Did You Arrive with An Organic Lack of Boundaries?

10 rules for solo pros and freelancers who have trouble saying 'no'

Are you too often a yes man or a woman who can’t say no?

Then you may have boundary issues.

Perhaps these were socialized or acculturated into the framework of your being. Maybe your family of origin came with emotionally immature parenting or other circumstances from the spectrum of subpar functioning.

It could also be that you just arrived in the world wired with fuzzier edges between you and the great everything else. As I heard Brooke Tatum of Fierce Empath describe that situation recently, you simply have an organic lack of boundaries.

Whatever the origins of your boundary woes, you have undoubtedly encountered various recurring problems and idiosyncrasies in your business or freelance life that trace back to their absence or quivery existence. If you don’t have all needed boundaries in place, let this be an invitation to deliberately construct and put into place the ones you need and want. For your own benefit and for the sake of the business you run that should be generously supporting you in more than just the financial sense.

1. Learn “No” Baby steps. Your first boundary-building exercise is learning the most basic of complete sentences: “No.” How do you know when to say no? C’mon, you know. You’re intuitive — your body gives you answers. Pay attention and be honest. Don’t want to. Don’t have to. Too busy? It’s a no. Too tired? It’s a no. The client is a time suck and an energy suck and all-round sucks? That’s also a no. Not sure? Don’t have to. You can always say no now and yes later.

2. Refuse to Choose I want it all, your organic lack of boundaries wails. Author and coaching pioneer Barbara Sher understands. She invites you to refuse to choose. But she has grounded, old school commonsense and her various books let you be you by giving you the tools to live such a life. Whatever perspective one of her books takes, her tools in the end fall into two broad categories of boundaries: Structure and support. You can have it all if you institute the right structures into your life and rally the right types and amount of support. Take action in these two areas and you’re on the right track.

3. Create Structure Plus Flexibility If your boundary issues seeped into your life through external forces, you want to build a business structure that sets up good boundaries, but with enough flexibility to allow for upgrades as you evolve into someone with better boundaries and perhaps eventually someone without boundary issues.

For those who were born with an airier film between themselves and the universe, structure with flexibility means something different. Your business structure should also provide needed boundaries, but those boundaries should serve to protect and respect your essential self as a less bounded human as well. If that sounds confusing, consider that your organic lack of boundaries is part of who you are. You may understand it as a gift, a flourish, a tendency, but it’s a feature, not a bug, and it seeks its own expression. Craft your business container with a special agility to allow for that.

4. Build the Right Container The container is the beautiful big-picture mosaic that bounds your business, one carefully placed tile at a time. Choose each one with intention or experiment until you find the right design. All businesses need structure and systems. When you have boundary issues, take the opportunity to tackle them head on, in the way you create the bounds of your business. (Read how building the right container for work to flow into supports a sustainable business.)

5. Focus on the Priorities: Getting and Keeping Clients If flimsy boundaries have you all over the place, focus on the things that matter most: getting and keeping clients and getting paid (below). An ideal container will help deliver the right clients to you on an ongoing basis. For some ways of reaching that point, try building a range of relationships over time, take a grand tour of human needs, and see how I rebuilt a freelance business three different times.

Also critical to boundary maintenance is empowering yourself to let the not-right clients go. Remember, the human population is near 8 billion people. There are some 31 million small U.S. businesses and a gazillion other iterations of organizations, association, firms, clubs, and nonprofits that could use your help. There are and will be other and better clients waiting for the space that opens up with letting a difficult client go.

6. Focus on the Priorities: Getting Paid Here is where your improved boundaries get put to the test. Are you getting paid what you’re worth and are you getting paid on time? Are you and your clients and your entire business set-up honoring your value? (Read this to learn about charging for your services, and this to learn how to get paid always and on time.)

7. Make Yourself Right, Right Now Regardless of where you find yourself, now or in some future boundary incursion, stop, drop into some deep breathing, and roll with it. Make yourself right, right now. That means going easy on yourself, holding back the inner critic with self-compassion and understanding. How can you make yourself feel right on the inside and in your standing with and conception of the external logistics of the moment? Get to that place, look around, and enjoy. You’re a competent self-employed business owner thanks to all the little and big pieces you’ve been putting into place. From this plateau of reason and right vision you can work on your next move.

8. Outwit the Niche Question For some of us with feathery boundaries, to niche is a bitch. Don’t make us pick one thing! (If this is you, here are marketing approaches that help business owners in this situation.) But niching makes sense for most business owners and, to be clear, a niche can be not just a boundary mechanism, but a rewarding one at that. Still, your boundary issues may flare up with choosing or sticking with a niche. One way to outwit this plight is to let your niche emerge over time. Notice the sweet spot that overlaps where you are most energized, most at ease, most fulfilled and where your customers pull you, where they respond best, where they feel well served, where they get great results from your offerings. You can back into a niche this way and let it settle in more organically.

9. Protect Yourself Protect and preserve your boundaries in business as you would, should, in your personal life. Tina Gilbertson, LPC, names these four ways to do so: (1) “Don’t expect others to hold your boundaries for you.” That’s your responsibility. (2) “Get clear on what your boundaries are.” Think in terms of time, space, money, information, emotions, and anything else that matters to you. (3) “Communicate boundaries clearly and directly.” Bonus: You don’t need to justify your boundaries when you state them. (4) “Don’t let boundary violations slide.” Practice guarding your boundaries, but also take care in setting boundaries you’re willing to enforce and respecting the boundaries of others.

10. Practice Self-Care and Self-Compassion Protect and nurture yourself too with self-care and self-compassion. Feed your brain the five types of self-talk it likes best (self-affirmation and self-compassion are two of those types). You don’t have to get everything right. Better yet, you don’t have to run everything through a judgment wringer. Running a business is a journey, how you’re spending your precious time and energy making a living. Let it be in all its bounded and unbounded glory.