When most people think of boundaries, they think of rules that govern physical touch and personal space. But work-related boundaries go much deeper. They also define how much of yourself you give to your career, and they guide how you form relationships with managers, colleagues, and clients.
Healthy boundaries can make the difference between professional fulfillment or burn out. They are the physical, emotional, and mental limits you create to protect yourself from overcommitting, being used, or behaving in unethical ways. Boundaries separate what you think and feel from the thoughts and feelings of others.
If you want to develop meaningful relationships while preserving your personal energy, then drawing functional, flexible limits at work is crucial.
There are three major categories of boundaries. Most people are familiar with the first, physical boundaries. Physical boundaries primarily refer to rules that define personal space and touch, like if you prefer hugs over handshakes. The extent to which you give your time and lend possessions (like that stapler your co-worker never returned) are set by physical boundaries, too.
Mental and emotional boundaries are trickier to understand because they are intangible. Mental boundaries apply to your thoughts, values, and opinions. Emotional boundaries distinguish your emotions from someone else’s. People with good mental and emotional boundaries have a strong sense of identity and self-respect. They’re able to say no to unreasonable requests and don’t allow others’ moods to easily influence their own. For example, a person with strong mental and emotional boundaries will speak up, share their ideas, and not take it personally if someone else disagrees.
Weak mental and emotional boundaries, on the other hand, can negatively affect your career and well-being. They may show up as being easily hurt by constructive feedback, obsessing about work off-hours, or letting the emotional contagion of a toxic workplace demoralize you.
Drawing the line
Boundaries fall on a spectrum between overly porous and too rigid. A healthy boundary is a flexible one that allows you exercise control over what you let in or allow, but does not make you overly defensive or resistant to change. Someone who is aloof with their coworkers or who shies away from social events at work may have rigid boundaries. These people throw up walls to protect themselves from getting hurt or appearing vulnerable. But ultimately these rigid boundaries backfire. They prevent them from developing relationships they need in order to advance in their careers.
Creating healthy boundaries at work can be difficult because there’s the real worry of being demoted, fired, or disliked. Yet with clear communication and practice you can learn to set self-honoring limits without alienating people or losing your paycheck.
- Figure out where limits need to be set and define what needs to be changed. When I work with clients who feel like work is consuming their lives, we conduct a boundary audit. This involves paying attention to people, situations, and personal actions that cause them distress or discomfort. In particular, experiencing patterns of three key emotions—guilt, resentment, and anger—signal a boundary has been crossed, needs to be reset, or needs to be communicated more clearly.
- Define what needs to change. After you have gained insight into problem areas, define your new boundary. Make a request of yourself or another person about what needs to change. For example, you might ask your direct reports to drop by your office only during pre-set office hours rather than at all times of day. Or you may make a pact with yourself to contribute at least once during a meeting instead of sitting silently.
- Communicate clearly. Healthy boundaries aren’t meant to punish; they’re meant to be mutually beneficial and supportive. If you have to set a boundary with another person, think of approaching the conversation like a negotiation. Ask your boss, partner, or whoever you’re speaking with to describe the situation from their perspective as well to keep the lines of communication open. You need to understand the other person’s needs and desires in addition to being up-front about your own perspective. Don’t get defensive; communicate assertively. Avoid accusatory language like “it’s not fair” and instead focus on making “I” statements that show you take responsibility for your actions.
- Prepare for pushback. Once you start establishing healthy expectations, others may react negatively. Boundary-crossers may get angry. This is to be expected. It’s a sign that the boundary is necessary and that it’s working effectively. Instead of viewing violations as setbacks, see them as opportunities to gain insight and improve on your boundary-setting.It’s helpful to anticipate these moments of violation. Visualize your boundaries getting crossed and imagine how you’ll handle those situations. This way, when a moment like this comes up, you won’t be hijacked by your emotions. You’ll be able to handle it more rationally.
Building boundaries takes time and practice. It may be nerve-wracking at first, but setting self-respecting boundaries will help you achieve a more balanced work and personal life over the long run.
Melody Wilding is a high performance coach and professor of Human Behavior at Hunter College.