Setting Boundaries: Or, How to (Almost) Not Graduate From College

I was a music major in college. In my junior year I played in an orchestra led by a revered conductor. This revered instructor also had a habit of verbally abusing students in rehearsal.

At one point the evil eye of his bad temper focused on me. I made a mistake. He hurled insults at me in front of the entire ensemble.

The next day, I did what I thought I should do: I went back to rehearsal. I was terrified, of course. I also knew deep down that this person’s behavior was wrong and shouldn’t be tolerated, but I doubted myself. I caved to social pressure, giving it more authority over my actions than my own sense of right and wrong. This person is well-respected, I thought. Everyone else is putting up with his behavior. Obviously the problem is me. I’m just too sensitive.

At rehearsal, I was so terrified of making another mistake that of course I made one. This time, the jackass instructor threw his conductor’s baton at me.

I sat frozen in my seat. During a rehearsal break a few minutes later, I had what felt like an out-of-body experience. I felt myself get up and put my instrument away. Without saying a word to anyone, I walked out of rehearsal. It was like my body hijacked my brain, propelling me away from danger and back to the relative safety of my dorm room.

Musician walking away

Rehearsal wasn’t actually over, mind you. A few minutes later I received a call from the conductor’s assistant. Was I OK, he wanted to know? Was I coming back? No, I said, I’m not OK. I’m not coming back.

You might think what I did was appropriate under the circumstances. Or perhaps you think it was rash and fool-hardy. You might feel that I could and should have handled the situation better.

I actually agree with all of these reactions.

Clearly, the teacher’s behavior was way out of line and setting a boundary was appropriate. And boy, did I set it. The problem was I waited until I couldn’t stand the situation any more to take action.

Here’s the thing about waiting until you are at the end of your rope to “handle” a boundary issue. Your emotions will take over. You will say and do things that you regret and you will almost certainly make the situation worse instead of better.

The way I handled the situation certainly made my life worse.

It turns out that quitting orchestra in the middle of a rehearsal infuriates and embarrasses both the conductor and the school administration.

Now, one could argue the conductor and school administration (who were culpable for allowing a faculty member to continually behave in this way) deserved the consequences. I, in fact, did argue this - loudly and to anyone who would listen - for many years.

But that’s not really the point. The point is, the way I ended up handling the situation only made the situation worse for me.

Here’s what “worse” looked like. My ability to graduate was suddenly in peril. Lawyers were consulted. Threatening letters were written. The college President had to get involved. This miserable situation dragged on for months, causing me (and my poor parents) all kinds of grief.

(In case you’re on the edge of your seat, waiting to see how this movie ends: Yes, I did graduate.)

Graduate taking her diploma

You could say that my actions were understandable. I was young. I didn’t have the wisdom and experience of a mature adult that would help me make better choices. You could point out that the power dynamics were not in my favor.

But now I’m a mature adult. I have all the authority and power I need to manage myself and my life effectively. My wisdom and experience tells me that when I feel misused, I need to take action and set boundaries early on, before I blow up and make a mess out of things. And yet, sometimes I still struggle to set the boundaries I know are necessary.

So why is it, when your wisdom and experience are telling you what you should do, it’s so hard to listen?

Setting boundaries is hard for all of us. There are many reasons for this - FOMO; believing that “no” is a sign of weakness; social conditioning - I could go on and on.

But there are many very good reasons why setting boundaries as soon as you discover they’re necessary, and before the problem gets out of control, is worth the hassle and discomfort.

First, people respect you more when you show respect for yourself. Setting and maintaining reasonable boundaries is one of the best ways to demonstrate that your time and energy are valuable.

Second, healthy boundaries prevent burnout and therefore make pursuing the work and activities that are important to you more sustainable.

Third, boundaries also increase our sense of authenticity. “Although it may seem counter-intuitive to some, good boundaries are not limiting,” says Emotional Intelligence executive coach Svetland Whitener. “Well-defined boundaries allow you to show up more assertively, authentically and act with courage and honesty. You are taking ownership of your own actions, emotions or feelings without taking ownership of the actions, emotions or feelings of others.”

Fourth, pushing myself to deal with the discomfort of the boundary-setting process also taught me to trust myself. I gained confidence in the boundaries themselves (which have proven their value over time) and in my ability to confidently but respectfully explain them.

For example, fast-forward 20 years from my college “incident”. I was running a client-based business that was successful, but I felt overextended. I realized I need to change certain policies that would minimally impact my clients but greatly reduce my stress and workload. I wanted to prevent burnout and the resentment that comes from feeling pushed too far too often.

Two colleagues talking over coffee

I knew this process would be difficult. Some clients would be annoyed with the changes and I risked losing some business. When it came time to put the policies in place, I had to explain them to existing clients with sweaty palms and a quaking voice.

But I forced myself to do it because I had the benefit of experience. I know “emergency boundary setting” causes more problems than it solves.

If you:

  • Are stressed and overwhelmed by daily living;
  • Feel defeated by your to-do list before you’ve finished your morning coffee;
  • Are hesitant to take action because you doubt yourself, cave to social norms (“no-one ever says no to my boss”), or give in to feelings of inadequacy (“I’m a bad Mom/employee/friend for wanting to say no”);
  • Tend to accept the status quo just to avoid the hassle and discomfort of putting healthier limits in place. . .

. . .then you are likely struggling with some boundary-related issues.

Here are some steps to help make necessary boundaries a reality:

  • Litmus test: Do you insist that others treat you the way you treat them? We strive to treat others well, giving them the respect and care they deserve. Are you respecting your own needs in the same way? If not, how can you address various boundaries in your life so your needs receive the same respect and care that you extend to others?
  • Identify a boundary-related issue you’d like to solve. Imagine the smallest step you can take in order to begin to set this boundary; this should be a step that your emotional self willingly embraces. Now, take that step. Imagine the next, smallest embraceable step. Take that step. Then the next, and the next.
  • Do it even though you’re scared.
  • Treat yourself every time you do something hard.

Finally, research says that boundaries make you a better person. University of Houston researcher and author Brené Brown set out to discover what common denominator was shared by people who had a high level of compassion for themselves and others. “It turns out,” she says, “that the only variable they shared was they were the most boundaried people I had ever interviewed.”

Please don’t wait until you’re stressed out of your mind and ready to blow before taking control of your life. Start setting important boundaries TODAY. Your peace of mind and quality of life depend on it.