How to set boundaries

How to set boundaries


A little about me. I read 100+ books a year.

Okay, fine, I’ve read 100+ books this year, after years and years of not reading.

The reason I’m bragging about this is because everything in this article is taken from five books:

  1. Set Boundaries, Find Peace by Nedra Tawwab
  2. Rising Strong by Brene Brown
  3. The Way of Integrity by Martha Beck
  4. Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
  5. Happy Money: The Japanese Art of Making Peace With Your Money by Ken Honda

So if you find any of this valuable, buy those books and credit those authors (not me). I am just doing the work of synthesizing stuff I’ve learned in case you’re not planning on carving out extra reading time.

This article is about how to set boundaries, which in my opinion, is the #1 skill you need as a community builder.

I’m writing this article 6 minutes after finishing a talk with the Heartbeat community. Surprise surprise, my talk was called “The #1 skill you need as a community builder: boundaries.”

I’ve split the topic of boundary-setting into a few core competencies:

  1. Understanding boundaries
  2. Saying no
  3. Managing time
  4. Aligning price

Heads up: you’ll see me referring to the authors I mentioned above as if they’re my friends. I’ll be using their first names to demonstrate what they’ve taught me. Hopefully this helps you understand which book you want to buy first 😉

Level-up your community skills - get these guides delivered straight to your inbox!

Core competency #1: Understanding boundaries

To be a “good” boundary setter (lol, it’s a work in progress), we have to understand what boundaries are.

  1. Identify which level of boundary-setting you fall into. I love Nedra’s explanation of why boundaries are important: “a boundary is a cue to others about how to treat you.” ‼️ Think long and hard about that. She says there are three levels of boundaries. Porous boundaries are weak, poorly expressed, and unintentionally harmful. Rigid boundaries involve building walls to keep others out. And then you have healthy boundaries!
  2. Develop healthy boundaries Healthy boundaries (this is Nedra again) look like:
    1. Being clear about your values (I have an article on this here
      What do you actually use community values for?
    2. Listening to your own opinion
    3. Sharing with others appropriately
    4. Having a healthy vulnerability with people who have earned your trust
    5. Being comfortable saying no
    6. Being comfortable hearing no without taking it personally
  3. Understand the six areas of boundaries Nedra says we need to work on physical, sexual, intellectual, emotional, material, and time boundaries. Intellectual, emotional, and time boundaries come up the most in community building, so we can focus on those.
  4. Know that passive aggressiveness is the opposite of good boundary setting. ”Passive aggressiveness is a way we resist directly setting boundaries. To avoid confrontation, we hope the other person will figure out what they’re doing wrong and self-correct their behaviors through our indirect actions.” — Nedra, again. As community builders, it is our responsibility to model boundary-setting over passive aggressiveness.
  5. Join me for the BIG RAVING party! Okay so these are actually acronyms that Brene provides for us. BIG stands for Boundaries, Integrity, and Generosity. Ask:
  6. What boundaries do I need to put in place so I can work from a place of integrity and extend the most generous interpretations of the intentions, words, and actions of others?

    And RAVING is a framework for setting your boundaries:

    Was I clear about what’s okay and what’s not okay? R—Was I reliable? Did I do what I said I was going to do? A—Did I hold myself accountable? V—Did I respect the vault and share appropriately? I—Did I act from my integrity? N—Did I ask for what I needed? Was I nonjudgmental about needing help? G—Was I generous toward myself?

There’s SOOOO much more we can get into in this first competency, but I’ll leave that up to you and the authors. Nedra and Brene can tell you what to do, from defining your values to responding appropriately when someone violates a boundary.

Core competency #2: Saying no

Now that you understand what boundary-setting looks like, how can you say no? Keep in mind that there are hundreds of templates on the internet on how to say no in specific situations. Use them. You can search “how to say no to a meeting request” and find wording you can use. Indeed has a list of 50 nice ways to say no. I haven’t listed these below, because it’s more important to me that we all develop the competency of saying no. That we understand how and why to say no, so we can claim this in our own words.

  1. Decide that you are meant to live in peace. If you think that everything in life should be hard, then honestly I don’t know how much this article will help you. Martha talks about her experience testing out various affirmation statements with people after coming to the conclusion that we all want the same things — peace, freedom, love, comfort, and belonging. She recommends saying this out loud to ourselves and seeing how our bodies react: “I am meant to live in peace.” Try it! Once you decide that you are indeed meant to live in peace, saying no will feel more aligned. You are meant to say no to the things that preclude you from living in peace.
  2. Deal with flinch areas When you feel fidgety, uncomfortable, irritable, or anxious, your body is telling you something. When you feel yourself literally flinching, it’s time to make a decision. You either say no, or face it head on. You don’t ignore it. Martha says “here, you have to find a way to kill your own cowardice.”
  3. Challenge your untrue beliefs. Martha says something mind-boggling (she calls it a mind-pretzel lol): “Our worst psychological suffering comes from thoughts we genuinely believe, while simultaneously knowing they aren’t true.” Find your internal division. She recommends you do this by observing your suffering (think flinch areas), questioning each belief, and move on. Easy peasy, right? One way you can do this is just ask yourself are you sure? when you fall into despair. Identifying your internal divisions pinpoints alignment and gives you that internal motivation to truly say no. This helps you stop lying to yourself. Once you’re honest with yourself, and living in integrity, boundary-setting becomes a natural practice.
  4. Make a list of what’s okay and not okay. Brene says that boundaries are simply our lists of what is and isn’t okay. So make that list! Figure out what’s in the “not okay” column. You can practice your “no” by starting small. If you are struggling with how to say no, you can learn from Nedra:
    1. “Starting statements with “I need,” “I want,” or “I expect” helps you stay grounded in the truth of who you are
    2. Don’t apologize for having and setting boundaries. Also, if you need to say no to a request, skip the apology
    3. Don’t say too much

Again, all these things take time, but most importantly, they take practice. Maybe you can identify an easy thing to say no to — for example, if a community member asks if they can text you, you could communicate that “email is the best way to reach me”. You can be clear, firm, and assertive while still being kind! After all, we set boundaries so we can better serve our communities wholeheartedly.

Core competency #3: Managing time

Now we’re getting into tactical stuff!

  1. Rest If you’ve ever listened to any of my talks around boundary-setting, self-care, or essential skills for community members, you’ve heard me mention the book Rest. My good friend Alex (ok fine we’ve talked a few times on Twitter) talks about cultivating rest as a skill. That’s right! Time to celebrate! 🎉 But seriously, deliberate rest increases our productivity and creativity. Because we live in a world where we must “perform busyness”, it can be hard to carve out time for rest. However. You must. Thanks to his book, I follow this schedule: three 90-minute work blocks separated by at least 30 minutes of rest that include walking, meditating, doing chores, exercise, etc. It has made me SOOOOO much more productive and SO much better at reinforcing my boundaries around time.
  2. Block your calendar according to your work time This sounds so obvious. But you need to actually structure your days according to how you’re going to do work. I’m still figuring out how meetings fall into the 90-minute work block, honestly. So far, I’ve at least decided to never schedule meetings before 10am because I’m basically dead before that time. Check your calendar to make sure you’re not overcommitting!

Deep Work by Cal Newport is also a pretty decent (but dense) read on the value of spending your time on the work that matters. Setting time boundaries, for me, has probably been the #1 factor in how I’ve improved as a community builder. I’ve stopped lurking in the community out of the stress of “what will happen if I’m not there?!” Instead, I go out in the world, learn stuff, bring it back to my community, and encourage all of us to live our best lives. Working less has allowed me to do so much more, both as a community builder and as a joyful human. 👏🏾

Core competency #4: Aligning price

Ughhhhhhhhhhhh. I hate HATE money stuff. It makes me cringe and flinch. That’s how I know I need stronger/healthier/more clearly articulated boundaries around pricing.

  1. Imagine how hard it is to be money 😢 Ken cracked me up with this sentence:
  2. Money, as we said earlier, comes in various forms, but it is simply an object in its simplest state. Yet we project so many feelings onto money. I actually feel a little sorry for money, because it is an easy target of resentment and jealousy and always gets blamed for all the wrongdoings of humankind.

    Honestly, decoupling money from my emotions has been a big step in feeling more confident on setting price-related boundaries.

  3. Choose what makes you feel like a winner Money is a means to an end, and it’s important to examine our motives. Ken says that “the point is not that we will live in a world free of money; we will live in a world free of fear of lack of money.” And I love that. For me, being a winner means I have the freedom to choose how I spend my time, I can do work that is purposeful, and I can pursue joy (and encourage others to do the same). When I examine money’s role in this whole “living my best life” situation, I’m understand that I’m actually under-charging for the services I’m offering. It’s made me feel like I’m giving and giving and giving without expecting too much in return. Our community used to be priced at $5/month and people could just enter whenever they wanted. That did not make me feel like a winner. It made me feel like an overworked, underpaid, unfulfilled human. Now, we’re charging a few hundred for cohort-based memberships, and it feels so aligned with what I want to do. Eliminating the resentment has meant that I can show up wholeheartedly. I’m also not doing this just for the money, so I have no guilt about increasing my prices. That guilt/fear was holding me back for so long, but it turns out… it wasn’t even a thing! And I feel much more like a winner.

Realizing that price is a boundary has been key to my journey as a community builder. I’m still unpacking this, but we’re off to a good start!

What’s next?

I want to end with a brief note from Nedra. What do you do when someone violates your boundary? Whether they disrespect your time by showing up 10 minutes late to a 1:1, self-promote too much in the community you’re running, grumble about paying for your services, etc., here’s how you can think about your options:

  • Restate or refresh your boundary
  • Reduce your interactions with that person
  • Issue an ultimatum
  • Accept it and let go of the relationship

I’m curious to know if these competencies resonate with you. I wrote this article in 51 minutes, so if you see something off or thoughtless, please email me — these are all works in progress and I’m happy to update it!

Level-up your community skills - get these guides delivered straight to your inbox!