Do you feel less joy these days? Does it feel like everyone else owns a piece of you and there is nothing left? Do you dream to have 15 minutes of uninterrupted time so you can reconnect with yourself? Is your life a harried record of accomplishments and yet never-ending to-do lists? Would your personal profile be listed in the dictionary under the word “busyness”? You may sadly chuckle and infer these questions are tongue-in-cheek, but the reality is that an answer of “yes” to any of these questions is a sobering reminder of how stressed and anxiety-ridden many are as they run, not walk, on the treadmill of American life. Unfortunately, the solution is not as easy as advertised by the late 1980’s commercial “Calgon, take me away!” in which a woman, surrounded by a chaotic home, says these four words and is then transported to a relaxing bath in a quiet room. If only the solution could be solved so simply by the purchase of a few bath products and an evening soaking in the tub.
What’s the solution?
The solution is within your power to implement. Personal boundaries! They are the critical component in designing the life you want. “Boundaries provide the structure to your character that will make everything else work” (Cloud, 2008). Boundaries affect how we relate to others, how we feel emotionally, and how we perform at work. When you understand the impact of boundaries and choose to define them for your life, you will reconnect with your identity, find more joy, and create a healthier and more satisfying life. The necessity of personal boundaries has emerged as a counter force to the crisis that has developed from an increasingly structureless society that values the integration of work-life, despite the rhetoric that we need to have more of a work-life balance. American culture and work have eroded the time and space boundaries we need to focus on the priorities we value most.
How did we get here?
So how did we get to this place of exhaustion and dissatisfaction? Work structure has changed from the typical 9 to 5 hours of operation to one in which we are to be available 24-7, where working in the evenings is just an extension of the normal work day. Work has penetrated our home space by either design or creep. Bortolot (2015) states that the home office is now one of the most important residential amenities. Even if one can physically separate his work environment within the home, he may not be able to mentally escape work. How many of you have tried to relax in the evening, only to feel the nag of work penetrating your thoughts? Do you compromise by opening up your laptop while watching your favorite TV sitcom? Although society praises the multi-tasker, they are usually pulled in so many directions, they struggle to enjoy anything other than the satisfaction that comes from crossing off more items on their to-do list. Keim (2012) showed that high multi-taskers performed poorly at filtering irrelevant from relevant information, had diminished ability to mentally organize, and experienced difficulty in switching between tasks. Keim (2012) concluded if you do two things simultaneously, you will not do any of them at full capacity.
Although our lives have all benefited from technology, the tragedy is that it has also enabled the violation of our time and space boundaries. Personal cell phones allow access to you at all times. iPhones and computers give instant access to data and connectivity to work. Email has expanded our network so strangers can now reach into our personal world. Although email was initially described as a productivity enhancement, anyone with an email address is now accessible at any time by any one. Email and voicemail can be blessings, but without personal boundaries, you may feel email is a curse because of the pressure to respond to communication, even if unsolicited. By definition most people are losing control over their most precious resource—their time. Money can be earned, won, spent and lost, but time is a finite resource.
Boundaries help us define who we are and form a structure in our lives that allows us to regain control (Cloud, 2008). Boundaries protect your time, space, and relationships so that you can positively influence your world. Our society does not naturally provide the support that helps us to create and live out healthy boundaries. Cloud (2008) asserts that “the irony is that most people are so caught up in trying to control the things they cannot control—other people, circumstances, or outcomes—that in the process they lose control of themselves” (p. 21). The only thing you can control is yourself, so consider the decision to take control of you.
How do I reclaim my life?
- Understand what a boundary is and what it does
A boundary is a demarcation of where you end and where someone or something else begins. Boundaries define ownership and who controls what does and does not go on in that space. More importantly boundaries define who is responsible for and accountable to protect that space.
- Understand what boundaries provide and how they serve your needs
Boundaries provide the structure that helps to define our character and personality, because they describe who we are, what we want, and how we feel and think. Clear boundaries provide security and benefit self and others, because they are not ambiguous, are predictable, and signal what we will and will not tolerate. They help to contain chaos, because one who is clear on boundaries will step in to make sure chaos is effectively dealt with.
- Define what you feel, think, and desire
Boundaries differentiate us from others and teach us how we are unique individuals in feelings, attitudes, behaviors, limits, thoughts, and choices. What are the things that you value most in life? How would you ideally want to live your life? What do you want to make a priority? What are your vision, mission, and goals?
- Identify the holes in your boundaries
Rebuilding boundaries is about reclaiming your power. Power drains have numerous sources as described by Cloud (2008): need for security, need for approval, need to be perfect, need to have others see you as ideal, need to overidentify with other people’s problems, need to rescue, fear of being alone, fear of conflict, need for harmony, fear of differing opinions, fear of anger, fear of feeling inferior, fear of someone’s power, inability to say no, inability to hear no or accept limits, inability to tolerate failure of others, hero worship, lack of internal structure, and dependency to name a few. You should identify the holes in your boundaries and address them.
- Communicate who you are to others
Set limits consistent with your vision, mission, values, and goals and communicate them to others. You empower others by allowing them to decide and live with the consequences defined by your boundaries. By default, you will no longer try to control others’ decisions and actions, because you can live with the outcome of whatever decision they make. Communicating and living within your boundaries is a form of respecting others and also provides a healthy model for them to emulate.
- Act on your boundaries
Live each day in accordance with your boundaries. When you are in control of your boundaries, you become a more integrated person, gain greater respect for yourself, and become more respectful of other people’s boundaries. Boundaries allow you to influence others’ behaviors toward you, which by default makes you feel whole and more in control.
What is the cost of boundaries?
Having boundaries comes comes with a personal cost. In order to have full control, you need to have the freedom to control those aspects of your life where you have boundaries. You can only leverage them if you are not dependent on any single person or entity for survival, because the one to whom you are dependent may decide to invoke their boundaries and put you in an untenable position. As you work on defining your personal boundaries and areas of weakness, you should also take inventory of your life to understand where you have weak capital. Has poor financial stewardship put you in a position that you could not weather a job lose for several months should you decide to invoke your boundaries? Would a work dismissal cause you undue hardship? If so, you may need to save for an emergency fund to build that capital. What about the young adult, still living rent-free with his parents, who does not like his imposed curfew? He is not free to come and go as he pleases as a fully functioning adult, because he may be asked to pack up his belongings and move out. His first step should be to build his financial capital so he can either re-negotiate rent for more freedom or secure other living arrangements. Before invoking boundaries, you must end any dependency and be able to live with the boundaries that any other individual may choose to impose on you.
CAUTION: Establishing boundaries for the first time may come with some emotionally charged responses from others in your life. You may likely find that those people who have boundaries respect you more, and those people who do not live with boundaries will resort to behaviors that will test the strength of yours. Think of the parent who has told his toddler no. Toddlers use the word no to try to establish their boundaries. When they do not get their way, they step up with more emotional persuasion. Next may come yelling, screaming, and possibly throwing things to get their way. They may fall on the floor in a full-blown tantrum. They may say, “I hate you,” as a means of hurting you into giving in. When you are firm on your boundaries for long enough, a toddler will eventually wear themselves out and move on. You may have to repeat this cycle a few times; however, when a toddler knows his parent is firm on a boundary, compliance prevails in the long run. This same principle also holds true for family, friends, or work relationships.
Bortolot, L. (2015). Four trends in home office design. Entrepreneur. Retrieved from https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/248061
Cloud, H. (2008). The one-life solution: Reclaim your personal life while achieving greater professional success. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Keim, B. (2012). Is multitasking bad for us? Nova Science. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/body/is-multitasking-bad.html
About the Author: Sandra Dillon is a life, premarital/marriage, and business coach with an extensive background in business development and leadership. She coaches others in how to develop and execute life plans, develop successful businesses, and build better relationships by identifying and living their personal values, enhancing skills and competencies, and being held accountable for executing their defined goals.