Setting Boundaries: At Work and In Our Personal Lives

Updated: Oct 1, 2020

Setting boundaries in our professional and personal lives is extremely important. But what does that mean, in terms of creating a better work/life balance for ourselves? How do we set boundaries with our colleagues and loved ones, in a mindful way?

The first and most important step is to identify and become clear on what your personal boundaries are. For example, when you interact with certain people, ask yourself - what emotions are you typically feeling during those interactions? Are you frustrated? Irritated? Happy? Calm? Is there a certain co-worker that always distracts you from doing your job? Is there a loved one that is a little too comfortable with your generosity?

Identifying your emotions during your interactions with people allows you to understand what your personal boundaries may be. If someone usually makes you happy, perhaps there’s no need to set a boundary with that person. On the other hand, if a friend is constantly making you feel under-appreciated, then it may be time to speak up.

But – hold on! Before communicating what you need from someone else, analyze what you are contributing to the relationship. Every relationship is 50/50. Each person brings their own perceptions, thoughts, memories, patterns of thinking, and communication styles. Is there anything you can improve on your end, before telling someone else that they need to get their act together? Is there something that you can change about your habits, conduct, and patterns, that can shift the relationship in small ways before direct confrontation is needed?

Let’s start with ourselves – which is where all meaningful change begins. Ask yourself – was that negative interaction you had with someone caused by external factors, such as the timing of the communication? Were you perhaps hungry, tired and/or grumpy during your talk? Are you taking your work-related frustrations out on a loved one? Did you neglect your exercise or meditation routine, which you rely on to de-stress? Have you been running yourself ragged, in order to check things off your to do list, and someone was the last “thing” you needed to “deal with” on your list?

Change begins with us. But it doesn’t end there. We need to take responsibility for our actions. However, that doesn’t mean we should take responsibility for the actions or reactions of others. That’s where boundaries come in. Do you have a manager who constantly bombards you with last minute tasks, which keep you from leaving work on time after an already stressful day? Do you have a friend that constantly complains about their problems and never asks you about your day? Have you fallen into certain habits with these people, where you feel like you can’t tell them “no”? If so, how do you begin to say “no” in a way that won’t cause a major disruption to the relationship?

Again, you start with yourself. Slowly begin to show the person that you are taking notice of their behavior and adjusting yourself accordingly. Figure out what your goal is – do you want this person to ask about your day more? If so, perhaps you start by talking about your day in conversations, even if they don’t ask about it. This gets the person used to listening to you talk about yourself for a change.

As for work relationships, do you want your boss to stop giving you last minute tasks all the time? This is an interesting one, because ultimately at the end of the day, employees are paid to perform their duties, which sometimes include “as needed” tasks that can’t be predicted. But, if your manager has fallen into a pattern of being disorganized in terms of task delegation, first start with yourself.

How can you help your manager with task delegation, since managers often have multiple people that they manage and multiple important tasks to complete themselves? Ask yourself, what would you do if you were in this person’s role? Don’t merely ask this question with the purpose of comparing yourself to the manager (because obviously you could do a better job than they can, right?); but instead, practice empathy. Meaning, put yourself in your manager’s shoes and try to understand where they are coming from.

Let’s assume that your manager is coming from a good place, and he or she is trying their absolute best. How can you make their lives a bit easier? Perhaps you initiate a practice where you briefly chat with your manager each morning, to communicate with him or her about all of the tasks that are expected of you that day. This practice allows you to communicate with your manager about your plans for the day, so that you both are on the same page in terms of expectations. Managers are busy people, so rather than taking it personally when they forget things, perhaps we become a valuable asset by proactively reaching out to the manager to communicate about the day’s priorities.

The next step - after we’ve figured out what our own personal role is within each of our relationships, and we’ve adjusted our own behavior - is to determine the best time, place and method for directly communicating with someone about the issue we have with them. Every situation will be different, because individuals are unique in their personal interactions and unique within the environments where those interactions take place. So, assess the situation from all angles. Get input from outsiders, such as friends, a therapist, or an attorney. Make sure you are going into the communication in a strategic way – especially if the relationship has financial implications if it falls apart.

Once you’ve figured out when and how to conduct the direct communication with someone at your work or in your personal life – make sure you’ve engaged in your stress reduction routine in advance. For example, exercise and/or meditate, so you’re mentally prepared for this interaction. You may also want to write down what you are going to say ahead of time, which can make you feel more confident going into the situation.

But – do not shy away from the difficult conversations because that is where true change takes place. Avoid name-calling and blame-shifting. Speak to the person in terms of how you feel, using “I” language, such as “I feel sad when you don’t ask me about my day, because I really need to vent sometimes too.” Or, perhaps you want to request a meeting with your manager in advance, and provide him or her with a summary about what you want to discuss, so they aren’t blind-sided. For example, you may want to send an email to your manager which says you want to discuss a few items, and would like to schedule 30 minutes with him or her because you believe it will help streamline a work process that can save the company money.

At the end of the day, most of us don’t want to deal with confrontation. We usually tell ourselves that we can tolerate the situation because – well, sometimes we just have to. We may be dependent on a paycheck from a job, or we need the emotional comfort that a best friend provides us. But if we get to a point where we are continuously feeling upset when interacting with someone – it’s time to put a strategy in place and have that difficult talk.

About the Author: Nicole C. Baldwin is as an employment attorney, mother of two young daughters, and a business owner. As a yoga practitioner, she is interested in personal development, and as a mother, she wants to teach her daughters how to be decent humans. Nicole’s Sociology and Communications majors have made her a constant observer of human behavior in all types of settings, including the workplace. Nicole has vast experience dealing with conflict as a litigator, and is comfortable having those really difficult conversations with clients or loved ones about boundaries.

Nicole C. Baldwin, Esq.

ncb law, apc

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