How do we set boundaries? It's all we hear from our loved ones, our therapists and our mentors; "You have to set boundaries and stick to them". But no one ever says how or more importantly, why it is so hard. How do you acquire that true foundation of self-worth to be able to set the boundaries in the first place and deal with the Kraken awakening aftermath? "I'm a horrible human!", "I'm forever alone!", "I'll never be hired again!"
Recently, I've had to start setting some boundaries and it's come as a real shock to the system. The other big decisions or situations in my life came as no-brainers, I had no choice, I went with what was the right thing to do. When you're someone used to putting others first and people pleasing, setting boundaries to protect yourself both personally and professionally feels selfish - entitled even. But in the big, scary world of adulthood the difference between being taken seriously or being dismissed is a strict boundary - or six!
Professionally, it can be hard to separate the human from the business. I know, I know, some people hate to think of themselves as a business but sadly in the freelance world of the UK, it's becoming more and more necessary to have a business savvy approach. If you set professional boundaries, regarding pay, hours, contracts, etc. your client knows what to expect from you and in return you've protected yourself from being taken advantage of. It's a win-win right? Right! Harder to do in practice when your people pleasing brain is in the drivers seat? Absolutely. One such learning curve presented itself to me this month at a wedding gig. Already performing for a lot less money than one should be (red flag no.1), I was asked to extend our set by two hours. The reason? Hair and make-up... By the time we had finished our allotted time, we had already played for incoming guests and the bridesmaids entrance (considering we were booked only for the cocktail hour, this gives you some indication how long the hair was taking!) I made the decision to offer to stay if the we were going to be paid fairly for our time to which we were told we wouldn't be offered any further pay - we would be working out of the goodness of our own hearts. Sadly my landlord doesn't accept "goodness of heart" as payment so I got in my car and went home. Walking to the car I was so proud of myself, I had finally put my boundary of working for a fair wage down. Pulling away, I felt guilty, selfish and like I should go back and work for free! Why? It's nonsensical! But this is what you're faced with when putting a boundary in place is new, unlearning old habits and standing strong is difficult stuff. In reality, the real problem I was dealing with what that I shouldn't have been in that situation to begin with. I should not have taken a gig that paid so low if it didn't service me in anyway. I took it because I was scared that if I said no to any gig just out of the pandemic then the work would dry up. But the truth is, if I set the boundary for fair wage and so do the other brilliant musicians around me, that amount stops being the rate they think they offer to a high standard musician. It's scary and at first it's uncomfortable and you feel like you think you're better than you really are. The only way I could actually get out of that way of thinking was to look at the bigger picture. You can't be outraged about an issue like underpay and exposure if you're the schmuck taking the gigs.
So what about the boundaries you make in your personal life? The ones made between yourself and acquaintances, friends or family that don't have the excuse of "it's not personal, it's business"? These relationships can be raw, emotionally fuel and often it's hard to take a step back and realise what you need and ultimately what you don't. After a bout of bullying, I went through a stage of needing to be liked, needing to have people want to be around me no matter how they actually treated me. It was about quantity, not quality. Even in relationships, I was always with someone - constantly! It's only through being on my own for a prolonged period of time, I've started working out what I like, what I don't, even down to my own musical choices (yes, I'm still an emo child at heart!). But think about it for a moment, what do you want from a friend, from a relationship? A true friend, a true partner, sees your ugly. They see the parts of you that no-one else can see, the parts of you that you're working on, made up from past trauma, past experiences - in essence the parts that make you, you. It's something to be protected, not given out like a party bag at a toddlers birthday to those who only want the fun toys and leave the rest. Boundaries in your personal life are an essential part of our happiness and in building our safe space. As musicians, we're highly competitive and we spend our lives performing to the outside world. When we come home and relax, you don't want to carry on performing with someone you don't feel you can be yourself around, likewise you don't want to be in a position where you have to watch what you say or regulate how much information you share. Those who you let into your personal space need to make you feel safe. The most important relationships we have are the ones that make the most impact on us, they have a piece of us, if you will. Those boundaries you set about trust, honesty, about standing up for your friend who is hurting? That's you, making sure those in your life are the ones who deserve to lose a piece to, even if it does ultimately end.
“Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They're compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment.”
― Brené Brown, Rising Strong
When you think of the person that inspires you the most, what is it about them that you admire? For me, I've got to love a little bit of Marcia Clark. Why? Easy, it's her guts. She put her need for justice above all in the face of a difficult divorce, the media focusing on her hair over her prosecuting and juggling the workload of a high profile trial and motherhood. I look at my Mum as another example - she was fearless! She knew the difference between right and wrong and she fought for the right thing. Both of these women faced adversity, sexist comments and backlash. What makes them inspiring to me, much like others I hold in high regard, is their fearlessness and then steadfastness in making boundaries and sticking to them. When I think about the person I want to be, it's someone who is kind and compassionate but who knows what they want and what they don't. I want to be paid fairly for the years of hard work I've put into being the musician. I want trust that goes both ways. I want love that is equal on all sides. I want to speak my point of view and not be dismissed because of my gender. Whether we want to admit it or not, this can only come from setting boundaries and sticking to them.
It's going to be scary, it's going to receive negative comments. One day you're going to be a walk over for not making boundaries and the next an "irrational woman" (direct quote) for setting them. You don't have to bend to these comments, the only person you ever have to bend to is the one looking straight back at you in the mirror. That's the person worth fighting for, no matter how scary it might be.