Message Five: When to set a boundary to reduce your overwhelm

In the first four messages in this series, I talked about the oh-so-real skills to begin to stop your overwhelm immediately. Today, we are finally ready to get down to the nitty-gritty of setting boundaries.

When it comes to knowing anything about setting boundaries, I started from zero. I was raised in Good Girl culture. I didn’t know what personal boundaries were or that I could protect my thoughts, feelings, beliefs and body with them. I surely didn’t know I could have permission to set personal boundaries – or, to be more accurate, that I didn’t even need to ask for permission.

(FYI, if you missed any of the previous messages in this series, you can find links to all of them here.)

And so, as a young adult, I found myself in a job where I wore waaaaaay too many hats. One of my duties was to be in the office when I could, but my biggest responsibility was going out into the community so I could build partnerships, raise money, do PR and that kind of thing. Yet the chair of our organization truly believed that when they couldn’t reach me at my desk phone, I wasn’t actually working. I worked very hard and I worked more than 40 hours a week, so this was insulting on a lot of levels.

Cell phones were available but still darn expensive to use way back then, and the one I carried was for emergency use only. The chair insisted I get a pager so they could “check on me.” After a few weeks of getting paged at all hours of the day and night, I was feeling overwhelmed, angry and resentful. Since I wasn’t really in touch with my feelings back then, I couldn’t see these as warning signs I needed a boundary. Eventually, I got too frustrated to ignore it any more, and that was the final push I needed. My boundary decision was to remove the batteries from the pager outside of my office hours, and to never bring that pager into my home again. I didn’t communicate that boundary very diplomatically because I didn’t really know what I was doing. My board chair was not someone who heard “no” very often and they weren’t very happy with me. But it worked anyway and it was worth it. I got my personal time back. And after that, my board chair respected me and my time a lot more often.

What is a personal boundary then? It’s a decision you make about what YOU will do when things happen that are okay and not okay with you, related to thoughts, beliefs, feelings, your body and actions that affect you. Personal boundary decisions don’t manage the behavior of OTHER people, just you. I didn’t tell my chair where they could shove that pager (but oh I was so tempted) or insist they make a policy about it, I told them that I would only answer to it during office hours. My boundary decision was about ME. My relief was immediate and enormous.

So how do you know if YOU might need a boundary? Identify the bite of your overwhelm watermelon that you decided to focus on, take a deep breath and look at your feelings about it (remember all that noticing I talked about in message three – tap into that skill now). If you feel any of these things: resentful, rushed, run down, burned out, irritated, grumpy, forced, ashamed, minimized, judged, blamed, disrespected, overlooked or taken for granted, (whew, I know that’s quite a list), then it’s very likely that setting a boundary will be a good way to stop your overwhelm.

Most of us find boundaries are hard to do, and I think there are three main reasons for this:

  • You simply don’t have practice doing it. Rest assured that you’re not broken or ignorant, and this really proves nothing more than you are human and you don’t have the skill yet. That’s right, boundaries are a skill set you can learn and build, just like learning to boil pasta or tie your shoes.
  • You’ve been told other people can have boundaries but YOU can’t. People might tell you using words, but they also might let you know through their implications, actions, attitudes or other confusing, indirect ways. This is what goes on in that Good Girl culture I grew up in, and it’s also the case in lots of families and workplaces.
  • Everybody in your family, community or workplace believes that “we don’t do boundaries here” is a fact or cultural norm. If this is what’s going on, you’ll start to notice that nobody sets boundaries or that all boundaries are either set by committee or referred to a higher authority, and you will probably see a rigid hierarchy with lots of inflexible rules.

And you know what? None of these reasons are your fault! Setting boundaries challenges the status quo and disrupts familiar and well-oiled systems, so we are rewarded for reinforcing the myths that boundaries are too painful to discuss or forbidden.

What are those myths? Come back for the next message (the last in this series)*, where I’m going to bust the top myths about setting boundaries.

Also in the next message, I’m going to talk a little bit about my 4-week online workshop called “Boundaries & Holidays,” which starts next Tuesday, October 19. If you’ve already gotten the relief you need from this series of emails, I’m thrilled for you! Truly, I’m not kidding; if I crafted these messages well, you’ll already be feeling at least a little more able to reduce your overwhelm. I have absolutely no desire to rope you into signing up for something you don’t want or need (that’s one of my boundaries).*

But at this point, if you are starting to think you need to be in a community where it’s safe to talk about the taboos and myths, and with people who are also thinking about tackling some boundaries they are desperate to set around their holidays, you’ll want to check out the workshop. It only costs $29 if you register by this Friday, October 15, so what have you got to lose by taking a look?

I’m looking forward to sending you the last message in this series tomorrow, where I’m going to bust the myths about boundaries so you can get as much as possible out of this free series. 

Here’s to building the skills you need to set boundaries and get relief,

Kay Coughlin, CEO and Life & Business Coach, and mother, wife and caregiver

*The message I will send tomorrow will be the last one in this series. As I promised, I’ll be deleting the emails from this list after it’s over. If you want to receive future messages from me regarding overwhelm and boundaries, you MUST opt in here (I refuse to auto-add you to any list you might not actually want – that’s one of my boundaries).

** Prefer to listen to this message? You can do that here.

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Kay Coughlin, CEO of Facilitator On Fire, is a business coach for the non-profit sector and social justice businesses. She is also well-known for being an advocate for family caregivers.

In every forum she can find, she shouts that it's OK for every human to earn a living, set and enforce boundaries around their bodies, thoughts, feelings and actions. You can join Kay's free, private online community to talk about boundaries here.

Kay also teaches about emotional labor, how to rest, and Human Giver Syndrome, and is the host of the "From One Caregiver to Another" podcast and author of "From One Caregiver to Another - Overcoming Your Emotional Grind."

Kay is well-known for her public speaking on boundaries and self-care. 

Facilitator on Fire is a subsidiary of Donor Relations Mindset LLC, which Kay founded in 2015. She lives with her husband and children in central Ohio, and is the primary caregiver for her own mother, who lives right next door. Kay can be found on LinkedIn and Instagram.

Copyright 2022. All rights reserved, Julia Kay Coughlin and Facilitator On Fire.

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