Boundaries: Why defining and upholding them at work is serious business
How many times have you said "yes" to something when all you wanted to say was “hell no”? Now you feel stuck doing this thing you agreed to and your head hurts and your stomach aches every time you think about doing it. But now you have to do it… or do you?
How can you draw lines in the sand that protect what is most important without dissolving your relationships? Does saying "no" mean giving up or turning down important opportunities? What if you “owe” someone?
It's taken me a long time to understand the value of healthy boundaries and to create them in my life. Not having boundaries led me into burnout, resentment, and anger. I know I’m not alone. Many people I talk with are torn by what they “should” do and what they “want” to do. That’s why we talk about boundaries in the LEEP and within team Lotus continually! Boundaries are the foundation for strong and trusting relationships. “Having healthy boundaries is truly an act of love!” Terri Cole.
RULES VS BOUNDARIES
I don’t like rules. I don’t like em’ because the German in me won’t let me break em’ (not even bend them!) but the freedom seeker in me feels that they’re an imposition on my freedom. Not surprisingly, I went through most of my life following and resenting rules, a tug of war of emotions that was exhausting and zero helpful for my overall well being. Until I learned about boundaries.
Let’s start by distinguishing boundaries and rules. A boundary is defined as a line that marks the limits of an area; a dividing line. A rule is defined as “one of a set of explicit regulations or principles governing conduct within a particular activity or sphere.” In the context we are talking about here, boundaries are the governing of our own behaviour; the line we draw in the sand to manage our sphere. Rules are the governing over someone else's behaviour or, the signs we put up in an attempt to uphold [our] boundaries.
In some circumstances rules are a necessary component to create safe, shared experiences. Imagine if we didn’t have traffic rules! That would be total chaos. I have rules of engagement within the LEEP member community. They aren’t imperious but act as a formula to improve the quality of our gatherings. When we follow rules, they change our behaviour and the way we see and interact with one another.
We generally have no problem understanding rules, following them, or setting them. But boundaries… well, that’s a different story, and unique to your own childhood experiences. Today let’s start with why we must have them in our lives and how they impact your relationship with your clients.
PERMISSION TO DRAW BOUNDARIES
We often hesitate to draw boundaries because we feel the need to please and appease. Before we all turn into martyrs, let’s debunk the myth that if you draw boundaries people will not like or respect you. Have you ever observed a woman say: “no, thank you”, without drama, no apparent guilt or shame? Did you think she was mean or confident? Did you secretly wish you could be like her? I think we can all agree that confidence is really attractive– confidence comes from knowing yourself and upholding your boundaries.
An added bonus to drawing your boundaries is that you also give permission to others to do the same. It’s easier to draw a boundary with someone who is transparent and has been clear on their boundaries with you. By being transparent with your own boundaries, you give permission to others to be clear with theirs. This way, you can help end this unhealthy (and unproductive) cycle of pleasing and resentment. Having your own well-defined boundaries also means that you feel comfortable with other people’s boundaries. It doesn’t occur to you that someone else’s boundaries are meant to personally hurt or hinder you. You see their boundaries for what they are: the sign of a confident, transparent, trustworthy person.
The purpose of boundaries is not to punish others. They’re intended to protect your energy and well being. Knowing your boundaries means not having to take responsibility for emotions that aren’t yours and owning the ones that are.
Healthy boundaries are also very powerful when it comes to your identity and brand. Think of your top 3 favourite brands. Do they know what they stand for? You bet they do, and that’s why you have confidence in buying their products. As you develop your own brand identity, it is super important that you consider how you want to show up and what that will take.
As you grow your business and step into leadership roles, the ability to draw healthy boundaries takes centre stage. I remember back in my corporate days, I had just been promoted to marketing manager and assigned to train the new marketing assistant. We had organized an event for which we hired a caterer to take care of the food. When they showed up an hour late, the new marketing assistant pulled me aside nervously and said: “I need your credit card, and maybe we should say something about them being late?” It was a defining moment for me– step up or get out. As uncomfortable as I get when it comes to raising conflict, it wasn’t ok that they showed up late, and by doing so they disrespected our hard efforts to create a beautiful event for our clients. So a boundary was crossed, we both knew it, and I felt it was part of the training to speak up about it.
BOUNDARIES AT WORK
How are your boundaries working at work? Whether you’re employed or your own boss, chances are you interact with other humans. There are a few layers of rules and boundaries at play here: social etiquette, firmly established company rules, and then your own boundaries.
When I first started working as an insurance saleswoman traveling all across Alberta knocking on doors, the social etiquette was to be respectful of the client’s home, and I followed the company rule of phoning in every other hour as I was working alone. My boundaries were to never accept verbal abuse. If a potential customer got angry, raised their voice, or if my spidey senses were tingling and I didn’t feel safe about entering a home, I listened and got the hell out of there.
Another boundary may be how intimate you want your relationship to be with colleagues, or how much you share about your family. You might set boundaries around time, like no business emails, meetings, calls, etc. after 6pm or on weekends. You might draw a line around language and what you will not tolerate. For example, my coach does not tolerate vulgar language in her company. I swear and I don’t mind it when my own clients swear to express themselves, but of course around her I watch my f bombs.
What are some of your boundaries around your work? Hint: look to what always irritates you. Maybe you have a boundary around your physical space: ie. you don’t like people hanging over your shoulder or talking to closely to your face.
Defining and upholding your boundaries at work is serious business, considering that’s where we spend 80% of our time. Not honoring your boundaries will inevitably cause burnout, resentment, and anger. Your body undergoes severe stress every time you have to make a decision between “yes vs no” or conflicts that stir up old fears. This stress is super unhealthy (and unnecessary) and will set you back every time.
When we ignore our boundaries we become resentful. The irony is that the people around you don’t understand why you’re so angry. From their perspective, you agreed to do something and for some reason, you’re in a bad mood about it. Alternatively, when you say “no” calmly but assertively, you’re allowing people to know who you really are and create a trusting relationship.
“We repeat what we don’t repair.” - Terri Cole
When we feel under pressure to respond a certain way to other people’s requests, we tend to do it over and over again until it becomes an unhealthy habit. Psychotherapist and transformation coach Terri Cole calls these repeating realities and suggests using the following three questions to interrupt the pattern and begin the healing process:
Where have I felt this before?
Who does this person remind me of?
Why is this familiar to me?
Listen to the wisdom of your body. There is nothing wrong with how you’re feeling about situations, people, and circumstances. It’s important to stop feeling bad about how you feel because the guilt is only a distraction and a source of new issues. Instead, develop the skills to listen to the wisdom of you body and what the emotions you’re feeling are really about… then you can identify what you need! Yes, it may take a bit of work– you might kick up some stink and trigger some hurt– but the alternative is long, drawn out, repetitive patterns with people that cost you your well being.
Having healthy boundaries, learning how to speak the truth about how you feel and what you want, set you up to thrive and positively impact everyone around you. How can anyone stand with you, when you don’t tell them what you stand for? The more you say no to the things you don’t like or don’t want to do, the less stress you experience and the better your relationships will become.
HOW TO SAY “YES” CAREFULLY, AND “NO” GRACEFULLY
For the longest time, I would say yes to everything because I thought that if I said no, I would lose that connection, friendship, or opportunity. So I would say yes but then feel resentful for it, and would physically not be able to show up for what I had committed to… or show up but only be half there.
A friend once asked me to help her with a big fundraising event. The first year I was game for it and all in, but the second year I was experiencing a lot of social and performance anxiety. I was also right in the middle of moving my life again and I knew I should have listened to my inner wisdom that was urging me to say no.
The day of, I woke up in a state of overwhelm and cancelled on her last minute. This was so much worse than just saying no in the first place. Guilt and shame had consumed me for weeks leading up to the event, and then it followed me weeks after. Honestly, I still feel bad about it 8 years later. This was the lowest of the low, and I really crossed a line.
Then I met my coach, and she said one single thing that changed everything. “You know, angel, you have a right to boundaries,” she said. “No is a complete sentence.” It seems so simple now, but I believed deeply that I wasn’t allowed to say no. I’ve practiced saying “no” for years now and it becomes more graceful and loving the more I give myself permission to draw healthy boundaries. When you understand why they’re so important, you learn to draw them without sounding harsh or mean.
As women it’s part of our DNA to nurture and care for others, even if it’s at the expense of our own care. This has been reinforced culturally for centuries and so it’s going to be a bit of work to reframe this: YOU CAN’T POUR FROM AN EMPTY CUP. Stop the auto YES. Boundaries are vital in maintaining good self care!
I can now embrace “no” as a complete sentence; however, the reality is that it’s hard to say “no” with no follow up. How many times do you feel compelled to give an “acceptable” iron-clad reason when you say no? “No, I can’t make it because my schedule is so packed and I’m already double booked that night!” Responses like this are defensive and are often little white lies that create more stress! So here are a few suggestions on how to say “no” gracefully and “yes” more carefully.
“Thank you so much for thinking of me. I’m unable to make this [insert event].” If you mean it, but ONLY if you mean it, you can add: “Let me know about the next one” or “Do keep me on the list for next time.”
Remember love, for everything you say yes to, you have to say no to something else. Before you say “yes” next time, try the following:
“Let me think about this and I will get back to you [tomorrow in a couple of days].”
“I want to check with [my husband, my schedule]. Can I get back to you?”
Maybe you’ve committed to something that you regret you committed to, like I did for that fundraising event and now you need to find a way to tell them the truth. My advice: Give as much advance notice as you can! You can say something like this:
“You know back in __________ when I agreed to ___________, I really believed I had the capacity to do a great job. My circumstances [insert life/priorities/health] have changed and it’s impacted what I’m able to do going forward.
It’s difficult for me to say this, but I need to step down from [insert commitment], as I’m unable to deliver as I thought I would and [insert you, organization etc] deserve the very best.
I apologize for any inconvenience this might cause. Please let me know if there are any questions I can answer, or another way I can support your work going forward.” **
Creating boundaries is like using a new muscle. You need to work out to keep it strong. Getting clear on your boundaries and practicing speaking your true feelings gracefully are essential tools that will serve you a lifetime.
For a deep dive into all things boundaries, I highly recommend to check out Terri Cole’s work blog, podcast and youtube channel. She has lots of juicy content about boundaries. If you found this information helpful, hit like and share it with your friends. Boundaries are the governing of our own behavior and by being transparent with your own boundaries, you have given permission to others to be clear with theirs.