We recently had the hugely inspiring Jo Bevilacqua host a f:Entrepreneur breakfast session. Jo is an multi-award winning entrepreneur, the founder of Serenity Loves and has just published her first book: No Longer Last on the List.
It was a fantastic session where Jo led a discussion about the many challenges and pressures women face today and how to deal with them. Here is a section from the book – please do enjoy and a huge thank you Jo for doing this for us. Please find more details on the book here.
How do you feel about your current relationships?
When you write a list of the people around you, do any relationships leap out at you either because of how good they make you feel or because of how stressful they are?
Do any of these relationships feel unbalanced? Are you the one who puts in all the effort or who always gives way to avoid ‘making a fuss’?
Are you surrounded by the right kind of people? In other words, people who don’t add pressure, guilt or stress to your life but instead ease the pressure and make you feel heard and supported?
Are there any relationships on your list that you would like to improve in some way?
It’s time to set some boundaries
All healthy relationships have boundaries.
If you have any relationships in your life where you feel constantly put upon or like your wishes aren’t respected, it’s time to re-establish the boundaries – or maybe establish them for the first time!
What does boundary pushing look like?
Here are a few examples that might resonate with your own life.
Imagine you work from home as a freelancer. Despite telling your friends and family that you will be working every day between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. while the kids are at school, one friend in particular frequently shows up at your door during the day, assuming she can pop in for a cuppa. If you let her in, she often stays for hours at a time, even when you repeatedly tell her that you have work you need to get on with.
Or maybe you have a family member who texts you throughout the day and then feels cross with you if you don’t reply immediately.
Or perhaps one of the mums from your child’s school always asks you for childcare help – often on short notice – but never offers to return the favour.
These are just a few of the ways in which boundaries can be pushed, overstepped or ignored in our relationships.
Boundaries need you to actively enforce them
The thing about boundaries in relationships is that they can only be pushed, overstepped or ignored if you allow them to be. And this can be a really tough thing to recognise.
If, using the example above, you always invite your friend in when they come round unannounced for a cuppa, then you’re allowing them to disregard your time.
Equally, if a client or boss always drops ‘urgent’ work on you on a Friday late afternoon/evening, expecting it back for Monday, and you don’t say anything about it being the weekend, it’s understandable that the client might repeat the same behaviour in the future.
This is where you have to make your boundaries clear, whatever they may be.
You could tell your frequently visiting friend, ‘I have a meeting now. Give me a call before you come over next time and then I can make sure I’m in and you won’t have a wasted trip’.
Or you could tell your weekend-trashing client that, ‘The office closes at 5 p.m. on Friday so I will have to pick this up on Monday morning. The earliest I can get it back to you is by close of play on Tuesday. If it really has to be done over the weekend, I could see about fitting it in but would need to charge a rush fee in addition to the usual price to reflect that it’s being done at short notice and over the weekend’. In this scenario it might make the client decide that the work isn’t so urgent after all!
As you can see, in most cases you won’t need to spell out, ‘Hey, I’m setting a boundary here’ but that is exactly what you are doing.
Instead, it’s usually enough to state what you need and what the consequences might be if the other person ignores you, for example, it will be a wasted journey for them, the work won’t get done/will cost more, you won’t be available.
To avoid confusion, keep things simple.
You don’t have to offer lengthy explanations about your availability/reasons/circumstances. You have every right to look after your own needs.
And remember, ‘No’ is a complete sentence! You don’t have to justify why you don’t want to do something. You’re not seeking the approval from anyone else anymore, remember?
One final point about boundaries is that they don’t have to be set in stone. Right now, you might feel like you’re not up to daily phone calls from your mum but at another time in your life you might love that regular contact. The thing with boundaries is that they’re fluid. They are there to suit you and your wants and needs.
You might also have different boundaries for different relationships and different people may set different boundaries for you. You’ll hopefully start to get a feel for what’s right for you the more you practice clearly stating your needs.
‘Real’ life vs online
These days, many of us have social and professional connections both in the ‘real’ world and online. Online relationships can be particularly tricky. People say and do things from behind the relative anonymity of a screen that they would never say or do in person. People have different communication styles which can lead to miscommunication, especially online where you don’t have any clues from someone’s body language, facial expressions or tone of voice.
As with all of your relationships, look for online connections that nurture and support you rather than those that weigh you down with negativity or unfair expectations. If you’re not sure what someone means because of the missing nuances of online conversations, ask for clarification.
It might sound harsh but when was the last time you gave your social media accounts a good purge?
Are you spending time in Facebook groups that no longer serve you? Do you censor what you say because you’re worried about certain people’s opinions? Or does following someone, famous or not, make you feel bad about yourself or stress you out?
Again, it’s OK to walk away if you’ve outgrown certain groups or relationships. I did exactly that over a couple of days during the 2020 Coronavirus lockdown. I unfollowed people online, unfriended them, unsubscribed and deleted emails, deleted photos and just had a whole online cleanse. It was so liberating! I really do suggest doing something along these lines if you feel there is too much noise out there every time you go online.
Are you a fixer?
I didn’t want to end this chapter without talking about one issue that I think affects a lot of relationships and that’s the need to play the role of ‘fixer’ or ‘saviour’. Without wanting to make too many sweeping statements, I notice that a lot of women feel that it’s their responsibility to ‘fix’ everything for the people they care about. As lovely as this seems, and although it comes from a kind place, if you actually move from top level thinking and delve a little deeper you will realise that this can have dire consequences on both sides of a relationship.
If you’re a fixer, you’ll probably recognise the scenario below.
When a friend/family member/colleague comes to you with a problem your natural instinct is to dive right in and come up with a solution for them. You want to give them advice, reassure them by telling them a story about when you were in a similar situation or take the problem off their hands.
If you don’t have an immediate solution, you may feel so bad about it that the next thing to come out of your mouth is ‘What can I do to help you?’ or ‘How can I make you feel better?’
By doing this you believe you’re being a good friend but think about it this way, by stepping in and taking control, by becoming the hero of the hour and not allowing the other person to be their own saviour, you’re doing them an injustice and, in the long-run, setting them up for a fall.
By taking away the chance for them to take charge and come up with their own solution they become more and more dependent on you doing it for them. You’re sending a deep, unconscious message to the other person – even though it’s not your intention – that ‘you’re not capable of dealing with this’ or ‘I can do this quicker, easier, better than you can’. In turn, they increasingly rely on you to fix their problems, no matter how often it happens or however big or small that new problem may be.
This sets a pattern, disempowering the other person and leaving you feeling unfairly ‘put upon’.
I found myself in this position from quite a young age. A natural problem solver, I was often the friend that people went to for advice and that followed me through to adult life. It was also one of the hardest things I found to work on, after all it is never going to be easy to change a behaviour of 30-plus years, especially when I believed it was one of my best qualities.
I am naturally a very empathetic person who can’t bear to see someone struggling (I mean I cry at any charity advert no matter how many times I have seen it!) but it’s even harder for me to see someone I care about struggle.
As I got older and more self-aware, I realised that fixing other people’s problems was literally starting to take over my life. I would lose sleep worrying about them or cancel plans I had been looking forward to in order to fix them. At times, I couldn’t focus on my own reality because I was so distracted by others and I often went without financially, energetically and emotionally to make their problems disappear.
It was somewhat manageable when I had a small group of friends but as my circles grew bigger, it got harder and harder to get through a day where I wasn’t fixing a problem for someone else. There wasn’t a day when I wouldn’t get a call, a visit or a message that ultimately ended up in my giving some sort of advice or trying to solve some sort of problem.
Does any of this resonate with you? Have you been in this position too?
If so, here are some of the ways I managed to give the control back to the people I loved and allowed them to figure out how to help themselves.
I started by acknowledging that I had actually been taking the power away from the people I cared about. Next, I realised that I needed to change how we were communicating. I also needed to push back against people relying on me for instant advice.
I stopped jumping in with solutions or asking how I could fix the problem for them. Instead, I learned to make room for them to find their voice and tap into their instincts. I did this by asking questions like, ‘What do you think would be the best solution?’ and ‘What could you do to fix this?’
In fact, questions are everything when you want to step out of the ‘fixer’ role. I learned to ask questions like:
Have you had a similar problem in the past? If so, how did you solve it?
What would happen if you did nothing?
If you knew it would work out, what would you like to try?
If I came to you with the same problem, what would you advise me to do? (This is my favourite one.)
What have you already tried?
What could you do differently?
Could there be ways that you’re contributing to this problem, perhaps unintentionally?
The secret here is to throw the questions back to the other person to encourage them to draw on their own instincts.
A harsh reality that I had to own as a long-time fixer is that solving problems for other people is actually more about our egos than the other person’s needs. It can also feed into a sense of martyrdom – ‘I always have to do everything for everyone’ – which supports the belief that you have to sacrifice your needs for others.
Many people put themselves at the bottom of their list because they believe that their loved ones can’t cope without them.
In my experience, it’s better to give people opportunities to solve their own problems. This kind of empowerment and support is how personalities and relationships thrive and how we can truly make a positive difference to those we care about.