How to Set + Communicate Boundaries

Last week I noted that one of the gifts of grief is that I find it much easier to set and defend boundaries. Since then, a couple people have told me that my ability to set and defend boundaries has inspired them, which I take to be quite a compliment. A colleague told me they no longer feel like they need to respond to emails immediately and a friend credited my modeling for helping them feel like they don’t need to say yes to every social invitation during the holidays.

I wrote shortly after my late husband died about setting boundaries, but since then, I’ve gotten much better at it. I wish younger me had understood boundaries better; I think I would have been a lot happier—and I think the people around me who bore the brunt of my regular resentment would have been a lot happier. Alas, I can’t go back and change the past, but I can help you feel better about having and defending boundaries.

The best boundaries focus on what you can do rather than on what you want others to do and are clearly communicated to others. Here are some of the boundaries I have set and defended, along with phrases I use to communicate them to others:

  • I leave a meeting when it is scheduled to end. I do not apologize, I do not make up excuses, I simply leave. I try to minimize any disruption.
    • How I communicate this boundary: Before the meeting, if I suspect the meeting will actually run over the scheduled time, I say, “I’ll need to leave at [the scheduled end time].” I don’t offer excuses.
  • I do not attend meetings that don’t have either an agenda or a clear purpose.
    • How I communicate this boundary: If no agenda has been provided two days before the meeting, I email the meeting facilitator, saying, “My practice is to only attend meetings with an agenda or a clear purpose. Can you please provide more details about the meeting?”
  • I do not respond to emails before or after my work hours.
    • How I communicate this boundary: I state it in my syllabi and tell my colleagues who email me frequently.
  • I do not apologize for not doing things I wasn’t responsible for doing. This seems like a simple one, but I see people apologize all the time for not bringing snacks that no one expected them to bring to a meeting, or not dressing up for an occasion that wasn’t clearly communicated as dressy. This one doesn’t really need communicating in advance.
  • I do not wait to start meetings or classes until everyone is there. I start meetings and classes at the scheduled start time. I don’t shame anyone who is late, trusting that they have good reasons that are none of my business.
    • How I communicate this boundary: I tell people I start on time.
  • I do not attend social functions I do not want to attend. I have learned that declining an invitation is actually quite simple—all you have to say is, “Oh, that sounds lovely! I won’t be able to attend, but I hope it’s wonderful!” No apologies necessary—just heartfelt wishes that those who do attend have a great time. Very, very occasionally, someone pushes me about why I can’t attend. If I simply don’t want to go, I may say, “I have a conflict” or “My social battery has been running pretty low lately.”
  • I do not answer 95% of the phone calls I get. I just let most calls go to voice mail and then I return the call when I want to.
    • How I communicate this boundary: When people say they’ll call me, I usually say, “I’m not a big phone person. Can we do this by email or over Zoom?”
  • I do not respond to emails that don’t make it clear what kind of response is needed. If the email is from a student or colleague, I may reply by saying “I’m not sure what you are asking of me.” I delete emails from people I don’t know that I can’t decipher the purpose of.
    • How I communicate this boundary: I tell my students and colleagues to make the ask in any email clear by putting it in its own paragraph or in bold.
  • I do not take other people’s boundaries personally. Someone doesn’t answer my email quickly? OK. Someone doesn’t answer when I call? OK. Someone declines my invitation? OK.

I am polite about these boundaries and do not apologize for having them. Having these boundaries means disappointing other people, but I am not responsible for their feelings. If people are disappointed that I didn’t attend their meeting or answer their email, that’s ok. I’m sure there are some people who think I am demanding or hard to work with because of my boundaries, and you know what? That’s ok. If having reasonable boundaries makes me demanding or hard to work with, then I am demanding and hard to work with. As a white cis-gendered woman with tenure, I can afford to be demanding and hard to work with. I recognize that not everyone has that privilege. Because I do have the privilege to be seen as demanding and hard to work with, I think it’s very important that I do set and hold these boundaries because I hope that will make it easier for others with less privilege to do so.

These boundaries are all focused on what I do. This makes sense since I can’t control the behavior of others. I can’t say others must have agendas for their meetings, but I can say I will not attend meetings that don’t have agendas.

Let’s normalize setting and defending boundaries!

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