The Seven Cs of Boundaries
Greetings and salutations! As promised, I am back with Part II of my Thursday Thoughts on boundaries. If you haven’t read Part I, last week’s post, about Naomi Osaka and her powerful example of setting and maintaining boundaries, you can catch up here.
To quickly recap, in case you missed the furor, in advance of the French Open, Osaka announced that she wouldn’t participate in post-match press interviews to help safeguard her mental health. She even pre-emptively agreed to pay the fines usually imposed on athletes for missing interviews. Not only did the French Open revert with threats of defaults and bans, but other tournaments also joined them. In response to her boundaries not being respected, Osaka withdrew from the contest.
Following last week’s Thursday Thought, many of you wrote back (I love when you do that!) to share how you’re still working on and, in some cases, really wrestling with boundaries. Whether you’re a newbie or a ninja when it comes to boundaries, please keep at it because they are vital. “Boundaries,” in the words of Prentis Hemphill of the Black Embodiment Initiative, “are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.”
So today, I’m sharing my “Seven Cs of Boundaries” to help you establish and maintain yours.
The first step in developing a healthy relationship with boundaries is clarifying what they are. Because so many of us have been taught to prioritize other people’s comfort over our needs, it can be challenging to know where our boundaries lay. The task, then, is taking the time to understand what you need, what supports your wellbeing, and what detracts from it.
One major indicator that someone may be rubbing up against a boundary is how we’re feeling. Often when we have discomfort of any sort, our knee-jerk reaction is to think, “I shouldn’t feel that way.” But it’s not about what we should or shouldn’t feel; it’s about what the feeling is trying to tell us. When Osaka spoke about the anxiety she felt around post-match press briefings, it was clear that those interactions detract from her mental health, which rightfully led to her opting out. As you pay attention to your feelings, you’ll start to see patterns in terms of what works for you and what doesn’t.
The second step is to communicate these boundaries. You may do this through conversation, an email, or a raven from Winterfell. The point is to open a dialogue and let people know what you need. Too often, we don’t set expectations in advance, as Osaka did; or we assume that people will somehow “just know.”
This idea that people should “know” comes up regularly in my coaching practice. I had one client, we’ll call her Linda, who felt like the amount of time her boss gave her to complete projects was inadequate. Despite the tight turnaround times, she managed to deliver, and he kept on assigning work at what Linda felt was “the last minute.”
I asked Linda what her boss’s response was when she raised this issue with him. She said she hadn’t, he should “know” that he required too much. I asked how he was to know there was a problem if, “He assigns you work, you complete it with excellence, and say nothing about the timeframe?”
Linda stared at me; then she laughed at herself. After spending the rest of our session clarifying timelines that were sustainable and that would allow her to do her best work, Linda had a conversation with her boss. Voilà, problem solved.
Now, you may be tempted to side eye Linda. 👀 But I’m pretty sure that if you think about it for a moment or two, there are a few things that happen in your life, personally or professionally, that aren’t working for you.
Yet, you never say anything; you assume the person(s) “knows” this a problem.
Please do everyone a favor and communicate your boundaries quickly and often.
This brings us to the third C and the part of boundaries that many people struggle with the most: consequences. The challenging thing about boundaries is that we never know what the reaction to them will be. When we clarify and communicate them, some people will gladly respect our needs and act accordingly, but others will not. Some will want us to justify our boundaries or even ridicule them.
In cases where people who know our boundaries refuse to honor them, there has to be a consequence. Otherwise, why would people respect them?
Sometimes that consequence comes in the form of a verbal correction, or as was the case with Osaka, it may mean absenting yourself from a situation altogether.
Consequences can feel especially difficult for us because it may mean that we’re no longer accepted. But as Alice Walker says, “No person is your friend who demands your silence or denies your right to grow.”
The reality is that since the French Open took this stance (although they’ve since back-peddled), this may have been the last time Osaka plays there. But trust, every other tournament will be clear from here about what she will and won’t do. And even if Osaka doesn’t play another game of tennis in her life, she can be comforted by the fact that she prioritized her mental health when others wouldn’t.
The fourth C of healthy boundaries is consistency. One of the hard truths about boundaries is that we teach people what they are. But frequently, we blur the line to the point that other people don’t even see them.
A practical example I often encounter is clients telling their colleagues they’re not available for calls after 5 pm, but they regularly find themselves on calls after 5 pm. The third or fourth time that happens in the space of two weeks, the problem is you boo. In the moment, it can feel easier to go along than to enforce our boundaries, but when we ignore them, we’re giving other people permission to do the same.
Can you imagine if Osaka had given in and done one or two press briefings? When she said no to the third or fourth, people would have been legitimately confused because she may have said one thing, but had been doing another. By being consistent, Osaka taught the tennis world how to treat her, and hopefully, others that come after her.
These four steps that I’ve outlined are my basics in establishing, maintaining, and enforcing healthy boundaries. But there are three other Cs that are also helpful to keep in mind.
As we grow and evolve, so do our needs and boundaries. That’s normal, healthy, and to be expected. The key is to pay attention to your changing needs and communicate them to others. Boundaries are not a once-off event but an ongoing dialogue, and sometimes the people in our lives need time to catch up and adjust.
While you can’t do the work of establishing and maintaining other people’s boundaries for them, you can be considerate and ask what other folks need. Then do your best to treat their boundaries with the same respect you would like yours to receive. If you’re reading this and recognizing that you haven’t honored other people’s boundaries in the ways that you should, apologize and begin a conversation about how to make amends.
Finally, recognize that establishing boundaries is a continuous process. If you’ve fallen short in the past with maintaining your boundaries and loving yourself appropriately, forgive yourself and begin to work toward creating boundaries that will enable you to truly thrive. Every new day is a new opportunity.
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