Boundary-setting is something I’ve been thinking and practicing in an intentional way for a few years now, but I wanted to know how other people set boundaries and how it’s changing their lives for the better. In a world where the lines between the different parts of our lives are becoming ever more blurred, how do we stay grounded and focus on what matters? How do we keep from being buried by the expectations placed on us to seemingly be all things to all people? How do we navigate demanding and sometimes dysfunctional relationships?
While I don’t believe there’s a quick and easy answer to these questions, the closest we’ll get to one is to make a commitment to set and maintain boundaries. Simply put, boundaries define where others end and you begin.
Here, I’m sharing practical guidance on why we need boundaries and how to set them well. The insights come thanks to the help of three people who are definitely taking this practice seriously and doing it well.
Julia Hogan: Name what matters
My friend Julia Hogan is a therapist, author, and general font of wisdom. She says that for her, the first step in setting boundaries is identifying what matters to her and making decisions based on her values.
“I find that asking myself if something is in line with who I want to be as a person or what I believe I'm called to do helps me figure out whether or not to say yes to something or take part in it,” she said. “If I can identify that it's not in line with who I want to be as a person or it's going to prevent me from being fully present for those things that are important to me, I try not to give it the time or energy.”
What I love about her advice is that naming what matters is fertile soil for growth, and yet it also leaves room for our boundaries to change with the seasons of our lives. What matters to us at 22 may be different than what matters at 30 — and that’s okay. When we return to what matters right now, our boundaries grow and change with us through our lives.
Steven Lawson: Steward time well
Steven Lawson is the founder of Monk Manual, “a daily system designed for peaceful being and purposeful doing”. He has valuable, hard-won insight to share with us about setting boundaries around our use of time.
“As an entrepreneur the work truly never ends,” he said. “And since all my work lives on my computer, there is the temptation to never truly shut the door on my work and put it aside so I can be fully present with the other aspects of my life.
“Something I’ve recently been trying to incorporate is physically putting my computer away at certain times on weekends,” he explained. “I needed to create a boundary because if I didn’t, I would never be able to focus on the things that truly matter most to me, my family, and the ways I hope to serve in the world.”
The demands and distractions of the outside world won’t disappear on their own. It’s up to us to walk away for a while, close the door, and turn down the volume on the noise clamoring for our attention. There are no grown ups to tell us when to turn the TV off and go to bed — we’re the grown ups now. It’s up to us to set the boundaries that once were set for us.
Joseph Fagan: Hold space for yourself
Joseph Fagan holds an LMSW and works as a therapist, specializing in mental health and addiction issues. As a busy father of two daughters, he’s found value in making space for self-care.
“I prioritize self-care and schedule time for exercise, prayer, meditation, and a regular massage — just as I would other appointments to see my therapist, dentist, doctor, etc.,” he said. “When a request is made of my time, I consider the urgency and importance of the request, and often simply explain that I am unavailable at that particular time because I have an ‘appointment,’ and schedule the new request around my existing time constraints. Most of us would never dream of canceling a doctor's appointment or our kid's drop-off time at school, but we often get ‘too busy’ for these other areas of self-care.”
When we say yes to every request for our time, attention, and energy, we can quickly reach the point of burnout and find ourselves feeling empty and exhausted. Simple favors or requests for help that we’d normally say an enthusiastic yes to suddenly feel like a burden when we’re pouring from an empty cup. Self-care helps us love the people around us generously and well.
My husband is a custom home-builder and when he begins the process of drawing up plans for a client, he first needs to know where their land begins and ends. He has to learn the limits within which he can work. The same is true for us. Especially when we’re feeling resentful or bitter or burnt out, we can often attribute part of the problem to the fruitless attempt to work outside our personal limitations.
It isn’t always simple or clear-cut, but if we start by naming what matters and pay attention to what is consuming our time and energy, we can take one step forward at a time, moving toward freedom, peace, and stronger relationships.