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Creating Personal Boundaries
by Gina Gardiner

There are so many different calls upon our time; it is often difficult to fit everything in. How often have you said or heard, "I must make more time". Sadly, it is impossible to make more time. Whatever you do there are only 24 hours in any day or 168 hours a week. We cannot manufacture more time. What we can do is make better use of the time we have at our disposal.

One way to make better use of your time is to create appropriate and sustainable boundaries. So many people find it difficult to do this effectively and the consequences can be far reaching. It can impact not only on our time but on the quality of lives and relationships and how we feel about ourselves.

Before we look at how best to create and sustain effective boundaries it would be useful to define what is meant by boundaries.

Boundaries are where we set the expectations of ourselves and others. What we are prepared to do or not. What time we are prepared to give to ourselves and others. What personal resources we will make available for ourselves and others. The choices we make about what is acceptable behaviour and the way we expect to be treated.

Boundaries are governed to a large extent by how we feel about ourselves and the extent to which our sense of self is determined internally or through the external verification we receive from others. If you have a strong sense of who you are and you feel good about yourself, setting boundaries is easy. If your sense of worth is generated by what others think of you, or you get your sense of identity from doing things for others setting and maintaining clear boundaries can be far more tricky.

Many people feel they are the victim and that they have no control over how they are treated or what is expected of them. They believe that as a partner, parent or employee it is their job to be a doormat. They put the needs and wishes of others before their own and in doing so make a rod for their own back and in doing so limit the development and growth of independence in the other party.

Let's consider some of the underlying themes when you failing to set boundaries:

• Everyone else is more important than me. My needs come well down the list.

• If I say no or am too strict people won't like me.

• If I don't say "yes" I'll get passed over for promotion. People will think I'm bad at my job.

• I have to do it all, if I don't it won't get done properly. It is my responsibility.

• Things have just crept up on me. I'm not sure how I got landed with this lot.

• I must answer my phone -- it doesn't matter how late it is or how trivial the interruption, if I don't I won't be doing my job properly.

• Poor me -- no one appreciates me.

• I'll have to do even more so they notice how good I am.

• No one listens to what I say, they constantly undermine me.

• I can't switch off, I can't relax.

Setting boundaries with others is not about dodging responsibility. It is about doing what is reasonable and giving yourself permission to treat yourself equally with others. Is your sense of self worth driven by what others think about you? Or in real terms what you think others think of you.

Think about what is fair and equitable. It is often useful to think about yourself as you would a concerned best friend. A best friend will give you honest advice based on what is fair. They will hold you to account and tell you how it is. What advice would you give yourself? Do you accept situations which are unreasonable? What impact does it have on your life? How could things be better?

The relationship you have with yourself is reflected in the relationship you have with others. Respecting yourself and recognizing your self for the unique human being you are is a first step. Think about the people you know of who command respect. Consider the expectation they have of themselves and others. Why are they never taken for granted?

It is because they expect people to treat them fairly.

The rules for creating boundaries are the same for your professional life, for your personal life, within your intimate relationships, with family, your children and friends.

• Boundaries need to be in the interests of both parties. They should be fair.

• Boundaries need to be appropriate for purpose. What works in one context may not be suitable for another.

• Boundaries should be sustainable. Think about what you can cope with on a bad day, when the car has gone wrong, the cat has been sick and a client is playing up. It is no good creating boundaries which only work when things are going well and you feel on top of the world.

• Boundaries should be consistent. If you keep changing the goal posts people get confused, there are mixed messages and the boundaries become devalued.

• Paradoxically there needs to be flexibility to deal with exceptional circumstances. The key is that both parties understand what constitutes an exceptional circumstance, rather than confusion created when boundaries have no clear basis.

• Set up the boundaries explicitly. Ensure that all parties understand what is expected of them. Set them up early in the relationship and offer a sound reason for doing so. E.g. I'll take phone calls until 7.00pm but after that please phone only in an emergency. Be explicit about what you consider to be an emergency or people will interpret it differently to you.

• Boundaries should not be about ego and wielding power. Where position is abused in this way you may gain what you want in the short term but it will damage your long term relationships. As a Boss or a parent you need to set boundaries based on your greater experience, status and understanding of the bigger picture. Abusing your position by setting boundaries to make the other person feel inferior or fearful or simply because you can is a recipe for disaster.

• Boundaries should be set and maintained with respect. Consider your body language, tone of voice, the tenor of the email or phone call. Temper, having tantrums, sulking or withholding your attention when others fail to adhere to the boundaries you set simply makes matters worse.

• Involve the other person whether it is your colleague, partner, subordinate or child whenever and where ever appropriate. Even young children can be involved. When people understand what is required and why they are far more likely to comply. Be clear what is non-negotiable and why.

• Offer people choices with clear consequences if they comply and if they do not. The consequences should be in keeping with the boundary and the impact it will make.

• Boundaries need to be reviewed regularly. As circumstances change, children get older, staff more experienced you may need to change the boundary, the consequences or both.

• Model the behaviours you want from others, show by example.

Remember to set boundaries for yourself. Compartmentalizing your life and making a clear boundary between work time and personal time is really important if you are to relax and recuperate and if you are to have a happy healthy relationship with your partner and the family. When you are at work -- do your best. Be productive rather than busy. When it is time to go home learn to switch off. Be in the moment and focus on your partner, your child. It is really difficult for your partner if you are there physically but with your internal focus still solving problems at work or creating some new project. It diminishes their sense of self value.

Time spent listening to that voice in your head which constantly nags you about what you have done or failed to do is so de-energizing. That energy could be used so much more productively. If your inner voice is loud and persistent working with a coach can be very helpful.

If you are a manager setting boundaries with your staff can free you to lead strategically and give them the opportunity to take responsibility for their actions and develop skills and experience. Effective delegation is crucial. You do not have to do everything yourself, or be the fall guy for all their mistakes. What you must do is create clear supportive structures which facilitate productive working. Those structures include effective boundaries.

Boundaries act like the markings on a map. You can find the quickest most straight forward route, avoid falling in rivers or crossing railway lines, know where you can safely rest and where you can find a hospital or a place of interest. When there are no signs it is so easy to loose your way and get into difficulty.

Gina Gardiner may be contacted at

Gina Gardiner has been described by Ofsted as an “inspirational leader” and by Investors in People as an “impressive coach and exceptional mentor who has developed an innovative and exemplary training scheme” for emergent, middle and senior managers.

Gina has a huge interest in leadership, she has led a wide range of training and facilitation activities with individuals, schools and other organizations, In her work as Independent Consultant and as an Executive Life Coach and mentor she supports people at individual or organizational level to develop confidence, leadership and people skills and effective delegation; empowering them to see themselves as part of the solution. She is a Neuro Linguistic Master Practitioner and a qualified coach.

Author of “Kick Start Your Career” and “How YOU Can Manage Your Staff More Effectively (And In Doing So Pave The Way To Your Next Promotion)”



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