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3 Steps Towards Better, Kinder Boundaries

Setting and upholding boundaries has been a recurring theme in my coaching practice recently. The topic has shown up in many client conversations over the last few weeks:

  • a CEO between roles who is asked to be present in both the role he is exiting and the one he is transitioning to;

  • a Director in a consulting firm, overstretched by multiple projects, shouldering responsibility that should be collective;

  • a couple who are being asked about their plans to have children at every family event.

Here’s the thing about boundaries, whether personal or professional. We know they’re good for us. They can help us live a more fulfilled life, create space for what matters, help our physical and mental health.

But setting and maintaining them is often easier said than done.

How to do so without feeling like we’ve offended, disappointed or jeopardised our career success? I have learnt that being good at boundaries is a skill that we can develop, just like any other.

In this article I’d like to offer some steps you can take to reflect and perhaps you’d like to set one or two?

Boundaries are a form of self-care.

Self-care, although often thought of as bubble baths or walks in nature, includes any activity that we do to take care of our mental, emotional, and physical health. And in a world where we are constantly asked to do more with less, boundaries are an essential way for us to look after ourselves and prevent burnout.

If you’d like to give the boundaries in your life some thought, I'd like to offer you 3 steps to take:

1) Examine your relationship with boundaries

For many of my clients, the idea of setting boundaries can feel uncomfortable. It is often because the topic can bring about connotations of selfishness, building walls, or being rude. It can also feel like “rocking the boat”. But boundaries are not just about saying no, and they are not about cancelling people or cutting them out.

I like to think of boundaries as limits you set with others, a perimeter that you create to honour your needs and priorities. In relationships, it’s a line that demarcates where your responsibility ends and another person’s begins. And an important part of boundaries work is about communicating our needs to others – but I’ll get on to that.

One of the principles I encourage my clients to think about has to do with “moving towards” rather than “moving away from”.

When applying this to boundaries work, think about what will those boundaries be in service of? What will become possible once they are in place?

If I’m to go through the discomfort of saying no and risk disappointing others, what will I be able to say yes to instead?

For example, creating a boundary around finishing work at a certain time might be uncomfortable. But, it's a means to an important end: it may allow me to connect at a deeper level with my family, become healthier or reach any other goal that is important for the quality of our life. There is risk involved, but make sure the reward is there front of mind that is worth that risk.

A few questions to reflect on:

  • What would the boundaries you set be in service of? What would you like to create more in your life?

  • Are there any boundary “red flags” that come up for you as you read this article? Feeling drained, anxious and resentful is often a sign that a boundary might need to be set.

2) Prepare for and manage the discomfort

One thing to acknowledge is that we all carry with us our own, unique emotional patterns and beliefs that might get in the way.

For example, one of my clients held a deep-seated belief that asking for help is akin to admitting weakness.

Another felt anxious about the opinions and feelings of others, and worried that people would see them unfavourably if they advocated for themselves.

Yet another client, one who was prone to imposter feelings, climbed through the ranks by being very dependable and hardworking. They felt that saying “no” would undermine the reputation they worked hard to build.

Saying no might also be difficult for those of us for whom it wasn’t taught or respected in childhood. Our learnt patterns of behaviour might make us feel uncomfortable and guilty even when we’ve done nothing wrong. But they can be unlearnt, also with the help of a coach or a therapist.

When we start creating better boundaries, this work may feel uncomfortable. It’s normal to feel unsure, worried, guilty, awkward, or uncertain. These emotions are to be expected, especially if we are new to it.

Our emotions signal to us that we are outside of our comfort zone.

Part of managing the discomfort is also about accepting that some relationships might not be what they're used to - change towards healthier ways of interacting might involve some loss.

Be prepared to accept and manage the temporary ache for the long-term reward.

Some food for thought:

  • Can you think of an area in your life when you wanted or tried to establish boundaries? What, if anything, felt uncomfortable about that?

  • Think about how the culture around you affects your ability to set and uphold your boundaries. Some organisations have an “always connected” culture which can make switching our phone off for the weekend feel really uncomfortable . The same goes for our personal lives. In some families, speaking up is seen as rude by parents, regardless of the age and the stage of life their grown-up children are at.

3) Communicate them in an emotionally mature way

Let me start with the premise that we can be kind and set healthy boundaries.

I would even take it further to say that setting healthy boundaries can improve our relationships and connect us at a deeper level. If we don’t honour and communicate our needs then resentment, frustration, anger might seep into our partnerships, whether professional or personal.

When we are boundaried, we are likely to have more capacity for empathy.

When communicating our boundaries, the hardest part is often about finding the right language. A way that my clients are finding helpful is to use I-statements.

I-statements focus the attention on us rather than blaming the other person.

They contain phrases like “I feel… / I need… / what’s important to me is…”. They allow us to share our feelings and needs while minimising the risk of the other person going on the defensive.

It’s important to be clear and focus on the solution, not the problem, maybe even invite the other person to collaborate and find the solution with you?

Some examples:

Let’s go back to the CEO between roles from the beginning of this article. He might say something like:

“Ensuring that I leave my current team at a place where they can succeed without me is important to me. I am excited about starting my new role very soon and giving it all my focus and energy. My capacity before my start date is limited, but I’m keen to start building relationships with key stakeholders. Could you help me identify the people who are most important for me to connect with before I start?”

The overstretched director might say:

“Maintaining high quality of work for our clients is our top priority and part of our reputation. I am at capacity right now and I feel that taking more on would risk the quality of our deliverables slipping. Thank you for thinking of me, your project sounds very interesting, but I can’t get involved in it right now.”

This is how the couple might respond to intrusive personal questions:

“I feel uncomfortable when you keep asking me about children at family events. This is a private matter between us that we do not wish to discuss in public. Could you please refrain from bringing this topic up?”

The language in these sentences might or might not work for you, depending on your style and culture. The key is to find words that feel authentic to us and practice.

In many situations starting small is key to success:

  • I-statements can be practiced in everyday situations (like asking for a refund) - it may be worth getting familiar with this way of communicating in low risk situations before addressing that contentious topic with the boss.

  • Boundaries can evolve over time. For example, you may start by leaving the office early one day a week and build from there rather than commit to a blanket hard stop each evening.

  • If boundaries relate to a specific person, it may also be worth addressing one boundary at a time. If we unload a series of boundaries on someone all at once, it can be overwhelming, confusing, or feel like an attack.

It’s also worth thinking about how you would deal with objections. Ideally, the person you’re setting boundaries with will hear you out and respect your needs. However, this doesn’t always happen, and it pays off to be prepared.

An invitation to reflect:

  • Which area in your life would benefit most from firmer boundaries?

  • If there was one boundary for you to create that would make significant difference to the quality of your life, what would it be?

  • How could you phrase it so that it’s clear, concise and focussed on your feelings and needs (as opposed to criticising the other person)?

In summary

Setting boundaries are not a one-off event. It’s a constant practice that needs consistency of attention and emotionally mature communication.

Also, it’s worth remembering that not all communication is verbal - we communicate our boundaries strongly through our actions.

For example - if others have observed that whenever possible you only do your work or send emails during work hours, this comes with a clear message about where our boundaries are. In consequence, people might be less likely to expect you to violate them.

When you are a leader, you are the role model for your team. When you honour your boundaries you will also give them unspoken permission to set and uphold their own.

Are you ready to ready to learn how to set boundaries in a kind way and maintain healthy relationships?

I support my clients through 1-to-1 coaching sessions and / or workshops. If you like the idea of working with a coach or inviting me to talk to your team, please email me at




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