are reading this, you’re thinking, “Oh my god, Amy, get over it. Tell him to turn down the volume! It’s just a freaking bath!” Because as I write this, that’s exactly what I’m thinking.
But in the moment, all I could do was wonder, “How do I get this need met without disrupting anyone else in the process?”
And that’s exactly what my client was asking me: “How do I find the courage to focus on my goals while still fitting myself in around others’ needs and expectations?”
I hear you, Mama. When a boundary gets crossed or you fear someone will have a negative reaction, it’s so incredibly normal to start negotiating your needs in order to calm the other person down. After all, you are a genuinely loving person! Who would want to upset someone if they could help it?
When you betray your boundaries, you betray yourself.
The truth is that my husband would not have been upset if I closed all the doors and took up space for myself, but the fear was still there. Closing a physical or metaphorical door with someone or something you care about can be really scary, but closing that door doesn’t mean “I don’t love you.” It means “I love myself.”
After working through my own boundary bombs and assisting tons of clients with the very same issues, I’ve learned a few things that tend to work and a few more that don’t.
Here are my Top 10 Boundary Do’s and Don’ts + How to Deal When Backlash is Headed Your Way
#1: Don’t rob the other person of the opportunity to grow.
Maybe the Universe wants this person to learn something from the experience of being told "no." Maybe by not standing up for your boundaries, you are refusing to participate in the Universe's plan. What if—by compromising your boundaries—you’re not helping either of you?
What this sounds like: "I know I need to set this boundary and leave work on time. My colleagues may have some feelings about that, but their feelings belong to them, not me, and maybe when I stand up for my boundary, I'll being giving others permission to do the same."
#2: Do flesh out your worst case scenario.
Your fears might tell you that if you set a boundary, you'll be unsafe—that your partner will leave you, or your boss will fire you, or you'll lose all your clients. How realistic is this fear? Is that client really going to freak out if you stop answering email after 7PM? Is your boss really going to fire you if you say "no" to taking on extra projects? Name the worst case scenario of sticking to your boundaries and consider the likelihood of it happening in real life.
What this sounds like: "It's so scary to tell my mom that I can't discuss politics with her anymore because it upsets me, but it's not super realistic to think saying it will ruin our relationship forever."
#3: Do lead with love.
99 out of 100 times, the person who crossed your boundary didn’t know they were doing it. So many of our boundaries are what my friend Carina calls, "barbed wire boundaries." Basically, if you come too close, you’ll get cut! While some people are genuinely awful, most of the time, the boundary pusher isn't trying to be a jerk. Leading with love lets you enforce a boundary without making the other person wrong or bad.
What this sounds like: "Hey, partner. I know you didn't mean anything by it when you touched my XYZ body part, but I'm not into that right now. Maybe later! Want to grab some popcorn?"
#4: Don’t dumb it down.
What does your particular brand of softening sound like? For me, it’s the word “but.” “I’m going to take a bath, but I’ll leave the door open. Tuesday isn’t great for me, but I could try to make something work. I don’t really have the bandwidth right now, but I know it’s important to you.” When you're scared to set or enforce a boundary, it makes perfect sense that you'd want to soften the language you use, but sometimes dumbing down the language also dumbs down the message. It can be tough for other people to understand your boundaries when you yourself communicate them in a soft, negotiable way.
What this sounds like: "I am not okay with you showing up at my house unannounced. Please call me ahead of time if you are interested in getting together."
#5: Don’t give a 1200-word explanation.
“Well, when you say this, I feel that, and I don’t really think I should feel that, but I do, and maybe it has something to do with my relationship with my dad, and I need to take responsibility for that piece, but I also think you shouldn’t have blah blah blah blah blah.” No. Similar to Tip #4, when you overly explain your boundary, you make it worse by muddling the message. Be clear and kind. Then sashay away.
What this sounds like: "Boss, when you volunteered me to work that weekend event without asking me first, it crossed a boundary of mine. Please do not do that again.”
#6: Do practice in low-stakes scenarios.
If you are in process with boundaries or new to practicing them, don’t do things that freak you out unnecessarily. Work up to the scary stuff and start where you feel safe. For example, if you are terrified your biggest client will fire you if you institute a no-meetings-on-Monday policy, that's not where you want to test your new boundaries. Practice standing up for yourself with a partner or friend who won't go anywhere if you tell them "no" occasionally.
What this sounds like: "I want to work up to telling my dad he can't ask me for money anymore, but that's too intense! I think I'll practice standing up for myself by asking for a raise at work since my boss and I have a great relationship."
#7: Do teach other people how to treat you.
Most people will not have a complete meltdown or think any less of you for standing up for your boundaries. However, if they do, remain nonreactive during their tantrums. They will learn that tantrums don’t work on you, and they’ll eventually stop tantruming. Bosses, clients, partners, parents, and friends are not unlike 2 year-olds. If you remain firm, they will learn that what you say has stakes and consequences. Likewise, if you give in, they will learn to keep pushing you.
What this sounds like: "Ugh, my daughter is slamming all the cabinet doors because I set a boundary with her! It would be so easy to give in right now, but I'm going to stay loving and rooted in my truth instead."
#8: Do use affirmations.
Talk to yourself! Preferably, in a loving, gentle way. Remind yourself that having boundaries is normal, healthy, and okay. Remind yourself that regardless of what the other person’s reaction is, it isn't your responsibility to own, and it isn’t even about you.
What this sounds like: "My parents kind of freaked out when I told them that I am the one who gets to make this decision. I do feel a little guilty, but you know what? I'm really growing here. I did a positive, brave thing."
#9: Do share the experience with someone who gets it.
Brene Brown says that sharing your shame is the most important piece of building shame resilience (AKA feeling less crappy about your worth) when you stick up for yourself. After you do the brave work of setting and enforcing a boundary, share the experience with someone who will validate your feelings, celebrate, and cheer you on.
What this sounds like: "Wow, I felt totally weird and icky telling my new client I wouldn't negotiate my rate, but I’m so glad I stood up for myself! Have you ever dealt with something like that?"
#10: Don’t judge your boundaries.
"Is my boundary reasonable? Am I being too harsh? Maybe it's not a big deal. Maybe I should be more flexible!" While there is certainly value in flexibility and negotiation, if you struggle with boundaries, you're probably too flexible and willing to negotiate! Instead of second guessing what you need, trust that your boundaries are right for you at this moment in your life and honor them.
What this sounds like: "I don’t know if it was 'right' or 'wrong' of me to say "no," to my friend today, but I do know that when he pushed the issue, I felt really annoyed, which is a big clue that I need to set a boundary, and that is 100% okay."
As giving, heart-centered women who genuinely want to make the world a better place, it makes sense that boundary issues come up occasionally, and I don't know a single caring person who hasn't had the experience of having all that loving energy taken advantage of. But remember, someone else’s reaction to your boundary is always a reflection of their limitations, not your worth.