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How To Become A Boundary Boss, According To A Celebrity Psychotherapist

Do you say “yes” at work when you want to say “no?”

Do you put in hours in the evening and on weekends?

Are you immediately responsive to every email or message you receive from your boss or coworkers?

If you’re nodding your head, then you’re in need of better boundaries at work.

Healthy boundaries are among the most powerful tools for taking charge of your time, attention, and energy. Setting limits helps you maintain balance and self-respect.

But setting boundaries is not easy, especially if you consider yourself to be someone who is highly empathetic and sensitive. You may worry about appearing rude, mean, or dismissive.

It’s time to let that unhelpful narrative go, according to Terri Cole. Terri Cole is a New York-based licensed psychotherapist and relationship expert. For two decades, Terri has worked with some of the world’s most well-known personalities from international pop stars, athletes, TV personalities to thought-leaders and Fortune 500 CEOs.

Now in her new book, Boundary Boss: The Essential Guide to Talk True, Be Seen, and (Finally) Live Free, Cole shares how women who are exhausted from over-giving, overdoing, and even over-feeling can regain their power.

I sat down with Cole to discuss her new book.

Melody Wilding: Many people have misconceptions about boundaries. Can you explain how you define boundaries?

Terri Cole: To become a boundary boss, as in to be healthy with your boundaries, you need to know what your preferences, your desires, your limits, and your deal breakers are. You have to be able to clearly and concisely communicate those boundaries if you so choose.

Wilding: Your new book is Boundary Boss, what inspired you to write it?

Cole: They often say you teach what you most need to learn. I had lots of practice and personal experience in how painful it is to have disordered boundaries and “the disease to please.” I kept trying to be everything to everyone.

I was the hero child in my family growing up, so I got into therapy when I was very young. As to why I latched onto boundaries, well that goes back to my childhood. For instance, nobody would talk about anything that was too uncomfortable or messy. We did not work stuff out. There wasn’t a lot of honest communication, it was disordered communication. Disordered communication leads to disordered boundaries. I wasn’t even allowed to be angry in the home that I grew up in. So my anger went underground, which means that if I was angry I would express it in a passive aggressive way. Rolling eyes, slamming doors, etc.

Then when I worked as a talent agent in the entertainment industry, the more I saw people’s disordered boundaries, the more I wanted to fix them. Now I have a private psychotherapy practice and I see the same things. It doesn’t matter what the presenting problem is–divorce, money, addiction–every single presenting problem connects back to the all-important skill set of boundary setting. Disordered boundaries are literally at the core level of every one of their pain points.

So I started learning more about boundaries and how to teach them. About five years ago, I created a course about boundaries and tested it with about 50 women. Now I’ve refined that course and I’ve probably now had 2,500 women in 195 countries go through it, which is mind-blowing. So that’s the book, it is basically the fruits of almost 24 years in the trenches with clients.

Wilding: What or who is a boundary boss? 

Cole: Let’s talk about the skills that you would possess if you are a boundary boss. The first is doing a deep dive into what’s okay with you versus what’s not okay with you in all areas of your life. After I describe a concept in the book, I then have a section called “back to you” to help you think about what you just learned. I’m asking you these questions: How does this strike you? How does this affect you in your life? Is this true for you? Is this different for you? This is intended to help you know who you are, to help you identify what’s not okay with you, and to give you the ability to speak it.

Another part of being a boundary boss though is about understanding how old material controls us. You have a boundary blueprint that was downloaded in your childhood right here in your unconscious mind – culture, country, family, religion – all of it comes together to inform you of how you should be.

There’s a process that I walk the reader through where we are going into the basement of your mind, which is your unconscious mind. You’re opening up some boxes and going through the material in there because so much of what happens in our lives–especially the dysfunctional parts–is driven by unconscious material.

Boundary bosses understand the different types of boundaries. Boundaries come in five general categories: physical, sexual, material, mental, and emotional. When any of these boundaries are crossed, we’re in trouble. Further, boundaries come in three types: rigid, porous, and healthy. Understanding these types will help you to see where your boundary issues might be so you can start to correct them. Are your emotional boundaries way too porous? Are your mental boundaries too rigid? Where are you flexible and balanced?

Finally, boundary bosses create a personal “bill of rights.” As in, you have the right to say no or yes to others without feeling guilty. You have the right to make mistakes, to course-correct, or to change your mind. You have the right to negotiate for your preferences, desires, and needs. You have the right to express and honor all of your feelings if you so choose. You have the right to voice your opinion, even if others disagree. You have the right to be treated with respect, consideration, and you have the right to determine who has the privilege of being in your life. You’re the bouncer of your life, so put up that velvet rope. You have the right to communicate your boundary limits and deal-breakers. You have the right to prioritize your self-care without feeling selfish, which is a huge one for women. You have the right to talk, to be seen, and to live free.

Wilding: In the book, you talk about high functioning codependency. Can you talk about how this shows up for people in a professional or work setting? 

Cole: High functioning codependency is being overly invested in the feeling states, the decisions, the outcomes of the people in your sphere. This is to the detriment of your internal experience, perhaps your health, your life in some way, your bandwidth, your energy.

Most of my clients did not identify with being codependent. I would see these high-functioning women who are literally changing the world, and I would say, “Hey, let’s talk about codependency.” They thought I was nuts because they thought of themselves as the one with all the answers, as the person everyone else depended on. They thought being codependent meant you had to be in a relationship with an alcoholic. But really if someone else’s disaster or debacle feels like your own and you feel an urgency as if it were your life, that’s codependency.

Here’s the high-functioning piece: the women in my therapy practice are so high functioning and capable that it’s as if they’re doing it all and making it look easy. So because no one sees the pain or the suffering, they are giving at the expense of themselves. In my therapy practice, I see the result–women coming in with auto-immune disorders, being bitter because they felt like everyone else was ungrateful. In reality, these clients were over-giving and blaming those people.

As women, we want to be “good girls.” We want to be nice, generous, and kind. But what we also want is the dumpster fire of that other person’s life to stop ruining our peace. We think if we could just fix their problems, then maybe we can rest.

To move part this, the first thing you have to do is to look at where your self-esteem is coming from. Perfectionism is a big part of this over-functioning and over-giving but there’s also a need that is being meet. So awareness is the first step. Then you have to do an inventory check. Where are you doing things for other people that they can and should be doing for themselves?

If you are doing work that is not yours, stop. If you’re working overtime or you’re letting your vacation days accrue instead of taking them, stop. By doing these things, you are telling people how to treat you in all ways. Our relationship with ourselves sets the bar. If you don’t think that you’re valuable enough to rest, that’s a problem. Where are you over-giving? If you want to know where you’re overdoing these things, think about the people you work with and then gauge your resentment level.

Wilding: You talk about “clean agreements.” What are those and why are they important?

Cole: Clean agreements are expressed agreements. We make no assumptions about what’s happening and we are managing expectations for all involved. The same as when you start a new job, you have a clear agreement of terms. You might compromise on one part of that agreement, but you do not start that job without a clear promise of terms. Clean and clear agreements involve anticipating everything that could go wrong and putting a proactive boundary in place.

This is can be very difficult for women. There’s still this stigma around asking for what you’re worth. The same with entrepreneurs in their own business. I can’t tell you how many of my clients say they haven’t raised my prices in five years. They don’t want their clients to think they’re greedy. However, we have to have proactive boundaries in place.

With my team, we do “rules of engagement.” This is where they’re all clear about the best way to interact with me. For instance, I’m not on tech till 11 am. I let them know the best way to interact with me whether by email, text, or voice notes. Your clients and employees need to know this, to0. How long will it take for you to get back to them, for example? Make that clear. If we’re all clear as to what the agreements are, that sets everyone up to be successful.

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