Ask Megan: How to set boundaries and stick to them
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I am having trouble setting boundaries for myself at work (and at home actually). Can you please provide some guidance around how I should view them and implement them?
Christine, Operations Manager, Retail
I get asked this question so often. We may understand what boundaries are on a cognitive level, but knowing where they should be and how to keep them there can be another ball game entirely.
The reality is that knowing your boundaries is a key part of respecting yourself, being able to state your needs, and letting people know what will and won't work for you. For our bosses, it helps to set expectations, so it's clear what you are and are not prepared to do. In our relationships, it helps to clarify what we need and what is and isn't acceptable. And for ourselves, it is critical so that we have parameters around our work, social and personal lives, so we can manage our careers, our families and our health and wellbeing.
When you don't establish and respect your boundaries, you are essentially saying that other people's needs are more important than your own. That may not be your intention, and you may not even believe that. But when you say "yes" when you know you should be saying "no", this is the outcome. And the more you do it, the more you let those boundaries slip, the less your needs will be met. Sometimes this is necessary, when it's a need from your child, or an urgent, one-off requirement from your boss. But when these things become the norm instead of the exception, then you have a problem.
Setting your boundaries
The first step is to understand what your boundaries should look like. You know you need them, so this is great as so many women don't. This is all about what your needs are, and not at all about pleasing everyone else. Let me repeat. This is about what you need. It's about what will make your work life or home life (or both) more effective, enjoyable and manageable.
Now many women I know find this really hard. And I have, too, in the past. We're used to servicing everyone else's needs before our own, and when we look at this differently it can be quite confronting. That's okay. It's a process that can take time.
Try starting by identifying the areas where you need some boundaries most. Think about things like the time you leave the office each day or on certain days of the week. Or about the boundaries you need to set in your relationship about domestic work at home (we could write a whole book on this one); or the boundaries you need to place about looking after your health. I find that these are three of the primary areas many women most need to focus on.
Sharing your boundaries
Once you've identified what boundaries you want to set for yourself, effectively communicating with the key people they impact is critical. You can get into trouble really fast, if you've decided to leave the office at 4pm twice a week, but haven't communicated this with your boss. Not a good strategy. So identify what your boundaries are, set them, and discuss and communicate with people who are impacted, so you can clearly articulate what you are doing, why, and what support you need from those in your life. You'll find the process so much easier when you do this. And the change will have a much greater chance of sticking.
Managing your boundaries
Now comes the potentially challenging part. It's one thing to work out what boundaries you want to set, and another to tell people – but it's a whole other story to manage and enforce them, when the rubber hits the road. And the cold hard truth of it is that you are the only one who can manage them.
The hardest part about all of this is keeping your boundaries in place when you're in the thick of it, and people are crossing them, pushing back on them, or just flat out ignoring them. Now, as we know, we live in the real world. From time to time, you may need to make an allowance and one of your boundaries may slip a little. And that's okay occasionally. But here's the thing. If you continually let this happen, your boundary turns into a blurred dotted line, and eventually it can become all too easy to just give up altogether. Boundaries need to be kept in check. You are the only one who can do it, and you are worth the effort.