BoundariesApr 11, 2022
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“I need to set a boundary so people don’t walk all over me! I need to stand up for myself!” Ever find yourself thinking or even saying these words in the heat of a situation? Perhaps you’ve not had these specific thoughts but maybe you’ve had a similar response to an unpleasant situation. If you have, I encourage you to stop, wait, and step back.
Now you may be wondering what in the world I mean by that. “Stop? Wait? Step back? You mean just let people walk all over me?” No, not at all. What I mean is that you cannot control what other people say and do, you can only control your response. You must first decide what you’ll tolerate being around. This is the core definition of a well-defined boundary. Then, more importantly, you must determine how you’ll respond if people violate your boundary and then follow through on that. This is essential to both physical and emotional health. So let’s talk about what a boundary is, what it’s not, and how to execute a plan for defending your boundaries.
“Boundaries are not about standing up for yourself. Boundaries are not about other people not walking all over you. Boundaries are about you. Boundaries are about you taking care of you.” – Dr. Sara Dill
What You’ll Learn
- What a boundary is and what it is not
- How to set a boundary
- Step #1: Get to a place of peace, acceptance and love
- Step #2: Very specifically decide what your boundary is
- Plan your response
- Differentiate between boundaries and preferences
- Define a violation
- Step #3: Follow through if a violation occurs
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I’m Dr. Sara Dill, and this is the Stress-Less Physician podcast, episode number nine. Welcome to the Stress-Less Physician podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Sara Dill, MD. Using my unique combination of coaching and mindfulness tools, I will teach you practical ways to reduce your stress level, feel happier at work, and create a better balance between your medical career and personal life. If you are a busy practicing physician who wants to design a life and medical career that feels good to you, you are in the right place.
Hey, everyone, welcome back to the podcast. It actually feels like a while since I’ve done this and since I’ve talked to you. I batched a few episodes. I guess, maybe three or four weeks ago. And so it’s been a little while since I’ve recorded any episodes. And I must say I sort of missed it. I have this long list of things I want to talk about. And today, I want to talk about boundaries. And this is something that has come up recently in a few different places. I’ve seen people posting about it on social media. I’ve mostly been off of social media a lot lately, but dipping my toe back in. And I just noticed how often it comes up, and that I have a very strong opinion about how to set boundaries and what a boundary actually is, and what a boundary isn’t.
And this is also something that a lot of my clients come to me and want coaching on. And that’s come up recently with a couple of different clients. And boundaries are something that I think are super important. And also something that I think a lot of people in the self-help and personal development world, myself included, sometimes misunderstand, and sometimes get wrong. And so this is something that I’ve certainly changed my mind about. And what I’m going to share with you is of course my opinion, but I, as with anything, would just ask you to try it on and test it out and see what you think. Anything I share with you is always just my thoughts and my thinking, and maybe a place to start and to see if it’s something that might improve your life in any way.
So how do you know if you need to set a boundary? So, a lot of the time poor boundaries, or just a lack of healthy boundaries, not having enough boundaries often lead to feelings of resentment, feelings of anger or frustration, and burnout. And this is true in both personal and work relationships, or personal and work situations. And this is usually because we aren’t telling the truth to ourselves about what we are okay with and what we aren’t. And maybe we aren’t communicating our boundaries honestly and clearly, both to ourselves and to other people.
And so often, we will notice if we’re feeling resentful or angry or frustrated or burned out or upset, is because we might be saying yes when we want to say no, or tolerating things we don’t want to tolerate. And the reasons for that, typically have to do with wanting to be nice, or wanting to be flexible with people-pleasing, with all sorts of things. It often boils down to not being clear with ourselves about what we’re okay with being around. And let me say here, however, that the time to set a boundary is not when you’re feeling resentment, or anger or frustration. That’s the time to sit down and do some self-coaching or get some coaching. That’s the time to do some inner reflection, maybe some journaling, writing stuff down, reflecting. That’s the time to step back and ask yourself genuinely: what’s going on here? To ask yourself that with genuine curiosity and some self-compassion.
And if you find yourself saying I need to set a boundary so people don’t walk all over me, I would stop. Don’t say anything. Don’t set that boundary yet. If you hear yourself saying: I need to stand up for myself so I’m going to set a boundary. Again, I would stop right do not proceed. Sit down. Let’s do some self-coaching.
So, I’d like to just offer here that boundaries are not about standing up for yourself. Boundaries are not about other people not walking all over you. Boundaries are about you. Boundaries are about you taking care of you. So, I always like to define my terms. So, let’s talk about what is a boundary, and also what is not a boundary. So, a boundary is a decision about what you will tolerate and what you won’t. A boundary, I would say is a decision that you make for yourself about what you will do or maybe what you will say if a certain behavior happens around you, that you don’t want to be around.
So, boundaries can be physical, like most of us probably won’t tolerate getting hit by someone, or assaulted. That would be a boundary that most of us have, that we probably don’t even really need to announce or declare that that is a boundary of ours. Or a boundary can be more emotional or psychological. It might be that you don’t want to spend time with people who make a lot of negative personal comments about you out loud. Or some people might have a boundary about not being okay with people making comments about their appearance. That could be a boundary.
Boundaries are not about controlling other people and what they do and say, boundaries are about what we will do if someone else says or does something that we don’t want to be around, that we don’t want in our personal space, essentially. So boundaries are highly personal. Some examples of boundaries might be cigarette smoke, or someone smoking in your home. Maybe a lot of us have boundaries about being yelled at or being touched, or touched without permission. Boundaries might include someone using profanity or swearing around us or at us, comments about one’s personal appearance, boundaries about people, whether friends or family showing up at one’s home unannounced or uninvited, being late. Some people have boundaries about getting calls or texts late at night. Maybe we have boundaries about people asking us medical questions at parties. Everyone gets asked a lot about moles and rashes, and all sorts of things in social settings. So that might be something that you might have a boundary about. Maybe you have a boundary about having a lot of personal communication with patients. I think a lot of us physicians don’t connect with patients on social media. That might be a boundary that we have, that we just don’t want to engage in that way.
So, what you can see from this list of possible boundaries, is that what someone might have as a boundary, someone else probably does not. Boundaries are actually very subjective. Boundaries are not about whether or not a behavior or an action is good or bad, or right or wrong. So, a boundary is not about whether someone else’s behavior is right or wrong. Other people, other adults get to do and say what they want. We don’t get to control other people. What we can control is how we respond if we’re in a situation, or around a certain behavior, that’s what a boundary is.
And I will just say this, too, because sometimes this gets people sort of upset, is this idea that adults get to say and do what they want. I’m not suggesting that people don’t have consequences, that there aren’t consequences for behavior, but in a very real way, we don’t get to control what other humans do. We can’t stop them often. It doesn’t mean we don’t report some behaviors to the police, that we don’t have other repercussions. I’m just saying that boundaries are not a way of controlling other people’s behavior. It’s not about manipulating other people’s beliefs or behavior or anything like that. A boundary is really something that you set for yourself. So again, what we can control is how we respond. So that’s really what a boundary is. If someone does X, I will do Y, just to put it in a sort of mathematical equation, which I like. That’s really what the boundary is: if someone does x, I will do Y.
And so this leads me to talking about how to set a boundary. So, the first step of setting a boundary, I would suggest is to get to a place of some peace and acceptance, to get to a place of love for yourself and love, or at least acceptance, for the other person involved. So again, the time to set a boundary is not when you’re upset or angry or frustrated, or feeling resentful. That’s a sign to get really clean and clear about what’s going on, what are you thinking? What are the emotions you’re feeling and why? So again, looking at your thoughts, what are you making it mean that this person is doing or saying this? And getting to a place of clarity for you, getting to a place of peace and acceptance. So I would always start by coaching yourself to get clear about what you want to be around and what you don’t, and why. So if you’re feeling frustrated or angry or upset, coach yourself until you get to this place of peace and acceptance, and love.
I would suggest that all boundaries can be set from a place of love; love for yourself, and ideally, for the other person, or at least from acceptance of the other person, as an adult with autonomy, with reasons for what they’re doing or saying. So if you don’t want to love the other person, can you get to a place of peace and acceptance? Accepting that other people, other adults have authority and autonomy and choice and that it’s not our job to control other people as much as we might want to. It is our job, though, to protect ourselves and to decide what it is that we are willing to tolerate or not tolerate. And so a boundary is about protecting our personal space, it’s about protecting our own wellbeing, both physical and mental.
So notice if you have thoughts or beliefs about needing other people to be different or needing them to change. Notice if you have any thoughts about them being wrong and you being right. A question I like to ask is: what would love do here? Love for myself and love for the other person, or at least acceptance of the other person, as an adult human being who gets to do and say what they want, not without consequences, as I said before, but we all have autonomy, we can’t control other people, and other people don’t get to control us. So, if I didn’t need this other person to change or be different, would I have a boundary here? If I didn’t think that they were doing it wrong, or that they should be a different way, would I need a boundary?
The next step is to decide exactly what the boundary is, what is the behavior or the situation that you’ve decided that you don’t want to tolerate or be around? I would say, be very specific, here exquisitely specific. And then what is the consequence that you will do? So if X happens, what will you do? Again, being very specific. So what are you going to do specifically, if X, Y or Z occurs. And then you need to be ready to enforce your boundary. This is the hard part. A lot of us want to set a boundary, and then maybe we want to communicate it to someone. And then we really would like that person to just follow the rules, to not go against our boundary, to not require us to maybe have a difficult conversation, or to enforce our boundary. So you need to really check in, are you willing to enforce your boundary? Are you willing to commit to keeping your boundary and following through as necessary 100% of the time? And can you do it from a place of peace and love? Or what is the energy motivating that again?
I would always expect that the situation might arise. If you’re going through this process, it’s probably because this is a situation that you’ve already experienced. And based on what we know about humans, even if you set the boundary and even if you communicate it with this person in advance, chances are they’re going to do what they do. And then you will have to follow through or decide if you’re willing to follow through. So I would say if you aren’t willing to commit to following through and enforcing your boundary, I probably wouldn’t set it until you are ready, until you’re very clear on why it’s important to you. And also, you could notice with whether you’re willing to risk the relationship, because sometimes that’s what it comes down to or may come down to, is communicating honestly and clearly about what you will do if this person behaves in a certain way, maybe in a way that they often behave. And so just checking in with: Am I willing to follow through? Am I willing to enforce my boundary?
And then you may or may not need to communicate that boundary in advance. Typically, you probably don’t need to communicate your boundary or boundaries until there’s been a boundary violation. So, you just need to be prepared to communicate that boundary if and when that situation arises. Again, an example might be that most of us have a boundary about being hit, or physically assaulted. I don’t go around communicating that with other people. Like if you hit me, I’m going to leave and call the police. But that’s just a boundary I have. So, it doesn’t mean that you always have to communicate it. But you may, you may want to, you may need to.
So, some examples—I always think examples are helpful. So, one example that I have is that I don’t like it when people are angry and yell at me, or yell around me. I don’t like angry yelling. Sometimes people have yelled at me. It doesn’t happen a lot, really, but I’ve had some bosses that sort of tend to yell. I remember in residency, there were some, typically surgeons—I love surgeons, but they did get a bad reputation. Sometimes there was yelling in the OR, yelling at rounds. Rarely, but it happened. I’ve experienced patients who yell either at me or at our staff, family members that yell. I just personally don’t like yelling. Although I will say I went through this brief phase as a teenager when I yelled. I used to yell at my parents, which I can’t even believe now. And I just want to say thanks, MOM and Dad, if you’re listening, for putting up with me. I’m so sorry that I yelled, but people yell. There are families in which yelling is a very acceptable form of communication, just sort of vocal and loud. And then there are families, like my family, where yelling was really something that was not acceptable.
And I’ve coached myself on: do I want to be okay with yelling? Why or why not? And just generally, I’m okay with not liking yelling, especially angry yelling. So I can’t stop people from yelling. Some people like yelling, some people speak at very elevated volumes. I believe that people are allowed to yell; I just don’t want to be around it, in particular. So a boundary for me about yelling, would be that if someone starts yelling, particularly angry yelling, I’m going to leave that area. If it happens on a phone call, I might say something like, I’d like to continue this conversation when you’re not yelling. I’m going to hang up now and perhaps we can talk another time. If a patient is yelling at me or my staff, I might ask to speak with him or her privately. I would acknowledge they seem angry, and let them know that I’d be happy to hear whatever they’re upset about, but at a lower tone that they need to stop yelling. And then if they can’t stop yelling, they’re going to need to leave. Otherwise, I’ll need to call security.
So, another boundary, sort of similar for me is regarding cigarette smoke. I don’t really like breathing it in. I don’t like being around it. So, for example, this was actually a boundary that I really thought about a few years ago. My dad took up smoking later on in life. And then he wanted to come stay with me for a couple months. So, he’s an adult, he’s allowed to smoke. I may not agree with his decision to start smoking in his 60s and 70s. But quite honestly, it’s really none of my business. I love my dad and he’s an adult and he gets to make his own decisions, whether or not I agree with him.
And so I asked myself what I was genuinely okay with and what I was not. So, if my dad was going to come and stay with me and he currently is a smoker, do I need to set a boundary? What would I be okay with? And what would I not be okay with and why? And so I decided that my boundary would be that he could smoke outside in my yard, as long as he came in and washed his hands and didn’t throw the cigarettes away inside my house, because I didn’t really want to smell cigarette smoke. So he couldn’t smoke in the house. And if he wasn’t okay with that, if he insisted on smoking in the house, then he wouldn’t be able to stay with me. I would ask him to leave.
And luckily, for me, at least, I communicated this to him, because we were making plans, and he was totally fine with that. But that was a difficult conversation for me to have with my father. And to have it in a way, where I didn’t feel judgmental, or didn’t communicate any opinion I might have about whether or not I even thought he should be smoking. This was something that I coached myself on before I had this conversation, so I could just come to the conversation, again, from this space of love for him, love for me, acceptance and peace—feeling peaceful about that decision. And so that’s what another boundary might look like for me personally.
And so again, setting a boundary sometimes requires that you be willing to risk the relationship, or at least be willing to risk a little bit of the status quo if you are someone who has not been communicating your boundaries in sort of an honest and clear way, or even communicating that you might have a boundary. So, if you really don’t like it when family members come over unannounced, but you haven’t even mentioned it, that would be a boundary that no one even knows exists, because you haven’t really had the conversation.
And so setting a boundary really requires that you be honest about what you want to experience or not experience, and to be honest about what you will tolerate or not tolerate. Again, not to manipulate the other person., but because you are honoring and protecting yourself. It’s about not people pleasing, and being willing to be honest and tell the truth, first to yourself, and then to other people when necessary. So you don’t have to make the other person’s behavior wrong or bad. And in fact, I would say that that often comes across, and then the other person often gets defensive and feels judged. It’s very hard to sort of have a judgement about someone and not communicate it in some way, even if you think you’re being very neutral about it.
And so again, this isn’t about making the other person’s behavior wrong or bad. And if someone sets a boundary with you, that also doesn’t mean that you are wrong or bad or need to change, it actually allows for a much deeper level of honesty and intimacy in your relationships. So, boundaries can actually strengthen and often do really strengthen our relationships. They certainly make them a lot more honest. But other things that I see people calling a boundary are what I would actually describe as more of either a request, or something that’s called a manual or basically a rulebook that we have for other people.
So, for example, we don’t need to set a boundary with a friend who doesn’t call us back. We might have a conversation that we’d love it if they would call us back, or text us back, but that’s not really a boundary violation. That’s not them coming into your personal space or infringing on your personal space. So you can totally ask for friends to call you back or text you back, or ask how you’re doing or any of that. We might have this idea of what we’d like from friends. But those aren’t really boundaries, those are our preferences for how we like our friendships to be. Someone not calling you back or not asking how you are, not maybe giving you enough positive feedback at work or something. That’s not a boundary violation.
I’m going to do—this sort of a sidebar, I’m definitely going to do another couple podcasts, both on this idea of our manuals or our rule books for other people, how they should behave, as well as an episode on this idea of meeting our own needs versus having other people meet our needs. These are two subjects that come up all the time and coaching. And both of these and really understanding this has totally transformed my own relationships, as well as those of my clients. So these are some subjects I can’t wait to talk about it just briefly touched on them here, but stay tuned.
Okay, so going back to boundaries. One of my teachers explain the idea of a boundary violation about when we need to communicate our boundary and enforce a consequence as imagining your own home or property. So whether that’s an apartment or a house, whatever it is, it’s a violation when people come into your space without your permission. Someone’s not violating your boundary if they are across the street in their own house on their property, or out on the public street. It’s when they come into your house or maybe into your yard, onto your property or within your space, that that counts as a boundary violation.
So sometimes that can be a helpful image to see when we’re thinking about our own personal boundaries, what is a boundary violation and what’s not? So like breathing in cigarette smoke in my own house, that would be a boundary violation. That’s something that I can decide whether I want to tolerate or not. If I’m in someone else’s house and they happen to be a smoker, I might leave. They’re allowed to smoke in their own house, right? Or maybe I might say, “Hey, can we go outside? I don’t mind cigarette smoke as much outside,” something like that. If they say, no, that’s totally fine. I get to decide, maybe I don’t want to have a boundary about inhaling smoke in other people’s houses. That would be a request I could make. But that’s not really a boundary violation when I’m in their house.
I also will say, and this has been helpful to reflect on and interesting to reflect on, that the more I do this work, this sort of self-coaching and personal development work, the more I take 100% responsibility for myself, my own feelings, meeting my own needs, not taking what other people say and do personally. The more I do all of that, the better I am at managing my mind, the fewer boundaries I actually have. They really mostly center on what I would consider physical boundary violations. So, people touching me without permission. Again, I would say like angry yelling in my face. That sort of physical boundary violation. Cigarette smoke. Those are like the majority of my boundaries. I don’t really have nearly as many, I think, as I used to.
So again, as I learned to not take what other people do and say personally, to not make it mean things about me or them, to not people-please or care so much what other people think about me. I’ve discovered that I really don’t need that many boundaries. I find a lot of things amusing now that used to really bother me. And I would suggest that that’s the beauty of this work and that’s the beauty of coaching yourself first, before even setting a boundary.
So I just want to recap here. I would suggest that you might need to set some boundaries, or at least investigate whether you need some boundaries. If you find yourself feeling sort of frequently frustrated, angry, resentful, or maybe burned out in your relationships, what are you tolerating that you don’t want to tolerate, and why? Those are some good questions to start with.
And to recap the steps to setting the boundary. The first is to coach yourself to a place of clarity and peace, trying to get to a place of peace and even unconditional love. That might seem a little farfetched. But in that space, it becomes very clear whether or not you even need to set a boundary. When we’ve dropped our rulebook that we have for other people and instead ask ourselves what situations or behaviors are we not willing to allow or tolerate for ourselves? And we know and like our reasons, it gets much more clear.
The second step is to be very specific about what your boundary is, what is the boundary violation, and what the consequence is that you will follow through on? So that might again look like if someone lights a cigarette in my house, I’ll ask them to extinguish it. If they refuse or they continue to smoke, I might ask them to leave. A boundary would not be lecturing them on why they shouldn’t smoke, or what the health consequences of smoking are, a boundary would not be trying to get them to quit smoking, right? It’s about what I will do, how I take care of myself.
And then the final step is being willing to follow through 100%, both 100% with your consequences 100% of the time if a boundary violation occurs, and can you follow through from a place of peace and acceptance? If not, that’s just an opportunity for more self-coaching, or to bring to a coaching session. It’s not a problem. There’s always more learning and growth available for those of us interested in it. I always like to remind clients that they never have to go looking for what to work on. We just notice what comes up and work on that.
Oh my gosh, this is so much longer than I thought it was going to be. I always think this is going to be a short episode. It’s been so fun hanging out with you again. I’d love to hear any comments or questions on the subject, or any others. Anything you want me to talk about, love to know that, too. And if boundaries are something you struggle with, definitely reach out and let’s help you work through setting clear and appropriate boundaries. Let’s check in with whether you actually need a boundary and how to go about setting that and what’s stopping you from already having them. I will talk to you soon. Can’t wait!
If you are a busy practicing physician ready to start feeling less stressed, enjoy work more and learn how to create a more balanced and sustainable medical practice and life, sign up for a consult call with me at Saradill.com. That’s S-A-R-A-D-I-L-L.com. It would be my privilege and pleasure to work with you.
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