Setting Personal Limits in a World of Complexity

9 October, 2017

Dr Libby Weaver, nutrition specialist and author, repeatedly reminds us of our main source of stress in life:  the perception of pressure and urgency, and the need to be all things to all people.  So, how do we identify personal limits, and how do we communicate these to others in a way that preserves ourselves AND the relationship? 

I would like to have a word, therefore, about boundaries.

More than one word in fact, for I believe this is a very important topic to be discussing in the world of personal development, and, in the way of being of service to the world.  Not may of my clients escape my office without personal boundaries being discussed.

So let’s be clear on the dictionary definition of the word boundary: ‘something that indicates bounds or limited; a limiting or bounding line’.

As human beings, living with the complexity that comes with being an evolved species with a pre-frontal cortex and having to manage a multitude of relationships in our lives, knowing our own bounds and limits when it comes to relating to other people is essential.   Without it, we will burn out.  We need to be able to know what’s OK and what’s not OK for ourselves and to be able to communicate this in a way that is warm and loving and preserves the relationship and the other person’s self esteem - and our own.  Being able to do this has far reaching positive consequences for our relationships, for our children and also for the world-at-large.

Let me give you a scenario as one example.  Imagine a person who is a Good Listener, the kind of person that people usually like to talk to, and probably often confide in.  Imagine that perhaps quite a few people he comes across in his daily life enjoy this aspect of him and can quite happily chat away, feeling immensely comfortable doing this, solving their problems as a result of his good, attentive listening.  He wants to be a good person, so he often finds himself listening way beyond his comfort zone, not knowing quite how to break the conversation and get away.  You can already see the potential flaw here can’t you?  If there are many people who feel this way about this one person, you can see how he can quite easily spend his day in conversation with others, about others…...which is fine, except, what about him?  What about the things he needs to do, and the ways he needs to look after himself in order to manage the complexities of his own life?  

Now, let’s add into the equation a specific new person that comes into his life.  Imagine that this person has no real sense of other’s boundaries, namely because she has never had them set for her.  She is relatively anxious for other’s approval and she is the kind of person that will keep on talking, with little awareness of any suggestive cues which indicate she should stop and let the other person slip away.  I call this kind of person the ‘Steamroller’ as the experience for the listener is often one of having felt like they’ve been run over by a steamroller - totally flattened and drained.  I use this label in a playful way you understand, because I know that the Steamroller needs more love and compassion than most other people.

Now imagine if we put the Good Listener who finds it hard to set limits around the duration and frequency of conversations, together with Steamroller who talks endlessly with little awareness of the other person’s needs, and what do we have?  In short:  Heaven for the Steamroller and Hell for the Good Listener! 

It sounds funny but for the Good Listener it actually really wasn’t much fun at all.  He got into one situation where a supposed 10 minute business meeting turned into him sitting down and listening to her talk about herself for a whole two hours.  During this time, he had work to do, he needed to eat and drink and he needed the toilet.  Because he felt he was being a Good Person he didn’t know how to break the conversation so he could attend to himself and his work.  Over time, he had been losing sleep with the thought of getting into these situations at work and not being able to get out of them, and the various negative consequences of that.  He was exhausted, drained and, quite frankly, well and truly steamrolled. 

This particular scenario is quite an extreme example, given that neither party had much sense of personal limits.  However, how many of us get into situations that we don’t feel entirely comfortable with?  When we are sacrificing our own needs like water, food, toilet stops and sleep, to do something or be there for someone else?  We are conflicted deep down, because I believe we all want to be good citizens, help others and contribute, yet we all need to self-preserve and look after ourselves too.  We know too well the costs of not doing this: stress, anxiety, depression, illness, sleep disruption, burn out and so on.

So how do we know when to draw limits?  How do we work out what our boundaries need to be?  And how do we communicate these in such a way that protects ourselves and also preserves the other person’s self-esteem, and the relationship, if that’s appropriate? (We don’t always want to preserve the relationship.  Sometimes we want the relationship to end, which is the ultimate boundary.)  And how, once we identify and communicate a personal boundary, do we find the courage to keep sticking to it, again and again?  Setting and keeping a boundary after all is not a one time thing, it’s a continuous process, an ongoing activity, and something we need to keep coming back to again and again when people try to push, shove and stretch it beyond itself.

Firstly, we need to identify the limit for ourselves.  This is personal, and will vary from context to context, but it has to be self-identified - no one can do this for you.  Remember, other people won’t know what your boundary is, so we can’t blame them for pushing it.  It’s our job to know it and secondly to communicate it.  Some of being able to identify it comes with experience over time.  For example, as a periodic stress-related insomnia sufferer, my bedtime routine is rather boundaried, because I’ve learned this over time due to necessity.  One boundary I have with my husband is that we don’t talk about arrangements or planning or emotive topics - or any topic which can get my brain sizzling when I’m supposed to be winding down for bed - past 9.30pm.   If he temporarily forgets this, then I can gently remind him, because the boundary has already been communicated and agreed to.  I learned this by noticing, over time, what affected my sleep in both negative and positive ways.

One way to identify your own boundary is noticing when you feel discomfort around things that seem to be expected of you.  I believe we know intuitively what’s OK and what’s not OK for us, but we don’t always acknowledge it to ourselves.  Get good at acknowledging it to yourself.  Start with the basic stuff:  when are your basic needs being compromised?  For example sleep, eating, hydrating, exercising, getting down time, being there for your family, personal values.  When you notice who or what are compromising those things it’s gone too far and it’s time to identify a boundary for yourself.  We need to be able to know when enough is enough.  A good way of putting this into an equation/mantra is: 

I am willing to do XYZ for this person/project/voluntary pursuit,  to the extent that I am also maintaining sleep, eating, hydration, calm, normal self-care, basic obligations to my nearest and dearest and personal values.

Once you’ve identified your own limit within a context, the next step is being able to communicate it to others.  Now, this isn’t the kind of ‘assertiveness’ training where you become a hammer and everything looks like a nail - OK?  You don’t want to respond to someone asking you to pass the salt by shouting ‘I’m so tired of everyone asking me to do things around here!  That’s it!  No one ask me for anything past 8 o’clock or there’ll be hell to pay - OKAY?’.  Yeah - please, not that.  You don’t even have to tell people you’ve officially identified and set a boundary, that's for your, t’s not really anyone else's business.  It’s just your job to let the person know what’s OK and what’s not OK for you.  Let’s go through some examples:

I’d really love to work with you, but I don’t see people at weekends any more I’m afraid.  It has to be Monday to Friday for me.

I can see this is really important for you to talk about and I want to be there for you - and - I have to finish this piece of work before lunch.  How about we arrange a time to catch up properly this afternoon?

I know you come alive at night, but this is the only time in my day I get to wind down.  I can give you my full attention if we move these conversations to during the day, is that OK?

I can come to the planning meeting on Friday night, but I will start to lose concentration after 9.30pm!  So I will do as much as I can but I’ll need to head home at this time. 

I’m sorry, but I’ve noticed that you stand really close to my desk when you come and talk to me, and I get a little claustrophobic when people do that.  Do you think you could come and sit around the other side, it would make things easier for me, is that OK?


You may notice that these phrases follow a certain structure.  The first part is acknowledging the other person's request, need, or behaviour.  Just acknowledging it, not trying to change it or judge it or critique it:  ‘I know you come alive at night….’  ‘I notice that you stand really close to my desk….’ ‘ I can see this is really important to you…..’.   This way of acknowledging the current situation and describing it, is called a PACE.  It’s simple to understand, it’s just stating what is - without judgement or anger, or any accusation.  This is what will preserve the other’s self-esteem and the relationship.  Saying ‘I notice that you stand really close to my desk…’ is very different from saying ‘When you do that really creepy thing and invade my personal space…’.  See the difference? 

The other important element to these sentences, is that you are fundamentally making it about yourself, and what you need, not an endless critique of the other person, or focused on changing the other person’s behaviour.  It’s a subtle but important difference.  Compare these two statements ‘…..I really need you to back off and give me some space!’  And ‘….I get a little claustrophobic when people do that.  Do you think you could come and sit around the other side?  It would make things easier for me, is that OK?’.  One is critical and focused on the other person, and one is owning the problem and making it about what works and what doesn’t work for you.  This is called a LEAD.  This will also preserve yourself, and the other’s self-esteem, and the relationship if that’s what you want.  Have a look at all the examples, you will see the same elements in them all: a Pace and Lead.    

It’s this way of communicating, caring about the other person and the relationship, that I believe is the piece that can change the world-at-large.  If you reflect back to your own experiences of having boundaries set for you, you will notice that these memories mostly carry negative weight.  Usually, we remember other’s boundary setting as punitive to us: limiting, cold, even punishing.  It’s the memories of our father coming into our room and angrily shouting ‘it doesn’t matter how you feel, it only matters what I say, now get up and get dressed and go to school - NOW!’   Or our brother saying  “You’re not allowed in here!  Go away!”  We mostly don’t have memories of our parents/teachers/siblings setting appropriate limits in a kind and gentle voice, pacing and leading, and gently guiding our behaviour in a loving way.  Because we didn’t have this example, it makes it harder for us to do it in our own lives as adults. But - imagine a world where our children are parented in that way?  Where feelings and behaviours were simply acknowledged, gently, and behaviour was guided in such a way that make them feel loved and safe?  Where we say ‘I know you want to stay and you’re upset that I’m making you leave.  I know that sucks.  And, it’s important that we get home in time for dinner, so we do need to leave now’. 

One of the most important aspects of parenting is having the courage as a parent to identify appropriate limits, and communicate them in a warm and loving - and firm - manner.  Toddlers without appropriate limits will feel uneasy, and their behaviour will act this out.   With all the parenting advice I listen to, this is the one piece of advice that stands out:  set limits, be firm, and communicate them gently but surely.  Be the strong and confident leader they need you to be.  This takes courage however, courage to face the tantrum that undoubtedly will come, courage to face the fear that they may not like you anymore.

As you may know I am a loyal Brene Brown follower.  I recently heard two new discoveries from her research that relates to this topic, which make perfect sense to me:

1.  The extent to which you can set and communicate boundaries to your children will be the extent to which they can set and communicate boundaries for themselves.  Those with good boundaries setting skills are significantly less likely to engage in risky social behaviour as a teenager - specifically alcohol, drugs and sex behavours.  And the inverse is also true.

2.  The extent to which we are able to set appropriate limits for ourselves, communicate them and have the courage to keep sticking to them, is the extent to which we can feel and communciate compassion for others.  Put simply - the more boundaries we have that preserve ourselves, the more compassion we are able to have for others.  And the inverse is also true. 

You don’t need to over do it - remember that hammer and nail analogy! I do encourage you to explore your own limits and how to communicate them and you may be surprised at what changes in your life.

As always, I love to hear from you!  Leave a comment and let’s have a chat.

Charlotte.

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