Updated: Jun 29
You finally have some free time to finish those things you’ve been meaning to do. Then, something else comes along and quashes your focus: maybe it’s an email from a needy client or student, maybe it’s an after-hours question from your manager, or maybe it’s a family member organising a last-minute get together.
If the balance between the time you have to yourself and the time that others expect from you is tentative enough to be thrown off by events like those just described, perhaps it’s time to set some boundaries.
For those of us with ADHD, the control we have over our time feels particularly important. Managing ADHD symptoms often means planning ahead, setting aside time to get in the zone and concentrate, and ensuring that one’s environment and state of mind are maximally conducive to task completion, and these strategies all require time and flexibility. Many of us may have only realised we have ADHD at the onset of a serious commitment to work or study that meant the free time and flexibility we had been unknowingly using to manage symptoms was suddenly no longer available. Many of us will also recall a time when we set out to ‘power through’ a dense itinerary of due dates and social functions while trying not to let our self-care (eg. gym, diet, skincare, meditation) slip. Unfortunately, there is no sustainable way to take on all the obligations others would ask of you and still have time to look after your own well-being.
Research suggests that there is a relationship between setting boundaries and psychological health , with a willingness to set boundaries generally associated with greater well-being. Intuitively, this association may be stronger among those employed in occupations in which one fields demands from a variety of sources, such as academia , law, or business.
So, what do you do when fulfilling others expectations means sacrificing your own mental health? The first step is to determine which of your regular commitments are mandatory and which ones can be safely pruned. Remember, your motivation for setting boundaries is to improve your psychological wellbeing, and your own judgement is the most important authority on your wellbeing, so please take this advice with a grain of salt.
If giving up a commitment means one of the following, it could be an indication that this commitment is ‘prune-able’:
The boundary-crosser is being unprofessional in a clearly professional context. For instance, a student or client keeps emailing you to converse about non-work-or-school-related topics. In this case, it may be wise to politely remind them of the nature of your working relationship. A recent study on a neurodiverse sample found that making boundaries clear can actually improve relationships, as being clear on limits makes those people feel more comfortable and confident .
The boundary-crosser is taking a substantial chunk of your time, to the point where other aspects of your life are becoming overwhelming. For instance, a family member inviting you to dinner multiple nights per week, but you frequently have work commitments in the evening. In this case, you may need to tell them you tell them you can only make it once a month, because the alternative is making significant adjustments to your work schedule.
You are doing a favour to the boundary-crosser by helping them with a task that is not strictly within your purview. For example, a co-worker or acquaintance frequently asks you for IT help. Although maintaining relationships is extremely important, as is being kind to others, if you feel that your own mental health is suffering it may be worthwhile to consider adjusting how much of your time and energy is devoted to this type of assistance. Research suggests that some degree of generosity is associated with better social outcomes, however maintaining an equitable exchange of favors is associated with greater productivity . Therefore, finding a balance between generosity and reciprocity should be your goal.
You are 'going above and beyond'. There are many aspects of life in which you can distinguish yourself by demonstrating a much higher than average level of commitment. For instance, your workplace outlines that after-hours contact is appreciated but not expected. Professional performance is not necessarily improved by this highly committed strategy, however, because overwhelm at work can lead to burnout which reduces your performance long-term. If you feel like you might be approaching burnout, check this article out for the signs burnout is developing and how to prevent it.
You may notice that the examples above have yet to address perhaps the most difficult part of boundary setting– how do you actually state a boundary in a way that communicates its seriousness without seeming rude? UO founder Skye Rapson breaks boundaries down into 4 conditions, with the optimal boundary being all of the following:
The 4 C's of Boundary Setting
We often forgo clarity in exchange for graciousness, but in the case of setting a boundary you should not shy away from using clear and concise language. After all, it will be much more awkward if the recipient does not understand your meaning, and you end up having to state the boundary again.
We can all recall times when we tried to imply something rather than state it outright in order to spare someone embarrassment. Unfortunately, many people will not be able to intuit your boundaries, and instead need to hear them stated explicitly before they are able to understand. Having said this, the method of communication you use should be based on your own judgement of the situation. For example, if you know the person you are speaking to may be sensitive, it is especially important to prepare what you have to say ahead of time so that you can examine your language and ensure it is sufficiently polite and comprehensive.
Two types of consistency are important here: the recipient of your boundaries should not experience lapses and neither should they feel that the same boundaries do not apply to others in their position. If your boundaries do not apply at all times (eg. if you carry out a few casual conversations with clients or students), or if your boundaries do not apply to everyone on an equal basis (eg. if you have some favourite students that are allowed to cross boundaries other students are not), then it is less likely that your boundaries will be respected.
Finally, confirming a boundary helps to ensure that the recipient(s) understand the boundary and that they feel you have included them in the process of setting it. In fact, boundary setting can be a collaborative activity that brings you closer to the recipient by letting them in on your reasons for maintaining certain limits and showing them that you respect and value their personal time too.
Hopefully this article gave you some background on the circumstances in which setting boundaries might be appropriate and the general qualities an ideal boundary ought to have. Boundary setting is a sensitive activity, and your own intuition is an important resource when setting boundaries with members of your social circle. So, I would recommend looking at the information set out in this article as a rough guide rather than as a list of instructions.
Have a great week,
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Meriel Burnett is director of research at Unconventional Organisation. She has a background in psychology and is currently also working at Queens University Belfast. For more research-based ADHD help, you can read more of Meriel’s articles, join our online courses, or connect with our coaches.
1. Alvarez-Hernandez, L. R., Bermúdez, J. M., Orpinas, P., Matthew, R., Calva, A., & Darbisi, C. (2021). “No queremos quedar mal”: A qualitative analysis of a boundary setting training among Latina community health workers.. Journal of Latinx Psychology, 9(4), 315–325. https://doi.org/10.1037/lat0000193
2. Flynn, F. J. (2003). How Much Should I Give and How Often? The Effects of Generosity and Frequency of Favor Exchange on Social Status and Productivity. Academy of Management Journal, 46(5), 539–553. https://doi.org/10.5465/30040648
3. Lemon, N. (2021). Creating a Place for Self-Care and Wellbeing in Higher Education. Routledge.
4. Roberts, N., & Birmingham, E. (2017). Mentoring University Students with ASD: A Mentee-centered Approach. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 47(4), 1038–1050. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-016-2997-9