An image of a person standing on a circle with a pair of shoes, representing personal boundaries and self-esteem.

The real reason small business owners struggle to set & hold boundaries

Small business owners will often come to me because they struggle to set or hold boundaries in their business. Perhaps it’s that they discount their prices when questioned on price, work late or over weekends to accommodate clients who end up ghosting or not paying, or it’s overdelivering and questioning if what they do is enough.

These are just some of the most common issues with setting or holding boundaries show up in small businesses.

The small business owner comes to me because they are tired, overwhelmed, and feel like they just aren‘t making the money they should for the time they put in.

It’s not that they don’t have the processes or terms and conditions in place, they will often use them except at this one crucial time – when they are low in their self-esteem.

You see, self-esteem can dip when you start wondering if you’re making enough money to pay the bills (business or home), not being there for your family, or when you’re just feeling burnt out, run-down, or overwhelmed.

Then the boundaries slide and before they know it the small business owner is running around and tying themselves in knots trying to get things done, all adding to their tiredness and overwhelm.

What are boundaries?

Boundaries can range from formal guidelines and procedures, through to a set of values and beliefs that guide our behaviour. It can be as rigid as terms and conditions on payment of invoices through to when we stop taking phone calls at night or not looking at emails on the weekend. They can be flexible so that we can accommodate our most valued clients and rigid to ensure the safety of our staff.

Perhaps this can be the issue with boundaries, outside of our legal obligations, most of the boundaries we have in our business are set by the owner and are negotiable. They really aren’t set in stone.

A lack of boundaries leads to stress, burnout, resentment, and little to no work-life balance. You teach people how to treat you, including clients. This is why putting in boundaries is so important to your business’ success and the health and welfare of yourself and any staff.

Self-esteem and boundaries

“People with low self-esteem may struggle to set boundaries because they may not feel worthy of respect or may fear rejection if they assert themselves.” – Crocker, J., & Park, L. E. (2016).

Ouch. When I came across that research, it hit hard. I am a people pleaser and from experience, the clients I see that struggle with boundaries are too. They worry about rejection, and how saying no to clients will harm the perception of their business (even though the request is unreasonable).

Self-esteem is our opinion of ourselves. It’s how we perceive, like, or what we believe about ourselves. When this is negative, then we can find it difficult to stand up for ourselves. If we don’t believe in ourselves, why should anyone else and to a degree we can then believe that it doesn’t matter how others treat us (because we don’t treat ourselves well).

I tell my clients that I work with on boundaries and that we teach people how to treat us. How we feel about ourselves is central to this.

Business owners I have spoken with about boundaries feel burnt out, used, angry, and often resentful of the financial toll it has taken on their business. But it goes further than our business, many of us started our businesses to facilitate something in our personal lives. When our self-esteem and boundaries flail in business, this can spill over into our personal lives. Unfortunately, this can then lead to a lower sense of self-esteem. Imagine you aren’t feeling the best about yourself, a client says they can’t pay straight away and so you let it slide, this then means that you can’t pay yourself and therefore provide for your family as you’d like, this makes you feel worse about yourself. It’s a common cry I hear from business owners. They think they’re being kind when they are hurting their family and themselves by not holding a boundary.

“People with high self-esteem are better able to set and maintain boundaries, as they are more confident in their own worth and less likely to feel threatened by others’ needs and desires.” – Baumeister, R. F. (2016).

Business owners who hold their boundaries are very clear on their worth and will not negotiate it. They do not look to others for reassurance of their worth because they only need their own approval. They are clear on the behaviour they are prepared to tolerate towards themselves and their business and they are unapologetic in making this clear. They will set boundaries and will only negotiate them if they do not break them or who they are.

How to set healthy boundaries

I’ve previously written about how to set client boundaries, so I won’t repeat it word for word here but I will summarise as it is actually a handy process for setting boundaries with staff, family, and yourself (yes, you need boundaries for yourself and it can be quite bad when you don’t hold them).

  • Set expectations early
  • Be consistent in maintaining boundaries & expectations
  • Change with agreement but within your boundaries
  • Let people down gently
  • Respect your time
  • Know & respect your value (worth)
  • Behave in alignment with your core values

I want to draw attention to the last one, ‘behave in alignment with your core values’. When we behave outside of our core values we can feel uneasy, stressed, or discomfort because how we behave does not align with our core values. (psychologists call this dissonance). You may not be aware of what your core values are (I can help with this) but I’m certain that doesn’t stop you from feeling out of sorts when your behaviour doesn’t align with them. Behaving in alignment with your core values is important to setting & maintaining boundaries because not doing so can impact your self-esteem.

Benefits of healthy boundaries for self-esteem

Healthy boundaries help build self-esteem through a number of mechanisms.

To have boundaries, we need to have clear expectations and this makes it easier for us to achieve. When we achieve and succeed we gain confidence and a boost to our self-esteem. (And this helps us set and maintain healthy boundaries)

I am a firm believer that we teach people how to treat us. When we have clear boundaries we teach people what is acceptable behaviour to us and how to treat us. When we are treated well, feel safe, we feel good about ourselves and this can fuel our self-esteem.

Setting boundaries can help us be more productive. Not only does it help us become clear on where we’re headed, but it also helps remove distractions (actual and mental). When we achieve we reinforce our abilities and therefore our belief in our abilities (a core component of self-esteem).

Having and maintaining boundaries have many other benefits such as fostering trust and respect, reduces misunderstandings and miscommunications, and can play a part in reducing stress when expectations are known, agreed, and understood. These things help build a healthy work environment.


In business, setting boundaries is crucial for success and maintaining good mental health. Small business owners often struggle with boundaries, leading to stress, burnout, and resentment, and impacting their personal lives. Self-esteem plays a significant role in setting boundaries, with people with low self-esteem finding it challenging to set boundaries and fearing rejection. However, people with high self-esteem are better able to set and maintain boundaries. Healthy boundaries involve setting expectations early, being consistent, respecting your time and value, and behaving in alignment with your core values. If you need help with setting boundaries or improving your self-esteem, please don’t hesitate to contact me. Remember, you teach people how to treat you, so valuing yourself and your needs is essential for a healthy and successful business and personal life.



Baumeister, R. F. (2016). Self-esteem: The puzzle of low self-regard. Springer.

Crocker, J., & Park, L. E. (2016). The Costly Pursuit of Self-Esteem. Psychological Bulletin, 142(4), 415-443.


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