Choose Your Yesses

Boundaries Can Boost Your Business

By Heidi Smith Luedtke

One of the greatest challenges in life—and business—is saying “no” to what we don’t want, so we can say “yes” to what we do want. Setting limits affirms our values and lets us pursue them more fully. It also decreases the chance we will become burned out, overcommited, and feel resentment. But it’s easier said than done.

Assertiveness expert Stephanie Sterner, author of the Set Your Boundaries Your Way series, says people struggle to set and uphold boundaries for two main reasons: fear and misunderstanding. “There are all kinds of misguided beliefs that stop us from setting healthy boundaries,” Sterner says. Maybe you’ve confronted some of these thoughts:
• “Saying ‘no’ would make me a bad person.”
• “The client’s needs always come first.”
• “It’s better to keep the peace.”
• “It’s really no big deal.”
• “He won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”
Of course, we’ve all said these things to ourselves from time to time. But Sterner says it’s important to “recognize that in most situations, these are lies.” Putting yourself first sometimes doesn’t make you a bad person. Your needs are important, too. Keeping the peace is great, if it doesn’t cost you peace of mind or self-respect. “And there are plenty of people who won’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” Sterner says. “That’s OK. Your answer doesn’t have to change just because someone else doesn’t like it.”
The Importance of Boundaries in Business
Massage therapist and business owner Lily Starling of Downtown Davis Massage and Wellness in Davis, California, says boundary setting is the foundation that makes her business enjoyable and sustainable. “Massage has very high burnout rates, because it is so physically and energetically demanding. Setting boundaries is the only way to preserve the bottom line, financially and emotionally. It is all about saying what you are and what you aren’t.”
Many healers are afraid to set and maintain boundaries with clients because they fear their clients will get mad and leave their practices, Starling says. This is a valid fear, but a client who would leave your practice because you set limits isn’t your ideal client. “I repeatedly tell my clients and my employees that you teach people how to treat you. Massage therapists need to take a stand for their own professionalism, their integrity, and their worth and say, ‘My ideal clients respect my time, my rates, and my boundaries,’” Starling says.
Over the long run, clear boundaries are good for everyone. “When people enter into any therapeutic relationship, they tend to open up, let their guard down, and show vulnerability,” Starling says. Boundaries help therapists establish safe and secure therapeutic relationships that nurture clients and stimulate referrals. Clients who feel well cared for will recommend you to other clients who will treat you well, Starling says. That creates a virtuous cycle.
Find a Firm Foundation
Your deeply held values should guide your limit-setting efforts. “Good boundaries are based on clear goals—on vision and planning,” says holistic coach and educator Diane L. MacDonald ( You need to ask yourself, “Where do I want to be?” and “How do I want to get there?” Then, create a plan with weekly, monthly, and quarterly milestones. Your business practices and policies should help move you in the direction of your goals.
Weak boundaries may reflect limiting beliefs you’ve held for a long time, MacDonald says. For instance, you may believe you can’t make a living doing what you love, or that clients don’t understand the true value of the services you offer. In this case, you may charge too little for your services or give deep discounts to attract new clients. These strategies turn your limiting beliefs into self-fulfilling prophecies. “Write limiting beliefs down where you can confront them,” MacDonald says. “When you bring these ideas to the forefront, they have a lot less power.”
Consciously change your thinking by intentionally focusing on what you want to create. Tell yourself, “I am prosperous,” “I have clients who pay me well,” and “My clients appreciate what I have to offer.” Draft a work schedule, a fee structure, and a set of policies that reflect your retooled beliefs. Then, stick to them. Consistent, professional actions reinforce your good intentions.
Set Boundaries in These Key Areas
When it comes to work, it’s easy for business owners to get caught up in a “more is more” mentality. Although you must book clients, give massages, and build your skills, you simply can’t take advantage of every opportunity. “You need to focus on the best ones,” Sterner says. “Saying ‘yes’ to one thing means saying ‘no’ to something else. There are only 24 hours in a day.”
Certified massage and lymphatic therapist Elise Walton of Virginia Beach, Virginia, knows from experience. “When you’re first starting a business, you think you have to be available all the time,” Walton says. “You might worry a client won’t call back unless you say ‘yes’ to every request.” Walton suggests saying “no” and offering another solution. Perhaps you can book a massage for a better time on a different day, or refer the client to another therapist.
To ensure you spend time wisely, calculate a cost-benefit ratio for all the activities on your calendar. An hour-long massage might yield $50 profit. The same hour spent at a networking event with local physicians might result in many referrals. In the long run, the networking event might have been the best use of your time, even if it meant rearranging your schedule and going outside your comfort zone.

Many practitioners charge too little for their services because they question their own value, MacDonald says. Expenses can also get out of control if you don’t have a firm grip on the cost of doing business and the amount of compensation you receive for your services.
Walton keeps a close eye on finances to ensure she sticks to the budget she sets on an annual basis. “I plan ahead for the cost of continuing education and keep track of the results of my marketing so I know which strategies bring in clients and which ones don’t,” she says. Of course, the amount of money coming in has to be greater than the amount going out. That’s the bottom line.
Cancellation and no-show fees are other ways massage therapists reinforce the monetary value of time. It may feel uncomfortable to charge a client for a missed session, since he didn’t receive any treatment. But that’s part of being in business. “Time is valuable,” Starling says. “When an agreement has been made in the booking process, that’s the time you’re billing for.” Remember: You are not punishing clients by enforcing policy. You are ensuring your business can continue to operate so you’ll be there next time they book a session.

Physical Energy
Bodywork is physically demanding, and it’s important to set limits on how much pressure you can provide. “Sometimes people want too much pressure because they think it means they are getting their money’s worth, or because they take a ‘no pain, no gain’ approach,” Walton says.
Handle these requests by educating clients about their options and offering referrals if necessary. “Ninety percent of people will be very receptive to this,” Walton says. “And they appreciate me because I took the time to explain the reason why too much pressure would be detrimental.”
Tune in to your body and assess your energy level throughout the day. You may find you can only book one deep-tissue session per day or that you get too tired if you work after 8:00 p.m. Respect your physical limits so you don’t get injured. Also, schedule time for your own wellness activities. “I make sure to set aside time to get bodywork on a regular basis through trade,” Walton says. “I also do regular cardio and strength training. Working out maintains my physical and emotional energy.”
Personal Values
Most therapists have no trouble saying “no” to requests for sexual favors. But it may be harder to handle requests for medical or psychological advice, especially if you’ve forged a close relationship with a regular client. “Sometimes a client may give me their complete medical history because they’re expecting me to heal them,” Walton says. “They’re asking for medical advice I can’t give.”
Explain the limits of your knowledge, then refer the client to someone with the right expertise. “The most important thing you can do is to create a collaborative network of professionals in the healing industry whose skills complement the services you offer,” MacDonald says. Make connections with a yoga instructor, an acupuncturist, an essential oils expert, a naturopath, a physical therapist, and a marriage and family therapist. “You may want to swap services with these professionals so they get to know your practice and you get to know theirs,” MacDonald says. “That way you’ll feel comfortable referring clients to each other.”
If you acknowledge the importance of boundaries but still fear conflict, rejection, or feeling guilty, rest assured that “boundary setting gets easier with practice,” Sterner says. Say “no” to something small, with someone who’s not likely to become aggressive. If someone pushes back on your boundaries, repeat your response. “This lets people know you are serious about your boundaries and keeps you focused,” Sterner says. “You may never really enjoy setting boundaries, but your confidence will go up and your fear will come down. It just takes some time and perseverance.”
 Heidi Smith Luedtke, PhD, is a personality psychologist who loves to help people with everyday problems in business, personal relationships, and parenting. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with her husband and two young children. Contact her at   

Set Yourself Up for Success
Setting limits is tough. These tips make it easier to stick to your decisions.

Know Your Reasons
Get clear about your most important values and set boundaries consistent with your beliefs. “If you’re not clear about why a boundary is in place, you’re going to break it,” says business coach Diane L. MacDonald. When you’re tempted to relax a boundary, remind yourself why you set it. Your values probably haven’t changed.

Write Things Down
A specific business plan helps you see where you want to go and how you expect to get there. Include detailed policies on sticky issues, including cancellations, expenditures, no-shows, and work hours. Putting pen to paper forces you to acknowledge the lines you are drawing. It also reinforces your commitment to upholding boundaries.

Ask Clients to Sign On
Obtain client signatures on office policy documents at the time of first booking and once a year after that. This minimizes the chance a client will ask you to make exceptions. Online scheduling software tools—including Full Slate, which is available to ABMP members at a discount—can use a checkbox system to ensure clients have read and agree to booking policies. “If a client fails to show up, I use PayPal to invoice them,” says massage therapist Lily Starling. Even if they never pay up, you’ll get a boost from sticking to your standards.

Learn from Experience
Reflect on times you said “no.” Clients’ reactions probably weren’t as bad as you feared. Reflect also on times you said “yes” when you wanted to say “no.” You may regret these yesses and grow to resent clients who push back or try to manipulate you. Going forward, recommit yourself to setting and keeping healthy boundaries. The sense of professionalism you’ll feel when you assert your values will make you happy to be in business.

How to Say “No”
Find the Right Time
It’s best to set boundaries when you’re well rested and calm, not when you’re under pressure and overwhelmed. “The energy and mindset that you go into the conversation with can really affect the outcome,” says massage therapist and business owner Lily Starling. “Get yourself grounded first.”

Choose the Right Place
You may have to assert yourself over email, by phone, or in a face-to-face conversation, depending on the situation. Always protect clients’ privacy. Extremely sensitive issues should not be discussed in email or voice mail, which may be accessed by others. Hold personal conversations in private to avoid putting a client on the spot in front of other people. 

Word Up
There are lots of ways to soften a “no” without backing down. Try these lines:
• “I’m sorry, but I won’t be able to …”
• “It’s against my policy to …”
• “I can’t make that work on my end …”
• “I’m not available at that time. I could schedule an appointment for …”
• “That isn’t a service I offer. I can refer you to …”
• “I wouldn’t recommend that kind of work in your situation. We could try …”

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