When you return to work, setting boundaries will be necessary. They’re the backbone of all healthy relationships. That doesn’t mean they come easily, though. For many of us, setting boundaries feels uncomfortable. We feel guilty and scared when we assert our needs.
What are boundaries?
Boundaries are guidelines and limits that let other people know how to behave around you. Our boundaries are all going to look different to one another.
Our boundaries are important because our ability to thrive is directly linked to our boundaries, they are crucial for building healthy relationships and protecting our time and energy.
Often there are obstacles that get in the way of setting effective boundaries, these may be:
- The need to please others
- The belief that boundaries will impact how people perceive us – perhaps as demanding or needy
- Not knowing what our boundaries are
- The discomfort when it comes to communicating our boundaries
When we are able to put boundaries in place they allow us to thrive and get what we need.
Here are some best practice steps for setting effective boundaries with your colleagues, peers and family.
How to set healthy boundaries
1. Identify your boundaries by knowing what you value the most
Understanding your values helps you figure out where you’d like to set boundaries. In other words, by first knowing your values, you’re able to then set up systems that help you get those needs met.
For instance, being connected and present with your family in the evenings is important. So you may have strict boundaries around working overtime or being available at all hours.
2. Communicate clearly and be specific
Once you have identified your boundaries and you know what is non-negotiable, make sure you communicate your limits very clearly. For instance, if you don’t want your colleagues and clients to contact you at all hours, verbally tell them the hours you will be available for work-related conversations.
In the same scenario, it’s also important to figure out what constitutes an “emergency,” and clearly communicate that as well. When you communicate your boundaries, keep what you say simple and avoid lengthy over-explanations.
When communicating your boundaries ensure you are specific. Saying I don’t want meetings late in the day is not as easy for the other person to understand as ‘no meetings after 4pm’.
3. Bring up a boundary violation right away
When your boundaries are violated, it’s not uncommon to feel upset, reflect about the situation for days or weeks and then bring it up a month later.
However, so much can happen during that time, the other person may not understand where you are coming from. It’s important to flag your boundary in the moment or as close to it as you can. The longer it is left the less power it has.
4. Create structure
This is particularly helpful when protecting your valuable time. For example, let’s say your colleague or boss has a habit of coming over to your desk for 30 minutes at a time to chat. Suggest having a daily/weekly 15-minute check-in. Make sure you present a compelling case that shows the benefits to them. You might mention that this check-in is more efficient and saves them time with less back and forth.
5. Focus on concrete explanations
When you’re setting a boundary at work, it’s not necessarily productive to talk from your personal perspective. In other words, if your boss makes an unreasonable request, avoid statements such as “I’m really stressed” or “I have too much to do.” You don’t want it to sound like it’s all about you, and like you’re whining.
Instead, frame your explanations in something concrete, in terms of how it’s going to affect other projects, clients or your bottom line. Make it relevant to your boss. For instance, “If I spend my time on X, we’re going to lose this big client,” or “there won’t be enough time to do Y.”
6. Prepare for violations
It’s helpful to visualise your boundaries getting crossed, and how you’re going to handle those situations. For instance, imagine your boss emails you on Saturday, imagine processing your reaction and creating a plan of action.
Will you reply right away? Will you respond Monday morning, apologise and say you were with your family?
This way, when a moment like this comes up, you won’t be hijacked by your emotions. You’ll be able to handle it much more rationally.
Your next steps
Building boundaries takes time and practice, and your boundaries will get crossed. Instead of viewing violations as taking a step back, see them as an opportunity to reset, gain insight and improve on your boundary setting.
Use these prompts to help identify out the boundaries you need to set:
- Boundaries I want to set are…
- People who need to know are…
- I will communicate with them on…