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The smart woman’s guide to setting effective boundaries

Thinking business woman making decision yes, no or maybe isolated on white background

In the 20+ years I spent as a morbidly obese woman, first as a young mom, and then throughout my 30s and into my 40s, I could not have told you what it meant to set meaningful boundaries. The needs of others were my daily directive. I often wished and hoped that someday I could set my own agenda, but doing so seemed impossible in the face of my family’s demands, my boss’s demands, heck even the demands of my volunteer activities.

From where I sit now I realize that being unable to set my own agenda wasn’t so much because I was pulled in so many directions but because I was unable to set effective boundaries.

I may not be any smarter now than I was then, but I have discovered a few things about how to balance my own needs with the needs of others:

  1. Understand your personal ‘why’. Everything having to do with living a fulfilling life comes down to this. When you are clear in your own mind about what’s important to you and why it becomes so much easier to set boundaries, both for yourself and for others.

    For example, when I set out on my journey to lose 100+ pounds over 8 years ago, I had to let go of the notion that I could possibly be the answer to everyone else’s problems. I routinely rescued my kids from their problems, I did my darndest to anticipate my husband’s problems, and I even tried to alleviate the problems of total strangers by deferring to others in line or in traffic, for example. The latter could be considered common courtesy of course, but when done habitually – at least for me – it can become a sort of “no-you-go-first-because-I’m-the-bigger-person” act of quasi-martyrdom. Argghhh.

    I came to realize, my personal ‘why’ is simply this: my needs are important too. I get to rely on other people to carry the burden sometimes. I get to be on the receiving end of generosity.

    Checking in with my personal ‘why’ gives me the courage to set appropriate boundaries and stick by them.

  2. Evaluate your own motives. Certainly, I was driven by a need to please others. Again, not a bad thing in and of itself. Where we run into trouble is when doing so runs roughshod over our own best interests.

    Smart women know that sometimes it’s okay to let other people (even our significant others and – gasp! – our kids) solve their own problems.

    Undoubtedly running a household, working (outside the home or not), staying actively engaged in relationships with family and friends, hobbies, exercise, and the myriad of activities that consume our lives leaves precious little free time. But I can’t help but wonder how much our busyness is a way of deflecting attention away from things that we don’t want to deal with.

    Sometimes we’re ambivalent about declaring our needs to be as important as everyone else’s and about asserting those needs to others. Confronting the status quo can be intimidating, so we go along to get along.

  1. Ask yourself: “Can someone else do it as well (or better) than me?” If any of the above sounds uncomfortably familiar you may be wondering how to turn this ship around.

    A good place to start is to ask yourself if someone else (including the person who’s making the demand) can solve the problem better than you can.

    In the months just before our youngest child got his driver’s license I was very busy at work. Ferrying him around was consuming (I swear I am not exaggerating) about two hours of my day most days. I came to resent all of the time it took to move him from one activity to another; it’s a resentment I never expressed to him, but I know he felt. I came to realize that it was more important that I not feel resentment toward my son than it was to feel like I was being a good mom by always taking him where he needed to go. Our solution? We signed him up for Uber. Certainly not daily, but a couple of days per week my son took an Uber (the smartphone-driven taxi service) to get where he needed to go, freeing me up to get my work done. It worked brilliantly!

    Granted, simple solutions rarely present themselves, but the idea is to brainstorm and think outside the “whoa-is-me-I-guess-I’ll-have-to-do-it” mindset and figure out who else is positioned to accomplish the task.

  2. Say no without guilt or excuses. As women we are conditioned to accommodate other people’s needs and suppress our own. Anthropologists tell us this goes back to the first agrarian societies in which women became economically dependent, thus subordinate, to men. Though economic dependence is no longer necessarily the norm in modern society, there remains a strong cultural bias in favor of women (and girls) yielding their needs to the desires of others.

    In fact, this bias is so pervasive we don’t even realize we’re doing it. Worse, we don’t realize we’re conditioning our daughters to do it!

    We want to be nice. We want to be liked. As women’s it’s what we do. But at what cost?

    Smart women know that it’s perfectly okay to say no when someone asks you to do something. And not a timid, apologetic ‘no’, but a resolute no, without guilt or excuses.

    A ‘no’ without guilt or excuses is as simple as, “No, I’m not able to do that.” You can include “I’m sorry, I’m not able to do that” if you want to, but it’s not necessary. My personal favorite is, “Darn, I’ve already got a commitment for that day!” Which frankly can mean anything from I really do have a meeting that conflicts with that to I’m sorry, but I’ll be taking a bubble bath just then.

    Maybe my most miraculous take-away from this new practice? The earth continues to orbit the sun and no one questions this simple response.

  1. Stand your ground. Can you say “pushback”? Yes, there will be pushback from time to time. Whether it’s saying no to (yet another) volunteer commitment at your kids’ school or an unreasonable request from your boss, sometimes we must draw a line in the sand, or at least negotiate better terms for ourselves. Part of setting effective boundaries is understanding what our own limitations are.

    As much as we’d like to believe we can do it all, the simple truth is we can’t. At least, not all at once.

    Knowing our own limitations just means being willing to acknowledge that we are human. We do not have unlimited resources of time and energy. When we give to others constantly and without discrimination, we deny ourselves the opportunity to be renewed and replenished. No matter how tough you are – and I know you are – eventually that well will run dry.

    Stand firm as you (gently, if need be) delegate, deflect, drop or decline some of what’s on your plate so that you have room to load it up with things that you find intrinsically rewarding.

It’s not that we don’t want those around us to be happy, and it certainly isn’t that we don’t want to meet our obligations, but smart women know that it’s not selfish to set boundaries. In fact, quite the opposite is true; respecting our own boundaries means that we’ll have more time and energy to spend on the people and projects that we’re passionate about.

Pretty smart, if you ask me.

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