Founder BLog: Setting Boundaries & letting go of the guilt

How to break the cycle of feeling bad when you need to say No

A few ways where you can establish boundaries to help maintain sanity, health, and let the guilt go. 

Read Time: 9-10 minutes 

By: Heather Wentler - Co-founder & Executive Director of Doyenne 

Did you know that April is National Stress Awareness Month? This month we’re focusing a lot on setting boundaries, and how that can reduce stress (and guilt) in your life. Our Iso-Learning workshop (which will soon be on the Learning Lab) is all about setting boundaries as a business owner and it’s a big theme in conversations I have every day with entrepreneurs.

Many times as we’re building and running our ventures, we feel overwhelmed, over-stressed, over-tired, and running on adrenaline to get everything done and meet the demands and needs of everyone in our lives. What happens when we exhale? Do you exhale? Like, do you consciously exhale? Please do it right now (if you haven’t already). Breathe in, 1…2…3…4…Now exhale 1…2…3…4….How do you feel? Did you feel your shoulder drop a little? Did the stress level decrease even a fraction? Even if just for a moment? Did it feel like there was a pause and stillness? Now what if you could create that feeling throughout your day?

When we live and work in a constant state of rush, run, agenda items or to do task to next item, or constant fight or flight our bodies hold all of that tension and it manifests in various ways. You may age faster, your skin, hair, or nails change, you may have illness issues, you may not have restful sleep, you may pick up unhealthy habits, or you may just end up having a breakpoint where more support from professionals is required. 

Setting Boundaries Finding Peace

I read this amazing book last year titled Set Boundaries, Find Peace by Nedra Glover Tawwab. I was doing a lot of work on finding some inner peace by working through my past traumas and breaking family cycles and one way I did this was by reading A LOT of books and also taking workshops. Ms. Tawwab’s book resonated a lot with me because one thing I did a long time ago was start establishing boundaries. My mom recently told me, “No one I know holds their boundaries better than you, Heather. Even when it infuriates all of us.” I took it as a compliment because I felt it means that people know how much I’m willing to give of myself, and where I say “no more”. 

Setting boundaries doesn’t mean not being flexible, and it doesn’t mean not having some level of guilt at times for holding those boundaries. But the guilt is a huge reason, I feel, people are afraid to start setting boundaries or holding them. Especially when you first start establishing those boundaries. The other is generational expectations. Now, you may be thinking Heather, how do generational expectations fit into boundaries within my venture? Well, it does.

Generations  V (aka “Silent Generation”) and W (aka “Boomer”), and even some Generation X & older Generation Y (aka Millennials) all have a very different lived experiences as to what “going to work” looks and feels like. 

Work used to be (generalized) 9-5, Monday-Friday. Most jobs had a few holidays off with pay annually, at least 2 days off per week (not always Saturday & Sunday), and paid vacation time off. There’s a great line from Pam in The Office “I get ten vacation days a year, and I try to hold off taking them for as long as possible. And this year I got to…the third week of January”. These were boundaries in the workplace. You left work at work, there wasn’t a lot of expectation to be available 24/7 and there was also chain of command and structures in place for in case things happened.

One reason we see so many companies wanting the return to the office (even those who claimed they would never enforce “return to office” policies) is it brings a sense of what some feel as normal back into place. In actuality, studies continue to show that making people sit at a desk for 8 hours a day doesn’t increase productivity or innovation, it actually stifles it. Once again, a fear for change holds everyone back. I believe the bigger factor for wanting people back in office is because people are craving the boundary of “this is where I work, and this is where I live” or “I feel guilty when I’m not being 100% productive on work at home”. In reality, on average the typical employee who sits at a desk in an office is only productive 40% of the total time they’re in office. 

Now, we’re so connected that people get fired when on vacation and not checking their emails even though they have approved time off and out of office messages posted. There have been legal actions against these firing, or multiple HR policies put in place to outline how offline you can be while not at work. There’s also loopholes for this, have you ever been a salaried employee? Unless outlined, the assumption becomes that you’re available whenever, wherever because you’re being “paid without a set number of working hours”. 

As a venture owner, some of these topics outline above don’t apply to you, especially if you’re a small team or solo-preneur. But, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be thinking about these scenarios and setting boundaries for yourself and your team. Side note: As soon as you go from you to more team members it’s important to have an Employee Handbook and for the Employee Handbook to outline this. 

Here a few other ways where you can establish boundaries to help maintain sanity, health, and let the guilt go.

  1. When You’re Available
    I’ve setup my Slack alerts to only notify me from 9-5, Monday-Friday. I also have it linked to my calendar so it shows the little notification next to my name when I’m in meetings or unavailable. These little cues help tune people in.

    My calendar is a color-coded nightmare to some. If you just looked at it without reading the labels you’d think I was booked for more than 40 hours a week. In reality, I have time blocks built into my calendar as to when I’m available for meetings with the community, “team time” meaning if people want to impromptu gather to work collectively they can grab time, and dedicated “Focus Time” where I’m head down working on my work that needs to be accomplished to meet my goals and the company’s expectations. I also have built this so it can be flexible for other’s calendars, so if my “Focus Time” is the only time someone else is available I can move it to accommodate

    Within the Doyenne Employee Handbook we’ve outlined what is acceptable response time for team members and also for customers/clients. Responses shouldn’t be task items and should be thoughtfully responded to, so there is also exceptions to these rules as long as there are “I’m looking into this” messages sent

    In my “Welcome to Coaching” packet that is sent to all clients I coach there is a list all based on how to contact me and when I’m available for contacting or when/how you should expect a response

  2. Communication Styles

    If you don’t want people contacting your personal phone number, don’t give it out. Once you give it out, it’s hard to reign it back in. An exception may be if you become personal friends with people you work with or work for. The way I manage this is based on how people are reaching out then I can choose how/when to respond. If you call me asking a business question after hours then I may say “Can I call you back tomorrow or at another time that works for both of us about this?" or if they text, Slack, or email me then I can also respond with “I’ll get back to you tomorrow when I’m in office on this” or just wait until the next day to respond. 

    I utilize a scheduling calendar for setting up meetings. I also have multiple scheduling links based on what type of conversations people are looking to have. I use these links in about 90% of my emails I send. If someone reaches out looking for information I usually respond with a few options

    - A link to the information from the Doyenne site or another site

    - A link to an upcoming Info Session or recording of topic overview

     - My scheduling link for having additional conversations

    By having all of these options it gives people ways to access the information on their own and use me as a resource only if additional questions or information is needed. We share a lot of information on our site (to the point where it’s probably too many words) but this is because we want to make sure everyone receives the same information and also gets answers faster than waiting to schedule a call or attend something at a certain time and date

  3. It's OK to say No

    Not everyone is a target or ideal fit for your venture. As hard as it may feel, sometimes it’s ok to walk away from a customer/client if they can’t respect your boundaries

    When I first became a manager of team members I had a really hard time not being available for everyone right when they needed it. Even with systems in place for how to communicate with each other I would feel the need to have all notifications on and respond. What ended up happening is I would send messages that weren’t fully thought through or would solve problems for others that they should have been solving on their own. Now, I always wait at least 24 hours before responding to a message (with only a very limited amount of exceptions). That 24 hours usually will bring heightened emotions down if things are escalating or they'll find the answer on their own. 

  4. Tone of Your Message

    When Doyenne was just starting to build momentum and recognition the amount of emails I would receive in a day was overwhelming. This is where a lot of the boundaries I have in place now started from. People would email with their “hair on fire” questions and sometimes if I didn’t respond by end of day I would have nasty emails waiting the next morning with things like “What good are you if you couldn’t even help me when I needed it?”. I started using a “delayed response time” auto email 24/7. It drove my co-founder and Board members CRAZY! They would all get so sick of my “Thank you for your patience” auto emailer when they would send over any email. I remember we had a Board Meeting with an agenda item of “End of Heather’s Auto Email” because they couldn’t take it anymore. What this came down to was evaluating the tone of my email.

    There’s lots of great tools, online videos, or courses you can take to evaluate your tone of written communications. We all know about overuse of exclamation points, or over apologizing and how those things cause ways for people to break your boundaries and get what they want

    You can aplogize without saying “I’m sorry”. Another way of saying that last sentence is you can accept your role in something without admitting total fault or taking on all of the responsibilities for decisions made without saying “I’m sorry”. BUT saying “I’m sorry” does need to happen in certain situations

  5. Accountability

    One of my favorite “A” words. It’s hard to hold others and yourself accountable. Especially when we work in cultures where holding certain people or identities as accountable isn’t yet accepted (ie: The customer is always right)

    One of the quotes that still rings in my head all the time from growing up is “Do as I say, not as I do”. That’s a great example of someone holding you accountable for your mistakes but they shouldn’t be held accountable because of some other factor - age, gender, race or ethnicty, status role, etc…

Let go of the Guilt

When you set boundaries, holding yourself and others accountable becomes a lot easier. And this is what helps the guilt go away for when you have to say no or hold your ground on your boundaries. 

Another great way to eliminate guilt is to ask for boundaries from your customers/clients. Ask them what are their best forms of communication and how and when do they want to be contacted.

If you lead a ventures that works with contractors, clients as a target customer, or provide customer service in any form, know that the start of these working relationships take twice as long as when you have them established. When “onboarding” a new client, or team member, you should be budgeting double the time as you do for returning or ongoing clients or established team members because while you’re building that working relationship boundaries need to be outlined, established, and (probably) reminded on or revisited over the first few weeks or months.

None of this happens over night. It took me 8 years to identify and also put in place boundaries within work, I’m still a work in progress and things needs to adapt. Think about what’s a small boundary you can establish right now, and then what’s the next. Learn, adapt, and hold them firm so you can have more of those exhale moments in your day - both in and out of work.