Boundaries are always a hot topic. Why? Because boundaries are a hard thing for us to both set and maintain. It takes a lot of energy to maintain your boundaries – until it doesn’t (more on that later). Boundaries are more important than ever because so many of our lives have become boundary-less, free-form, all interruptions all the time. Things intrude on our lives all day long. We’re checking our emails, our texts, our social media all the time – without thinking. We’re on call 24/7. It’s become a reflex.

Boundaries help us control the chaos that surrounds us. They turn us from amorphous beings into functional human beings with defined borders who are able to live our ways the way we want to. They concentrate us, instead of diluting us. They are also critical tools for getting things done. Boundaries let other people know how we expect to be treated; they establish rules for how we handle our time; they show other people that we respect them, and they keep us focused on our priorities.

Boundaries show self-respect

When we set boundaries around how we expect to be treated, we let the people around us know that we respect ourselves. As parents, we decide how our children should address us. We let them know if their tone or word choice is inappropriate so they know how we want to be talked to. When we enforce those boundaries, children know what to expect from us. They also learn that setting those boundaries is a way of showing self-respect. We’re modeling boundaries and how they work.

If you want people to understand what respect looks like to you, you have to speak up when your boundaries are breached.

Same thing goes for work. You get to decide how people will address you at work. You are the only person who can insist that people speak to you based on your boundaries. If you’re in a situation where you’re yelled at, or touched inappropriately, or talked down to, it’s up to you to enforce your boundaries. I had a boss who thought it was okay to pat me on my derriere. It wasn’t, and he didn’t see anything wrong with it, so I quit that job.

Speak up when your boundaries are breached

If you want people to understand what respect looks like to you, speak up when your boundaries are breached. You can talk to the person and let them know how you feel (I feel sentences, not it makes me feel). It’s always a good idea to start by giving them an easy out. For example, try this: “I’m pretty sure you didn’t realize how rude your remarks sounded to me. Could you try communicating a different way next time, please?” And see what they say.

You know, a lot of the time, people don’t even realize how they come across to others. When you enforce your boundaries, you’re showing respect for them. When you speak up, you’re treating them as adults who care about other people. By enforcing your boundaries, you’re giving others the chance to modify their behavior. If you don’t say anything, they can’t change. And, when you enforce your boundaries, you show others that you know who you are. You’re not amorphous; you’re a person who has defined limits. You’re in control of yourself.

Show people how much you value them

There’s another way we can use boundaries. We can show people how much we value them by setting up boundaries that honor our time commitments to them. A good example is starting meetings on time. If you’re the person holding the meeting, don’t hold it up for people who are running late. Start with the people who are already there; the ones who took the time to set up their day (and set their own boundaries) so they could make the meeting. Yes, I know, things happen and people run late. I also know that the surest way to make sure that meetings start and end on time is to start them when you said you would and end them the same way.

Setting boundaries around time commitments with others is a very high level professional skill. When you enforce them, you show everyone involved that you respect their time. And, as with all boundaries, the more you enforce them, the more people honor them. For example, for six years I served on the board of a non-profit in Atlanta. Every meeting started on time and ended on time – every single one of them. If someone was late, we filled them in after the meeting. The boundary showed everyone on the board that our time was valued. And, by respecting the boundary we demonstrated our respect for each other and the institution.

Boundaries show what you value

And don’t forget to set boundaries at home. My podcast partner, Diana, is on the way to an empty nest. Since she realizes this and wants to honor her commitment to spend time with her kids, she doesn’t do any work at all between 4pm and 5pm every day. No phone calls, no emails, no text, nothing. She checks in with her kids when they get home from school and they chat (or not), and her kids know this is their time every day without fail. Diana enforces this boundary to show her kids that she values them enough to dedicate time to them. And, guess what? When I forget and text her at 4:30, I eventually realize that she’s not going to get back to me til after 5. By enforcing her boundary, she’s also trained me to respect her time. That’s how boundaries work. They help you stake your claim to what you value and they teach others to respect you.

Setting boundaries can be scary

Ok. I can hear you thinking, “It’s too hard to enforce my boundaries and it’s really scary!” You’re right it is hard and it can be definitely scary. As Diana and I were preparing to record our podcast about boundaries we found a great analogy. Someone compared the feeling of enforcing a new boundary to a horse that’s just learning to stand up. The first times foals try to stand their legs are weak and wobbly and they end up falling over. But each time they try, their legs get stronger. Eventually their legs can support them.

Here’s the deal. The more you exercise your boundaries, the better you get at enforcing them. If you’re intentional about how you set them and present them, you will be educating people around you about how to treat you. You will show them what you value. You will find that people treat you with more respect because, again, you’re not some amorphous being who goes along with anything. Instead, they realize that you have well-defined limits because you’ve demonstrated them over and over again.

Boundaries set you free

So, setting and enforcing boundaries lets people know what you expect, it reminds you about what’s important to you, and allows you to accomplish your goals. By their very nature, your boundaries set you free to be the most authentic and productive you. They help you filter out the noise. They allow you to determine exactly how you want to interact with an on-demand world.