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Many people have a hard time setting boundaries. Some grew up learning that it’s normal for others to walk all over us. It’s "normal" for the opinions and preferences of an elder, a parent, a sibling, and even strangers to be more important than our own. "Normal" to put ourselves last, at the expense of everything, including our sanity.
Setting boundaries is a key foundation for maintaining mental health.
What is a Boundary?
Boundaries are the lines that you draw in your life that, when someone crosses them, govern what you do in response.
A common misconception is that boundaries govern what others do.
Instead, it’s saying "you’re not allowed to cross this line," not including a consequence, and expecting them to obey the "rules."
The formula for a boundary looks like this:
Behavior + Consequence = Boundary
The key here is the consequence. For example, I have a clear-set boundary with a certain person. If this person uses abusive language toward me (behavior), I will leave their presence (consequence). I direct the consequence toward the "violater" but involves actions that I take.
Here are 9 rock-solid boundaries you should consider setting in your life right now.
1. No Violence or Abuse
This one should be obvious, but it occurs anyway. When people grow up in abusive households, they’re more likely to think that violence and abuse are normal, and so they don’t have boundaries that protect themselves from that behavior.
With violence and abuse, the relationship between the victim and the perpetrator can be extremely complicated.
My rule in any relationship is that any violence is an immediate deal breaker. All it takes is one hit out of anger for a problem to arise. Second and third chances destroy the integrity of this boundary, telling the abuser that you don’t really mean to follow through with any of your consequences.
Abuse has the potential to be more subtle, depending on what it is, and while leaving is the best option in most cases, therapy and boundary-setting are other options.
2. Separating Work from Life
I have a self-imposed rule that helps with this boundary: I never "friend" coworkers on Facebook until we no longer work for the same company.
Bringing work into your personal life can cause problems at home, and bringing your personal life into work can cause problems at work. I don’t truly believe that there is a “work-life balance.” Work and life together are Life with a capital L. They blend.
Maintaining boundaries about the things that bleed into each other gives you space to fully focus on one or the other at the time you need to focus on them.
It’s important, however, to build relationships with your work team and coworkers. I love talking to my manager about random things, trading tidbits about our personal lives, and developing that relationship in the margins of meetings. Doing so lets both of us have psychological safety—the idea that there is no judgment; only understanding and encouragement to be vulnerable and share ideas.
It’s nice when your work team all watches Game of Thrones and takes the time to discuss what happened in the final episodes, even though everyone pretty much agrees that all of Season 8 absolutely sucked.
Separating work from life to me means that I never turn my work computer on after hours or on weekends. It also means that I leave the "home crises" at home to deal with later, or let my husband handle.
3. Space and Time (No Wibbly-Wobbly)
Time is precious. It’s our most scarce resource on this planet—and one that we can’t make more of. Many people don’t take steps to guard their time.
They drop everything to be at the beck and call of their children, their spouse, their parents, their friends, their bosses.
Or perhaps you don’t drop those things on purpose. Maybe it’s the friend who comes over without warning and stays for three hours when you were in the middle of household chores. It’s that person at work who always has something to talk about, whether you want to or not, and then it cuts into your next meeting or the progress you were making on a project.
Boundaries with space and time are among the most basic.
While difficult at first, learn how to tell that friend that you’re in the middle of something, and to please call ahead next time she wants to visit. You should learn how to gently interrupt that talkative coworker to say that you appreciate the new information, and now you really need to get back to work.
4. Intentional Time for Self
Self-care is taking off in the world. Everyone and their sister talks about the importance of self-care, but how many of us really take that advice to heart?
Regardless if you’re an introvert or an extrovert, everyone needs time alone to reflect. In his book Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport discusses the rise of solitude deprivation, which is the cognitive state of always being "on" and never having any time alone with our thoughts. It’s the state of "not having inputs from other minds."
Newport references other studies surrounding solitude deprivation, and how it connects to the astronomical rates of anxiety among the younger generations.
Set a boundary in your life to have time to yourself without the interruptions of others. This includes not just people, but also our devices. If you can get away for an hour-long walk or hike, take advantage of it. Leave your phone in the bottom of your pack, don’t put earbuds in, and don’t take along a partner.
Just be with yourself for a while. It’s uncomfortable at first but is the key to a lot of creative breakthroughs.
5. Deal Breakers
In any relationship, whether romantic or platonic, we should have deal breakers. Deal breakers are activities, behaviors, or mental states that trigger us to move on and out of that person’s life.
One of my deal breakers is physical violence. Under no circumstances is anyone going to get away with violent behavior toward me and stay in my life.
Think about the behaviors that you despise. Think about your values, your deeply held beliefs, and how much you’re willing to take before throwing in the towel.
Deal breakers come in many shapes and forms. Another deal breaker for me is children. I do not want children, and neither, thankfully, does my husband. We had meaningful conversations around that decision. Anecdotally, couples who differ on the "kids decision" are generally a lot unhappier than couples who make the decision together.
Under no circumstances should two people get together under the assumption that the other person will change their mind about having kids or not.
6. Interruptions (Personal & Professional)
How often are you interrupted at work? How about at home? Do you have small children underfoot, and so you’re in that season of life when everything is interrupted? While I have no experience with raising children, I understand that it gets better.
Mostly. Maybe. We're all in a new world right now with COVID and so many districts schooling from home.
But what about other types of interruptions? Friends calling with false emergencies, coworkers stopping by your office or cubicle (or video calling you out of the blue) to ask a quick question, or your spouse thinking that you home all day (or even when you get home) means you’re cognitively available?
Dealing with interruptions is difficult, but implementing boundaries up front and being clear about them will help with everyone’s peace of mind.
The universal sign that you don’t want anyone to interrupt you is headphones or earbuds. Unfortunately, not everyone respects that. I’ve had coworkers talk to me and I can’t hear them because of my earbuds, which they claimed not to see.
At home, earbuds in means I’m doing work (whether for my full-time job as I work from home, for my coaching practice, or for anything else I do) and I’d prefer not to be interrupted.
The key is to have these conversations with the people who interrupt you up front.
7. Social Media Limits
Do you ever feel lonelier after spending time on social media? If so, you’re not alone. Social media not only sucks up an unprecedented amount of time, but it’s also full of curated lives that trigger the urge to compare our lives against those of our "friends."
Limiting social media usage is a great personal boundary to set with yourself. I, for one, know that I’m addicted to impulsively opening Facebook just to check if I have any notifications. I’ve noticed that 90% of my notifications are relatively useless, so I’m paring down which ones I receive.
Digital Minimalism outlines a 30-day digital detox challenge that primes you to intentionally add back the optional digital services you wish to use, but only when they support your personal values.
Maybe you can limit yourself to checking Facebook and Twitter in the evenings before you start your evening ritual. Maybe it’s only checking them once a week. Or, if you use Facebook primarily for the groups (which I do) find out what days the groups post something you want to interact with and make a note of it on your calendar. Then, only go in on those days to participate and catch up in the group. You should also minimize the time you spend during this.
As I am not a parent, my perspective on this comes from watching others and reading stories about dysfunctional families. But let’s be honest—every family is at least slightly dysfunctional.
As horrible as it sounds, mothers-in-law are the main culprit when it comes to the need to implement parenting boundaries.
You, as the mother or father, must have an honest yet frank conversation with your parents about how to acceptably interact with your family.
Mothers-in-law, in particular, should never give parenting advice unless you ask for it. They should never, under any circumstances, undermine your parenting.
You know, unless you’re a really crappy parent.
But that’s all about perspective.
You and your spouse should be on the same page about parenting your children. To keep some sanity in your life, perhaps you set some boundaries with your kids.
Things like knocking before entering your bedroom, or never entering your bedroom after a certain time. I don’t know how this would work in real life, but I’ve heard that it’s a good one to try sticking to.
9. Politics and Religion
Unless you really enjoy talking about politics and religion, I find it best to have a well-established personal rule about it. Mine is to avoid engaging about it unless I can engage respectfully.
And even if you do enjoy it, not everyone else does.
My family is mostly conservative Christian. During family holidays, sometimes we have guests who are on the complete opposite side of that coin. Before those visits, we respectfully ask that politics and religion not enter the dialogue.
They mostly adhere to this rule, thankfully.
But what about in the workplace?
Probably not a good place to discuss politics and religion, to be honest.
What if you have coworkers who insist on discussing the next election?
“Sorry, it’s a personal rule not to talk about stuff like that at work.”
Summed up, if you can’t be respectful or you sense that the conversation will deteriorate, opt to stay out of it.
Which Boundaries Will You Implement?
Which of these boundaries resonates with you? Do you already have them in your life? Did you realize while reading this that you need to work on some of them? I can help with that. Sign up for a free 60-minute coaching consultation to find out how working together can change your life.