What is a boundary? It’s a limit, defining what is and what’s not, what in and what’s out. Or in plain English, where the buck stops. The Romans built Hadrian’s wall in the northern part of their empire that would become Britain. Within: respectable citizens of the empire. Without: barbarians. I love the Romans of antiquity: such chutzpah.

I’ve been hearing a lot about boundaries lately. And maybe the holidays have given you reason to establish some. Or maybe life in general has you thinking you need to set or reset your limits on how much you can give (time, energy, money) and how much you can take (read: put up with). Everyone seems to agree. It’s important to set up boundaries in your work, with family, with friends, and with yourself. It’s important to determine where you allot your time and energy but also limits of responsibility, integrity and authenticity. How far are you willing to go? Or not?

Building a Solid Boundary

We all like to think we have hard-set limits. But the truth is we don’t. And even if we do define a boundary, we feel like crap doing so. When was the last time that boundary was kept intact and you weren’t racked with guilt or at least varying degrees of discomfort? Worried what everyone thought of you? Do you sometimes draw the line, but it’s so squiggly with compromise, it’s as if there wasn’t any and you find yourself crossing it to keep everyone happy but annoy the hell out of yourself in the process? I did that last one for a long time, giving myself pseudo-congratulations that there was accommodation on both sides. As if I was a great mediator. I still annoyed myself.

A solid boundary is built on values. What you value is worth protecting. Think of the Romans, placing stone upon stone (or rather making slaves do it). Why? Because the protection of the Empire was of utmost importance.

One of the most influential books I’ve read is First Things First. The lesson I took away from this book is this: if your values are clear, you will be able to define your principles and from those you will be able to make decisions at times of choice. It’s a decision-making tool but it applies beautifully to setting boundaries. When you are clear on your values, your boundary will be a solid wall and not a line in the sand at high tide.

It’s the why, the reason behind it, that creates a strong boundary.

Several years ago I opted out of overtime where I worked. It was unscheduled, last minute and wreaked havoc with my family life. Sure I was pressured, and told I giving up a bigger paycheck, but that was my choice. So whenever the offer came around, I turned it down without guilt or regrets. If the choice sits well with you, then stick to it and set that limit. When you know why you are doing it, it’s easy. And with practice it becomes easier.

Boundaries Carry Energy

The great thing about setting boundaries is you don’t necessarily have to share them outright with anyone. No need to unroll your proclamation and read it out loud. Once you set solid boundaries, they will carry their own energy. I’d love to say this comes from me, but it comes from an acquaintance, an amazing lady who was my esthetician a very long time ago. I was complaining that everyone seemed to think they could pass comment on every aspect of my life. From how I should be handling my relationship to where I should be working. “Set your limits,” she said, “people will feel that energy and stop.” I didn’t believe it at the time, but she was right. Years later, I see she was way ahead of her time. And for those who still don’t get it, you’ll have a clear frame of reference to explain why you can’t grant him or her the time or energy they need from you.

Boundaries Save Time

Time is the ultimate finite resource. You can have boundless energy and more money than you know what to do with, but we all have roughly the same amount of time. And we are constantly using it up. Be discriminate, don’t waste.

Cover photo: Andrea Leopardi on Unsplash

Diego Jimenez on Unsplash