We Need to Talk about Boundaries


For all our talk about work-life balance, most of us completely suck at setting boundaries. And that’s a real shame, because boundaries are critical to living up to our full potential.

When we fail to establish tight boundaries, we keep ourselves small. If we say “yes”, when we really should say “no”, it’s because we’re operating from a fear state. The fear of loss, fear of less and fear of never.

The thinking goes, “If I say no…”

  • I'll lose that job, that client, that friend, that relationship

  • I'll be less respected, less needed, less important

  • I'll never find another job, client, friend, relationship

These are the hallmarks of an unhealthy contractive state. And if we stay in such a state, we won’t use our gifts and talents to their full capacity.

We’re playing small.

On the other hand, saying “no” makes us grounded. When we’re clear about what we will and won’t do, we earn the respect of others. And we gain some self-respect as well, which frees us to live our values and fulfill our true purpose, mission and vision for our lives.

And this puts us in an expansive state.

Now we’re playing big.

There are three key boundaries we need to set in our lives:

  1. How we spend our time

  2. Who we allow into our lives

  3. Where we direct our attention

Sounds simple, but it’s not always that easy.

I had a client I’ll call Lisa, who led the Customer Service department of a fast-growing company. Already, there’s ripe opportunity for boundary issues as by its very nature, customer service requires us to put the customer first. And, in Lisa’s case, this service mentality spilled into all areas of her life.

When she first came to me, she wanted to grow a bigger voice for herself around the office. And she wanted her team to get the respect she felt they deserved. Customer Service may not bring revenue in the door, but they certainly keep it from leaving by turning angry customers into happy ones.

As Lisa’s company was growing, so was her team, though perhaps not fast enough. It seemed there was never enough time in the day to answer all the customer issues, hire new employees, set policies, write manuals and train team members. On top of her day-to-day duties, Lisa was booked into back-to-back meetings, leaving her unable to get any of her real work done during the day.

So, rather than rock the boat and say “no” to the meetings, Lisa wrote to-do lists of work she would do at night. She’d go home, make dinner and hang out with her two children, clean up, throw a load of laundry in the washer and then, while her husband watched TV, she would get to work. Usually the work would start at around 10pm. And she’d finish around 2am. Every weekday. Weekends weren’t much better. Lisa was afraid to ask her boss for a weekend staff member to help her out, because she didn’t want her boss, who, was a remarkable and compassionate woman by the way, to know that she couldn’t handle everything on her own.

If you’re detecting a twinge of perfectionism, you’re right. One of the beliefs of the perfectionist is that effort is bad (because it means you’re not naturally talented enough to handle the task at hand with ease). So, Lisa was actually ashamed of how hard she was working.

At the same time, Lisa knew this life was unsustainable. I actually don’t know how she was able to do it for as long as she was. It’s actually very impressive. But her work was suffering. She wasn’t able to think strategically, because she was exhausted. She was living off five hours of sleep per night. When her colleagues started joking about receiving emails from her at 2am, she began setting them so they would send at 9am instead. She didn’t want anyone to know how hard she was working.

The moment she told me that, when she heard herself say that she was hiding her hard work from her colleagues, was the moment a light bulb went on for Lisa.

Her department wasn’t respected, because she was too afraid to tell everyone how hard they worked. She said “yes” to each and every meeting, because she worried she’d be seen as uncooperative by her colleagues. She didn’t delegate to her employees, because she didn’t want to put extra pressure on them. She didn’t ask her boss for more resources, because she was raised not to complain and demand things.

So often, the way we set or don’t set boundaries is because of subtle, or not so subtle messages we receive as children. You know the ones – about being a good boy or girl, about not complaining, not demanding and not rocking the boat.

Lisa finally committed to setting boundaries. So, we got to work. And Lisa learned to say “no”.

Boundary 1: How we spend our time

As it was in Lisa’s case, usually, the boundaries that need to be set most urgently are those around how we spend our time. Time to do your best work, time with your partner, family, and friends, time to be creative, go to the gym, make a good dinner, etc. When you say “yes” to someone else by giving them your time, you’re saying “no” to yourself. Treat your time as the most precious thing you own.

When feeling overwhelmed, Amelia, a tech CEO tells her staff that she needs an “introverted day”. She works from home, goes for a walk, and does what’s needed to recharge. And by the next day, she’s ready to tackle the world again.

Tracy and Don, partners and co-founders of a tech startup they run out of their home have made the room where they work (the dining room) off limits in the evenings and on weekends. This prevents them from working around the clock and gives them time to reconnect with themselves and each other.

Boundary 2: Whom we let into our life

The next boundary we need to set is whom we let into our life. And how we let them in.

It’s an unfortunate fact that not everyone in the world is a happy ray of sunshine. There are in fact, quite a few negative people. And they can drain your energy. Think carefully about how often you let them into your life.

For those people who are negative, but who matter to you and you want to keep in your life, it’s all about communication. Tell them how their behaviour is affecting you. Ask for what you need. Teach them how to give it to you.

For those who don’t matter, it’s a little easier. As writer Wes Moore says, “Don’t let people who don’t matter too much, matter too much.”

You don’t actually have to have these people in your life. And if they are in your life because they’re a coworker, or just someone who’s going to be around, you don’t have to let them matter too much.

Boundary 3: Where we direct our attention

The final boundary we all must set is where we direct our attention. Where focus goes, energy flows. Are you going to focus on the negativity of the office gossip today? Or on doing a great job on your latest project?

Included in this are what we read and watch. A lot of the news of the world is upsetting these days. And, we have a device in our pocket (that would be our phones) that has been designed to make us look at it constantly, in search of the tiny dopamine hit our brains get from something new. If you’re finding that news is creating negative emotions for you, consider setting personal boundaries about when you look.

Okay, so you’ve set your healthy boundaries, the next thing you need to do is learn to say “no’.

We believe that saying “no” is risky. My client Lisa certainly did.

But the truth is, when we are clear about what we will and won’t do, we’re on firm ground. And people respect those who are grounded and clear. And, they respect their boundaries. So there’s actually less need to enforce them. And that means, you don’t have to say “no” as often, because your boundaries are being naturally respected anyway.

But if you do find that you have to say “no”, take the advice of TV producer Shonda Rhimes.

She simply says, “I’m sorry, no, I’m not able to do that.”

It’s clear, it’s forthright and it’s really hard to argue with.

Go Shonda!

Your turn:

Think of an area in your life where you’re playing small rather than big.

What’s going on there? What fears are coming into play?

Think of a boundary you could set that would enable you to play big.

What would a tighter boundary look like? How would it function?

What standards will you set for yourself to make the tighter boundary work?

e.g. I want to spend more time on creative pursuits, so I won’t commit to coaching baseball this year.

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