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Communicating And Upholding Your Boundaries


Like Kev said, my name is Suze Shardlow, and I'm going to talk to you today about Communicating and Upholding Your Boundaries. You can find me at Twitter, I'm @SuzeShardlow on Twitter, please do tweet at me. I would love to hear from you. And also at my website, Just a little bit about me. I'm a software engineer, coding instructor, event emcee and technical writer. I'm currently head of developer community at Redis. Here is a photo of me on my 13th birthday, using the computer that I learned to code on.

I'm a brown woman. And since that photo was taken, I have worked in a number of male-dominated industries, where my boundaries were often crossed, mostly - but not always - by people who didn't look like me. So, that's currently the tech industry, previously, the police and the engineering industries and federal government. Feel free to ask me about anything I haven't covered here after my talk. We're having a little Q&A session.

So, "No." is a complete sentence. And it's often a difficult word to say. So, as a result, we end up with situations, environments, tasks and treatment that we don't want. Setting boundaries helps us to understand and establish our limits. They're essential for our health. But they're useless if we don't enforce them. And it's harder to enforce them if we haven't communicated them. So, today I'm gonna take you through how to let somebody know they have crossed the line, how to tell them it won't be happening again and deciding in advance how you're going to uphold your boundary if they cross it.

So, telling someone they crossed the line starts way before they've crossed the line. There's a bit of groundwork that you need to do to make sure that you're in a good position to have that conversation. And, with any luck, if you've done the groundwork and you're dealing with a reasonable person, you might not even need to have the conversation because they've already got the message. So, let's start from the beginning.

What is a boundary? We hear this word a lot, don't we? I've got my boundary, this is your boundary, you have crossed my boundary. But what is a boundary? It's a line that marks the limit of an area. Same as if you live in a house and you have got a fence, that's the boundary between you and your neighbour. So it's a line that marks the limit of an area. And for personal boundaries, it's a rule that you set to protect various aspects of your life. Now, I say various aspects because there are different types of boundary. And you can probably think of a few off the top of your head.

The main ones are:

Physical. So, this is around your personal space. Like your home or your bag or your diary. And also, about personal touch and how close you're comfortable with allowing people to get to you. Intellectual boundaries. So, we're all entitled to our ideas, beliefs, opinions and values without having them belittled. Emotional. This is about your feelings and how much information you share about yourself. Material. Now, these boundaries are about your resources and belongings and who you decide is allowed to use them. And time. So, this is one of the most tricky ones and probably the one that we have to deal with the most at work. And it's about how you choose to, or need to, use your time.

And the thing about all personal boundaries, is they're all to do with relationships. And they're all to do with how you're deciding to interact with other people. So, what does a healthy boundary look like?

So, a healthy boundary is about being an assertive communicator. It's about being able to say no. It's about being supportive to other people without risking your own time or well-being. I think, you know, we've all got people in our lives who need help from us. And sometimes it's really hard to kind of stay in that zone of helping them, but not getting too drawn in. And not allocating your whole life to helping them sort out their life. Being carefully trusting. So, deciding who you're going to trust. And being discerning about who you let in. So, not letting everybody into your life. Being selective about that. And taking a bit of time to think about who they are and whether you want them in your life. And being accepting of conflict. And that's a really hard one. We're quite conflict-averse as humans. Even though we're part of the animal kingdom, we really don't like it.

So, let's see what it looks like when you have very leaky or loose boundaries. If you've got leaky boundaries, you're probably going to be a passive communicator. So, if you had healthy boundaries, you're assertive. You're gonna be a passive communicator. You're probably going to be unable to say no. That's quite common. You're gonna be too involved in other people's issues because your boundary is leaky. You're allowing that person to come into your -- into the zone that you didn't want them to be in. You're gonna be too trusting of too many people too soon. That's not necessarily a bad thing. I think a lot of nice people are too trusting. But it can be quite damaging sometimes. It's good to figure out people before you trust them, I guess.

Allowing anyone else -- anyone to get close to you. So, again, that's about being a bit selective about who you're letting in. And you're gonna be conflict avoidant because you're conceding all the time. It goes with being passive and going with the flow, just allowing stuff to happen to you. You're gonna avoid conflict because you're just agreeing to everything. And I think a lot of the time we don't realise that's what we're doing.

Now let's see what it looks like when your boundaries are rigid. So, we looked at healthy boundaries and leaky boundaries. And now we're going to see what it looks like when you go to the other end of the extreme and your boundaries are rigid. If your boundaries are rigid, you're more likely to be an aggressive communicator. You're unable to say yes. You say no most of the time because your boundary is so rigid. I'm gonna stick to that. Nobody's gonna penetrate this line. You're distant from others' problems. You've set this boundary you're not gonna get involved with other people, you're not gonna allocate your time to that thing. You're untrusting of others.

It's almost like you're living in a bubble. That line is very sort of a contained space with just you in it in and you're not letting anybody in and you're not letting anything out. You're distant from other people. And you're avoiding conflict, again, by pushing people away.

So, I think we can all see bits of ourselves in all three of those different types of boundaries. Because none of us are perfect. And I definitely know that I can see myself in all three of those different types of boundaries. Sometimes it depends on the situation and people we're dealing with as to how healthy our boundaries are. And I think that a lot of people find that their boundaries are looser with the people that are closest to them. And sometimes they're not happy with that. They find it easier to be more rigid with people they have less of an emotional bond with and less history with.

But it's also okay to have loose boundaries at long as that's what you feel comfortable with. So, for example, you might be comfortable with oversharing information about yourself. And we've all met people like that. You might be one of them. People like to just, you know, as soon as they meet you, they tell you their whole life story and exactly how they feel about everything. But what you need to remember is how it's affecting the other person and whether your behaviour is respectful of their boundaries too. Just because you're happy to give, doesn't mean the other person is happy to receive. So, you're oversharing. You're giving. It might be that they're not comfortable with giving. But maybe they're not happy to receive it either. Because it's quite a big thing to take on that amount of stuff from somebody else, isn't it? It's a big responsibility. And it feels like it's a lot of trust they're placing on you. And sometimes it's hard to know how to react to that.

So, the first thing you need to do with your boundaries is decide what your boundary actually is. And that might seem like a really obvious statement. But sometimes we know that something doesn't feel right. But we don't really know what it is. So, to do this, to decide what your boundary is, you need to think about why you want this boundary. What is it about this boundary being crossed that you don't like? And this will help you to feel more certain with believing in the boundary. And it will help you to enforce it. And, by the way, "it makes me feel uncomfortable," or "it's mine," is a perfectly valid reason which requires no further elaboration. Perfectly valid. If it doesn't make you feel comfortable, or if something's yours and you don't want to share it, then that's perfectly valid. Once you've decided what your boundary is, then you need to define it.

So, for example, we're going to turn the example of, you don't discuss your personal life at work. So, that's the boundary example that we're gonna look at now. I'm just gonna take a little sip of water.

So, you've defined your boundary, which is: "I don't talk about my personal life at work". And then you need to communicate it. So, for this particular example, you can either state it up front when an opportunity presents, or you can state it after somebody's crossed it. Which is probably gonna be the more likely situation. So, to state up front, you might feel comfortable telling your boss at an opportune moment, during an early one-to-one. Say, for example, the subject of life outside work comes up, you might say to your boss, "I like to keep things separate". Or, if somebody asks you about your family, then you'll just have to tell them after they've crossed the line because they didn't know otherwise. But you can still do that quite early on. So if they ask you anything about, you know, "have you got children?" or anything like that, you can nip it in the bud right there.

So, to actually enforce that boundary or to communicate that boundary to them, just state the facts. So, just say, "I don't talk about my personal life at work because I like to keep work and family separate". And if you want to, just change the subject to something else straightaway. You've told them you don't want to talk about that and then you've moved on. Now, you notice that I used the word "because" there. "I don't talk about my personal life at work because I like to keep work and family separate". I use the word "because", because like it or not, the conversation you're having is a form of persuasion. Now, it is your boundary, but to some extent you have to persuade the other person that you're serious about it and that it's important to you. Because it's your boundary and it may not be a boundary they personally have. So there's some element of persuasion in there. We know from studies about negotiation that the word "because" is valuable. And I wrote an article about this, and why the word "because" is the most important thing in getting your own way. Check that out at

So, unfortunately, there are some people in life who need others to justify everything. So, you might get them asking you why you don't want to discuss these topics. And you also get some people who try to get you to be ultra-specific about what you will and won't discuss. So, really these people are just trolls who are trying to see how far they can push you. They haven't got your best interests at heart. They don't want to help you. They just want to see what they can get away with. Keep it simple and don't get drawn into over-explaining. Like I said earlier, "because it makes me feel uncomfortable," or "because it's mine," are two perfectly valid reasons. You don't have to over-explain. We have all been in a situation where we start explaining more and more and then it just gives the other person ammunition to argue back. And you get tied up in knots. Don't get into over-explaining. You have told them you don't like it. That should be enough. Just repeat what you told them.

Now, if they want to know what makes you feel uncomfortable or if they utter that brilliant phrase that's been overused since the beginning of time, "I can't help the way you feel," then just reply, "I don't like it and I've informed you of it now, so if you ask me about it again, you're doing it in the knowledge that you're making me feel uncomfortable." That means that it's understood by both of you that they, and they alone, are responsible for the consequences of their own actions. You're telling them that you're not allowing them to make you feel that way. And you're also not responsible for their reaction to the statement that you've made to them in a respectful way.

So, then you've got to decide what the consequences of crossing that boundary are going to be. This can be quite fluid. And we looked at leaky or loose boundaries before. You might find a really good friend at work and you're happy to discuss things with them. But if there's someone you want to enforce the boundary strictly with, then you need to decide the consequences. In this case, you're going to need to refuse to discuss your personal life. And if they continue to press you, then you might need to stop speaking to them socially. That may sound a bit extreme, but if you think about it, you've made a perfectly reasonable decision and they're consistently disrespecting your wishes and it's not essential to the business of the organisation for you to discuss these things with that person. You can all get on with your jobs perfectly well without discussing your personal life. It might be that you're just going to not have to speak to that person socially at all.

So, taking another example. Again in the workplace, a situation where you may not be able to define your boundary up front. Say someone keeps giving you work that's not your job. Again, we're gonna define the boundary. That's the first thing we're gonna do. Look at what's happening and what you feel is wrong about it. Then define what you want to happen and communicate it. Make sure you're communicating it to someone who has the power to help you and the power to enforce this boundary with you. So, in this example where you're being given work that isn't your job, speak to your boss first and get their buy-in because they can help you to enforce the boundary because they know it's not your job. And then tell the team. So, you're gonna tell the team, "I'm the only woman on the team and I'm always expected to take the notes," or organize the birthday cards, or whatever it is. "We need to share these tasks equally around the team because it's not anyone's job and it's not fair on me." If these tasks keep coming back to you, remind everybody of what you originally said and decline to do the tasks.

Yes, it is tiring when people ignore you and they keep doing it. But I mean, if they're gonna repeat, then you're gonna have to repeat it back to them. And eventually they're gonna have to get the message. And you might have to escalate it to your boss to help you. But that is the only way. If you give in, you're just setting the precedent that your boundary is something that can be crossed for exceptional reasons that only they are going to decide what they are.

It is tiring. But people often ignore things they don't like. So, if people don't like your boundary, they're gonna ignore it. So, all of the above information and the advice that I've given you assumes that we're dealing with people that are reasonable. And it assumes that we're not being bullied. And that's a whole other arena that I would need a lot more time to cover. But it also assumes that you're being reasonable. So it's not really fair if you've decided to set a boundary with your partner that you're not doing any of the housework because you don't like it. That requires a bigger discussion - there's probably gonna be a bit of give and take and you have to figure out how you can work together on that.

So, in summary, know how to recognise a healthy boundary. And we looked at healthy boundaries, rigid boundaries and leaky or loose boundaries. Understand the types of boundary you need with different people and different areas of your life. So, it might be that you've got a physical boundary of you don't want somebody to borrow your car. But you're quite happy for another person to. It might be that that boundary is different for different people, depending on the relationship that you've got. Because, like we said, it's all about relationships. Then you're gonna define the boundary, get it really clear in your head what you will and will not accept. You're gonna communicate them. But don't over-communicate it to them. And then you're going to set the consequences. So, my name is Suze Shardlow. And I hope I have given you something to think about today. You can find me at or on Twitter, @SuzeShardlow. Thank you very much for listening, I'm happy to take any questions.