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ADHD and Boundaries: The 4 C's of Boundary Setting

Updated: 5 days ago

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 [1], 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 [3], law, or business.

Pruning Commitments

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 [4].

  • 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 [2]. 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