Why Boundaries Don’t Work, and How to Fix It

Boundaries don’t work that well if, every time you see one, you go crashing through it headfirst. Ask me how I know.

If you struggle with boundaries, you are far from alone. Where are my people pleasers at? This one’s for you, and also me, and also probably just about everyone to some degree.

Here’s the thing: you have a story about boundaries. I do, too. My own story would be called something like, “Boundaries — I Love The Sound They Make When I Bust Through Them”. It would be a riveting how-to guide for burnout and emotional fatigue. A real page turner.

For example, last week, I had a very familiar experience. I had booked time off on my calendar to focus on writing, business development I normally don’t make time for, and a day off with my sister. All that glorious space on my calendar! It beckoned me so invitingly that I immediately set about filling it up with calls and appointments that were decidedly not the things for which I’d set the time aside. The day trip ended up being postponed, but rather than honour the day off and enjoy the spaciousness, I scheduled myself on back-to-back calls, ultimately working longer, with less breaks — and by “less”, I mean none — than I would on a normal work day.

I, of course, recognized this in frustrating and embarrassing hindsight. And this is frustratingly and embarrassingly not atypical. I regularly bust through time I block off, even though it’s not available for people to book. That’s the worst part; it’s not like people are sneaking into my calendar, because I’ve taken the steps to ensure that they can’t. I’m the one booking them in, right on top of blocked off time. I am the bull in my china shop.

I say I’m terrible at managing my time, but the real truth is that I’m terrible at respecting my priorities and boundaries. And whenever it comes to helping others, I’m generally a pretty automatic “Yes, of course!” If someone needs support, or wants something, my desire to be of help and service completely eclipses my own priorities, and my commitments to my own well-being and projects.

Clearly, I could use a little work on respecting my boundaries. I bet you could, too.

If I were to ask you how you feel about boundaries, I’m sure you’d have an opinion about them.

Probably you’d say that you think boundaries are generally a good thing, but that you tend to struggle with them, at least in some areas of your life, such as romantic or family relationships, or in your work/life balance (or lack thereof).

See, the thing about boundaries is that they only work if you respect them. It’s not all that useful if, whenever you see a boundary, you immediately set about ways to compromise it, like some people I know (e.g. me).

The issue here is not the boundary itself; it’s the way we’re relating to the boundary that is problematic.

When it comes to how we relate to boundaries, it’s easy to see how slippery they can be, or perhaps, more accurately, how slippery we become around them. If for example, you view boundaries as commandments or rules that cannot be broken, then you’re going to have a very rigid experience of boundaries, unless, of course, you’re one of those “rules-are-made-to-be-broken” people. Maybe you view them more like rough guidelines, or nice ideas in theory, but not in practice. Maybe you see other people’s boundaries as rules and your own as nice theoretical ideas, or vice versa.

How were you taught to respect boundaries? Were you taught to respect them at all? How did you see your parents model relating to boundaries? Did closed doors mean nothing, and was shouting the norm for talking to someone who wasn’t in the room? If that was the case, then it would be pretty easy to see how boundaries might be overstepped, even with the best of intentions.

Maybe you were trained to respect other people’s boundaries, but not to keep strong ones for yourself. This would be me: hyper-sensitive to everyone’s feelings, and ultra-considerate of everyone’s experiences long before I consider my own. I literally believed that if I was perfect, I could make people happy, and then Life Would Be Good At Last. I’m sure you can imagine how that story ends.

It’s easy to fall into thinking that if you have boundaries, other people will be upset, hurt, disappointed, or even just disregard them. Those are all things that can happen, for sure, in general, in any human’s existence. And, certainly, if you’ve always put yourself last, then any shift in you creating or keeping boundaries is likely to ruffle some feathers. After all, you have trained people to expect you to caretake for them.

“The only people who get upset about you setting boundaries are the ones who were benefitting from you having none.” (Unknown)

The tricky bit here, though, is that it’s not just those people over there who were benefitting from you having no boundaries. You (and I) were benefiting from our lack of boundaries at the same time, too. Likely, it was a sense of keeping the peace, or at least believing that peace was something that could be kept at all, as if peace was a gerbil in a cage, and that it could be kept by ourselves, like that was our job (it’s not). If we could control other people’s experiences, then we could keep others happy, which, in turn, meant we could be happy, too. Always, our happiness or peace hinges on others having theirs first.

That, friends, is the Great People Pleasers Secret: no matter how much you swear that your caretaking for others is about showing them how much you love them, the real payout is in you getting to feel needed, loved, and included, which means you are finally able to relax, because — let’s be real — you are otherwise unable to experience those things in the face of someone else’s discomfort.

If we want to stop doing the wasted emotional labour of trying to manage the feelings of every human in our orbit, then we’re going to need to let go of the idea that a) we are the managers of other people’s feelings (seriously, we’ve got our hands full most of the time just managing our own), and that b) boundaries equal rejection, either of them, or of us.

If you want Life to work better — your life and the lives of those around you — or if you’re just exhausted and behind on your projects, goals and well-being, take a look at your boundaries, and your relationship to them. If you have none, it might be time to start putting up some fences. Sure, because it’ll keep others from crossing your boundaries, or at least let them know you have some, but mostly because you need to know where your boundaries are, too. If there are no lines in the sand, then no one has any idea what crosses the line.

If you don’t have boundaries, this might be an opportunity to create some. And take a good, hard and honest look at how you relate to boundaries, whether they’re yours or someone else’s. Where do your own boundaries lie on your list of priorities?

It’s about taking the reins for our lives. Our boundaries are ours for us to keep. And they’ll only work if we know what they are, and honour them.


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Executive Leadership Coach living in Victoria, BC. I write like I think/talk. www.wonderlandandcompany.com