Updated: Nov 22, 2022
When it comes to boundaries, it has taken me decades to understand what they are, why they are beneficial and how to put them into practice. Full disclosure, I still need to revisit them and perform routine maintenance from time-to-time. I’m also convinced that if you have a boundaries practice, you’ll always be circling back to check in on them. That’s just how boundaries work.
When I first began practicing setting boundaries in an intentional way, I had to assess how my life was going without them. What I didn’t know at the time was that I was functioning as a massive people-pleaser and it was taking a toll on me. For those of you who need clarity on what a people-pleaser is, I define it as "a person who is motivated by serving others."
On the surface, the idea of trying to please people seems nice. If our world was filled with only people-pleasers, we might find ourselves living in collaborative and communal paradise. Being of service is seen as an honorable and noble calling. So what gives people-pleasing a bad wrap? In short, a lack or disregard of boundaries.
This was the wall I hit when it became apparent to me that my people-pleasing tendencies were undermining my ability to thrive. Prior to this, it was common for me to go out of my way to sacrifice my time, energy and money to help others. On one hand, I became invaluable to any job because I loved pouring my heart and soul into projects. The downside was that if I was working with leaders who didn’t value or compensate my contributions, I became burned out, which left me feeling resentful and helpless.
The simple solution was that I needed to say "no" to more things. This was a surprisingly difficult thing to do, as, at least to me, it often feels easier to run a marathon than risk disappointing or hurting someone. But saying no finally became imperative when I was no longer able to restore my energy or take joy in the tasks that used to fill me with purpose.
When I began boundaries work, it felt agonizing and painful. With practice and over time, I noticed that I was getting my energy back, enjoying my free time and feeling less resentment and stress. The benefits of setting strong boundaries was huge but, don't get me wrong, it took a minute to get there. Early on in my practice, I had to spend time examining what my personal boundaries even were. I looked at the things that I was doing that became obstacles to my own success. What I discovered was very interesting.
In the majority of my interactions—both with others and with myself—I lacked awareness over my word choices and communication style. When I was communicating with someone who I wanted to impress or connect with, my people-pleaser traits activated so that I would agree, placate and enable in almost every situation. This kept me in favor with a lot of people. However, this lack of awareness made my boundaries super spongy and weak and it made my internal dialogue a mess.
While I was busy trying to please and meet the needs of everyone else, my needs were going unmet and I felt stressed and frustrated. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I felt a fair amount of shame as a result of putting others before myself. This heavily impacted how I spoke to myself. My inner voice was always critical, judgmental and comparative. I hopped into conversations that were fueled by gossip because they felt good but I wasn't thinking about the impact this had on myself or others. The result was that my self-esteem suffered and I constantly found myself being my own worst enemy.
The practice of setting boundaries takes time, awareness, introspection and can even require coaching, at times. When most of us don’t know where to begin, it's easy to just give up. Early on when I was learning how to establish boundaries, it felt like I’d set one and immediately allow it to be violated. I lacked the compassion and grace needed to stay persistent in this work. This changed when I shifted my approach.
I remember seeing a post on social media that said, “Before you speak, ask yourself these three questions: 'Is it helpful? Is it true? Is it kind?' If you can’t say 'Yes' to all three, don’t say it.” The post lingered in my mind over the next several months. Anytime I felt the urge to engage in gossip, these three questions would pop up and I’d have to refrain from speaking. Asking these questions also became helpful when I needed to speak up for myself. When my human capital was being exhausted, these questions highlighted where and how I needed to advocate for myself.
When I chose to step away from a toxic project for the first time, I had to find my words and choose them carefully. The three questions helped me to clarify what needed to be said. I started with a statement like, “ I need to quit because I feel taken advantage of. You don’t give a shit about me or my contributions.” Then, I looked at that statement through the three questions.
Is it helpful?
I found it helpful to stand up for myself and to let the leader know I was leaving because of their poor choices. This answer felt like it could be a "yes," but could it be more helpful? Is this the most helpful this statement could be? The answer was no.
Is it true?
For me, this always takes some time to unravel. Once my mind is convinced of something, it takes A LOT of work to roll that back, consider a different tact or change course entirely. When my mental dialogue is something like, “They don’t give a shit about me. They’re just using me,” I now have to ask if I KNOW this to be true. In other words, was I explicitly told that statement or did I tell it to myself? In this situation I had to admit, despite how I felt, that it was most likely not true.
Is it kind?
This is where I realized I had to circle back and work on the wording. There is no way I could say to someone, “You don’t give a shit about me or my contributions,” and feel it was said with kindness.
So, two out of three answers were a clear and definite "no," which means I had to re-examine my approach. In the end, I still made the choice to walk away, which was the truest, kindest and most helpful thing I could do for myself at that time. I reworked the wording so that it was kind, helpful and true for the other person to receive, as well.
By the time I was able to speak to the leader who I felt resentful towards, my statement had evolved into something like this, “Unfortunately, I’ll have to step away from this project. My energy and time need to recover from the demands it placed on me. Moving forward, should we decide to collaborate again, I feel it would be beneficial to have a clear time frame and goals to prevent burnout in the future.”
My choice to rework my approach allowed me to say “yes” to all three questions and I was able to move forward, emancipating myself from a toxic project and doing minimal damage to others upon my exit.
These three questions have also become critical for elevating my internal dialogue. When I have to ask, "Was that helpful, kind or true?" when criticizing myself or raking myself over the coals for being human, it becomes very clear very quickly which dialogue needs to drop from my headspace.
Learning to live with boundaries takes time and practice. For me, the three questions method has itself become a type of boundary. It gives me clarity on how I’m contributing to the collective whole. If I want to stand in my power, be of service and feel my power, I need boundaries. I have found these three questions to be a major asset in this work. Hopefully, you will too.
Kate Katz is the owner and founder of All Hands In, a soft skills development company. All Hands In specializes in soft skills development by using play and puppetry. If you'd like to learn more about the work we do, please visit: www.allhandsinworkshops.com or email Kate at email@example.com.