When I teach women to advocate for their ideas, their purpose, and their potential we begin with questions. (They’re one of my favorite tools of an advocate). One of my first questions is “What do you want to advocate for?”
Recently, I’ve been hearing one answer over and over again. Women want to advocate for their boundaries.
I can help. But there’s bad news here. When it comes to boundaries, you’re advocating to yourself. Boundaries require your own belief in the boundary and that you deserve to have the boundary.
You think you need to persuade others to honor your boundaries. But it’s you that needs persuading. Because if you’re not willing to enforce a boundary, it is nothing more than a hint. Setting boundaries requires you to persuade yourself of your value, your worth, and your strength. When you believe in yourself, your boundaries are strong. Healthy people have healthy boundaries.
Once you believe in your boundary, you can advocate for your boundary to others, but it really doesn’t matter as much. Because others don’t have to take action around your boundaries. You do. And if you aren’t grounded in the belief in the boundary and how it serves you, setting and keeping boundaries is going to be very hard.
My client, Claire, learned this the hard way.
She and her boyfriend had started out as friends. They talked on the phone constantly at the beginning, and she made herself very accessible to him. She stayed up later, got up earlier, and let other things suffer to spend time talking with him. Most of us do something similar when we begin a relationship. But over time, as the relationship becomes more established, we usually get back into our regular routines.
This boyfriend didn’t want that. He wanted her to be available every time he called, especially if he was struggling with something in his own life. Claire was really good at making him feel better, and he wanted access to “feeling better” any time he needed it. So if he was feeling bad he’d call when she was at work, with friends, with family, or at yoga. He called when it worked for him. It wasn’t working for Claire. She needed a boundary around the times that he could be calling her.
There are three steps to asking for what you want and getting it–which is my definition of advocating.
1-Know what you want.
2-Ask for it, out loud and with delight.
3-Master the art of the ask.
Claire had taken one of my courses and she knew these steps so she jumped right in. She knew she wanted her boyfriend to stop calling her when she was in meetings, at work, with friends, or at yoga unless it was something that truly couldn’t wait. But Claire didn’t consider what she might have to trade to get what she wanted, and whether she wanted it badly enough to make that trade. She didn’t give step one a lot of thought before moving on to step two.
She asked for it. Claire asked her boyfriend not to call when he knew she was busy unless it was an emergency. But Claire wasn’t asking with delight. She had waited too long and had reached the point where she was asking with anger. She’d let the constant, demanding phone calls go on so long that she had built up resentment
Claire was also asking with fear. She didn’t want to lose her boyfriend, so she was afraid to set this boundary. She was definitely afraid to enforce it. Claire was practically begging her boyfriend not to call when she was busy because deep down she knew she was going to struggle with enforcing the boundary.
She was asking out loud, but not with delight. And she wasn’t really asking the person who could give her the boundary. Because the only person who could enforce her boundary was her.
The only person who can enforce your boundary is you. Others will honor your boundaries once you enforce them.
Step number two wasn’t going quite right for Claire, and step three wasn’t either. You can’t master the art of the ask when you’re angry, resentful, and afraid. So much of advocating is grounded in your energy, and her energy was not serving her.
Guess what? Claire’s boyfriend kept calling whenever he needed her to soothe his emotions. He called when she was at work, with clients, and with friends. He called when she was getting massages and in yoga classes. She kept picking up the phone, begging him to stop calling and “respect her boundary”, and getting more and more fearful, resentful, and angry by the day.
Then we started coaching. And we identified the key thing that Claire had forgotten.
She had forgotten to persuade herself.
When I teach women to advocate for themselves, their ideas, and, yes, their boundaries, I always teach them to start with themselves. You can’t prove something until you believe it, so you have to persuade yourself to believe first. I call the part of you that decides what to believe the “inner Jury”.
Claire’s Inner Jury was not believing in her boundary. So of course her boyfriend wasn’t either.
We had to go back to those three steps but look at them in different terms.
1-Know what you want.
Claire wanted to be able to work and play without worrying about her boyfriend and his mental health. His constant calls had become chaotic, and when there’s chaos it usually means a boundary is lacking. But Claire and I had to establish how badly she wanted this boundary.
Did she want it badly enough to enforce it? Claire had to be willing to make her boyfriend mad. And she even had to be willing to lose her boyfriend if he was unwilling to respect the boundary. Because Claire had to be willing to hang up on her boyfriend if he called during work and it wasn’t an emergency. She had to be willing to turn her ringer off during yoga classes.
Claire had to want her boundary badly enough to attach consequences to the violation of that boundary. Because a boundary without consequences is just a suggestion.
And with coaching, she realized that she was afraid to enforce her boundary. She was afraid her boyfriend would be mad and might even leave her. Claire had to decide what she wanted. Did she want to be in this relationship with a boyfriend who couldn’t soothe his own emotions and who needed her at his beck and call more than she wanted to be alone? Only Claire could answer that question. But she had to answer it, because if she didn’t fully believe in the boundary and her ability to stick to it, the boundary would never stick.
She decided that she did. Claire decided that she’d rather be alone than be in a relationship with someone who couldn’t self-regulate and who demanded constant access to her. She hoped that her boyfriend would be able to change, but she was taking her chances.
Now she knew what she wanted.
2-Ask for it, out loud and with delight.
This step is a little different when we’re talking about boundaries. When it comes to boundaries, you have to state them, not ask for them. Your request isn’t another person’s assignment. It is YOUR assignment to maintain the boundary and to follow up with consequences when it is violated. But it’s still important to state so that others know what to expect.
Claire told her boyfriend her boundary. “From now on, if you call me when I’m busy and it isn’t an emergency I’m going to hang up. This is going to be good for me, as it will give me the ability to focus on other things that are important in my life. It will be good for you because it will make you stronger and better able to handle your emotions. And it will be better for us, because I won’t be angry or resentful. “
Claire was able to state her boundary, out loud and with love. It wasn’t being set or stated out of fear, resentment, or anger. She was dispassionate, clear, and loving. But she was also certain. She’d persuaded herself that this boundary would serve her, her boyfriend, and their relationship. And because she believed, she was more persuasive.
3-Master the art of the ask.
Here, again, this step is a little different with boundaries. This step is about mastering the consequences. It was really hard for Claire at first. She’d still pick up the phone when her boyfriend called, and he’d try to cajole her to stay on and talk through his issues. Or he’d start getting angry that she wouldn’t. Because Claire was clear on what she wanted–a healthy relationship with a healthy man–she hung up. And then she stopped answering altogether. She had persuaded herself that the only way this relationship could work for her and her boyfriend was if they were both healthy. And she knew that the healthy thing would be him learning to soothe himself rather than needing her every time he was upset, and her getting time to focus on things other than his mental health.
For a few months, it wasn’t clear whether Claire and her boyfriend would survive this boundary. He threatened to leave. But Claire stood strong in her belief that this was the right thing for them and their relationship. She knew what she wanted. And she got it. Her boyfriend got himself a coach and has learned how to handle his emotions much more effectively. He stopped calling her every time something hurt. Claire’s resentment evaporated, and her respect for her boyfriend grew. In our last session, Claire shared that they are now engaged.
This is a happy ending. But if Claire’s boyfriend had been unwilling or unable to change, and had left her because she wouldn’t pick up the phone every time she called-that also would have been a happy ending. Because Claire deserves more than a relationship that demands everything of her. She deserves the boundary she set for herself. Once she persuaded herself that was true, the rest was easy.
If you’re struggling with boundaries, you may have to persuade yourself that you deserve the boundary you want to set. I’ve coached people to set boundaries around meetings at work, around working weekends, and around demands from family members. The one thing that makes a boundary work is persuasion. You have to persuade yourself that you deserve the boundary and that it will serve you, the other person, and your relationship.
Remember this–when you communicate, you share perspectives. When you advocate, you change them. Boundaries are really a communication tool when it comes to others. They have to see your perspective. Boundaries are an advocating tool when it comes to yourself. You have to change your perspective around boundaries. You have to see them differently so you’re willing to enforce them.
It’s the only way that your boundaries will do their job–which is ultimately to protect you. You deserve that.
And if you want help, join the Advocate With Elegance membership. We are a community learning to advocate for our purpose, our ideas, our potential and our boundaries. Here’s the link to get on the waiting list.