From the Ground Up: Establishing Boundaries and Being Comfortable with the Word ‘No’

Gillian Warner is bringing us along for the ride as she strikes out on her own to launch her business as a professional. You can catch up on the preceding columns from this series here.

Working with students and clients towards their goals for themselves and their horses is a passion of mine. But setting boundaries has proven to be important in preserving that passion.

I’m settling into bed and my phone lights up. I glance over, reading the white numbers on the screen signaling that it’s 11:36 p.m. I should have gone to bed hours ago, but needed to wrap up some paperwork.

The text on the screen is from a client of mine, asking for another lesson slot the following day.

My internal argument between being accessible and finding time to rest springs to the surface. I want to be approachable as a young professional, and I care about my clients and their goals — I want to help by providing that lesson. However, I’m tired after a long day, it’s well outside of normal business hours, and I don’t have time in my schedule the following day.

Do I respond?

When I first kicked off my business, messages such as these were quite commonplace. And I responded promptly. I struggled to set boundaries from the get go to protect my own time, rest, and goals. I was eager to please and forgot about the need for balance.

Once I found a steady client base and schedule, I had more confidence and ability to be clear and straightforward regarding those boundaries. I’m lucky to have understanding and kind clients, who of course recognized what I was saying immediately. While I was so nervous about asking for space, setting boundaries on hours I’d respond and what I could give actually allowed me to give more to my clients in the time I had with them, instead of feeling strung out and disorganized in my interactions.

I also realized the power of saying “no”. Of course, I want to do all I can to help my riders and their horses. It’s what I strive for every day, to help each of them be and feel the best they can be. However, I’ve filled up my lesson slots, and am working off of a waitlist. When riders asked for more than I could give, I felt guilty (and honestly, I still do!) But finding the strength to say “I can’t right now” protects me from stretching myself too thin, which again can only result in disorganized interactions and an exceptionally tired self.

Whereas I used to respond to those late night and crazy early text messages, I now wait until normal business hours — hours that I’ve set and explained to my clients. They all know I’m accessible any time in case of emergency, but otherwise will hear from me as soon as I can. Setting and holding these boundaries by being clear, consistent, and confident in what I also need has helped me to be a better trainer, coach, and manager.