How to Set Healthy Boundaries
with "Boundary Boss" Author Terri Cole

Terri Cole is a psychotherapist, author (of “Boundary Boss”) and an expert on the self-care challenges inherent in being a business leader. She talked us through strategies, scripts, and practices for boundary setting.

Part of the problem, Cole explains, is that this is not something we’re taught. Women are often expected to be “good girls” or people pleasers who must avoid causing conflict. Fortunately, boundary setting is something that can be learned.

She defines boundaries as “one’s own personal rules of engagement […] your preferences, limits, and deal-breakers”. Women need to know what these deal-breakers are but also need to be able to express them clearly, firmly, and concisely to others. To even begin to that you need to be in touch with your own feelings and accept them as legitimate. Non-negotiables are circumstantial – what may be appropriate for others may not be appropriate for you.

Cole talks about starting with a “resentment inventory” – where you list what resentments or grievances you hold. By so doing, you’ll have a better idea of your preferences and your unexpressed boundaries. You can be specific by recognizing individuals who threaten those boundaries.

She talks about a “downloaded boundary blueprint” – this is the expectations handed down from generation to generation, based upon cultural and family-dictated priorities. By asking what you learned, and from whom, you can decide whether those boundaries were chosen by you or for you.

High-Functioning Co-Dependency and Stopping the Automatic “Yes”

According to Cole, there are 5 Pillars of Self Mastery and Transformation. Self-awareness is the first and foremost of these. One useful exercise is to decide for a period to not respond to all asks with an immediate yes. Saying “let me check and get back to you” is perfectly acceptable. People are not entitled to an immediate answer from us and it’s okay to simply not want to do something sometimes. You can decide what preferences you are entitled to have and insist upon.

High-functioning co-dependency is a concept central to Cole’s work. Co-dependency in her formulation is being “overly invested in the decisions, feeling states, outcomes and circumstances of the people in your life” to the detriment of personal well-being. If you tend to immediately jump to assist those around you, dropping everything, you may be co-dependent. The high-functioning aspect describes how effortless it looks to an outsider, who can’t see the inner cost.

Managing the VIP Section of Your Life

Says Cole, you have a VIP section within your life; a section roped off for only those we allow in, usually those closest to us. We should prioritize the people with whom there is mutuality of giving and safety. To bring up challenging boundary issues you can begin with “I’d like to make a simple request.” This sets an expectation for the reasonableness of your concern.

Repeated boundary abuses may require you to add a consequence. You must stick to the limits you set. Cole gives the example of a partner being late home for dinner and never calling to say he’d be late. Eventually, in such an example, you may have to stand firm and simply not make dinner that night. Without consequence, some people will never change their behavior or attitude.

There can be people for whom we consciously give more than we receive, so long as it’s a choice, rather than a compulsion. For example, a much younger relative who solicits our assistance, where we never mind giving it. Once this feels like a chore or an imposition, it has become a boundary issue, however.

The Lone Wolf Syndrome

This is a tendency some people have not only to never ask for help, but to never accept it when it is offered. This too is a boundary issue, emerging from the high-functioning nature of co-dependency. When you have this mindset you come to believe you’re creating a debt when you allow someone to help. This needn’t be the case – people close to you have the right to be kind and generous too.

Lies we Tell Ourselves

Often, we make excuses for other people’s behavior, rather than addressing the issue and standing firm. “When we say yes when we want to say no, when we minimize the crappy behavior of others, we’re not being honest,” Cole explains. This dishonesty creates a barrier between you and your loved ones and can lead to a feeling of emptiness.

It is a loving gesture to be supportive of your partner or children, but sometimes its more loving to have faith that they can be independent and fix some things themselves. Even when those we care about defer to our opinions constantly, this too can be a boundary issue. It can be better to insist that they express their own thoughts before we offer our own ideas. Asking more expansive questions can be more productive than always jumping in with our own solutions.

The Energetic Hit-List

Cole believes it can be okay to cut people out of your life if you only get negative energy from them, or the giving is entirely one-sided. Letting it fade out should not make you feel guilty, but you may achieve a cleaner break if you’re honest and direct about no longer wanting them in your life. It’s not kind to either party when you’re not being honest about the relationship.

You don’t need to be unnecessarily unkind, but if it’s an important boundary, then honesty is usually the best policy.

Difficult Boundary Setting

Even in difficult co-dependency situations, such as friends or loved ones who are addicts, or in abusive relationships, you must set boundaries. It’s okay to tell such loved ones that you can’t listen to their destructive cycles endlessly. You can offer to help when they are ready to help themselves; quite often this will help them find their own solutions.

Boundary-setting in family businesses is especially vital because there can be an overwhelm if everyone expects complete and constant access. This is where the delayed response strategy can be helpful. You can also set a strict methodology for communications – perhaps emails rather than calls or drop-ins. You must be very explicit about the rules of engagement.

You don’t owe anyone an explanation of your boundaries either. Although we want our loved ones to understand our boundaries, we can’t force them to comprehend our reasons for saying “no.”

“No” is a complete sentence.