Everyone is talking about boundaries, but very few have mastered this super skill that can keep you out of burnout, focused on your priorities, and increase your trust and respect at work and home.
The reason boundaries are so difficult to master is that they are really a set of multiple skills. Most people think about the part where you communicate a boundary to others. That’s just one aspect of having healthy boundaries.
The fact that boundaries are a set of complex skills, are not taught as part of our professional training, and rarely modeled by our mentors, means that it’s totally normal to be struggling to implement consistent healthy boundaries.
It’s the ability to implement many skills working together that makes healthy work boundaries an art. It’s a bit of a creative process to learn and execute on a regular basis.
While mastering boundaries requires learning an art form, it’s well worth the investment. It’s a life-long process but every bit of progress will reap major rewards.
Like anything that is truly life-changing, boundaries require an investment of your attention and intention. It’s best to break the process down into steps. I have identified six essential steps to becoming a master of boundaries for you to consider: self-awareness, vision, effectiveness, attunement, communication, and holding others accountable.
If you are just starting to think about boundaries, you’ll want to build the first essential skill of self-awareness. Self-awareness is the skill that allows you to notice and reflect on what you need. You can’t implement effective boundaries until you have a strong sense of self and clarity on your particular needs.
The next skill is to have a vision of what you want for yourself, at work and in your personal life. This gives you yet another reinforcement of your boundary foundation. The boundaries you need depend on what you want and what you value.
No one else can create a vision for your life that’s right for you, only you can do that.
When you know what you value and what you need, your sense of what boundaries will assist you in creating the life you want starts to take shape.
When you have a vision of the life you want, the values you want to uphold, it’s time to get strategic. You need to focus on being effective. You want the bulk of your precious time, energy, and mental efforts to go towards the tasks and relationships that matter most to you. This is how you decide where your skills and interests can make the biggest impact.
Boundaries can help you direct your efforts to the areas where your skills and interests have a positive impact on the things you value most. Impact means NOT doing low skill, low interest, low visibility work that doesn’t matter much to you. This is how you become effective in living your values and achieving your vision.
The problem is that people will ask you to do work you don’t want to do. Some of it is likely your job to do anyway. The key is to minimize this type of work. That’s where boundaries become essential to maximize your effectiveness.
While the work of boundaries is your responsibility, boundaries aren’t just for you or even just about you. You’ll need attunement to others to have great boundaries.
Attunement is the ability to perceive others’ feelings and needs and to consider this as you make choices. Good attunement will lead to good discernment. People-pleasers tend to do what others want of them without this discernment. People who are attuned to others do what makes sense considering their own needs as well as others.
Being attuned means you can sense when someone is reciprocal or when someone is a taker. You suss out if someone is having a want or a true need. You consider others’ motivations as well as how strong your own needs play into the decision-making.
With this information, you can make decisions about boundaries that are self-honoring but also attuned to others, without the burden of people-pleasing.
It’s only after we can be self-aware, have a vision anchored in our values, understand how to be effective and impactful, and become attuned and discerning, that we can master boundary communication. If you know exactly why you are setting a boundary, the language usually comes quite easily.
In general, boundary communication should be short and matter-of-fact. You can briefly emphasize your intention (your why) and/or validate the other person’s needs. This sounds like:
“I know we really want this done today but I need to go now to make my fitness class. I will prioritize this first thing tomorrow.”
“I can see we really need a volunteer to make that happen, but I participated in that last year and have other things that require my focus right now.”
“I appreciate that you are asking me because I’m reliable. I am hoping to focus on my core work right now because it’s using my skills and it’s really impactful. I think it’s important that we expect everyone to be reliable and not over-utilize the same people.”
Holding Others Accountable
A thoughtful well-communicated boundary usually goes over well. But not everyone is graceful at accepting the boundary you communicate. Many will push back, especially if it’s a new thing and it’s not common in the work culture (which is a major red flag, by the way).
Maintaining your boundaries cannot be conditional. Asserting your boundaries means that you will need to also develop the skill of holding others accountable.
This often means slowing down, taking up space, and not backing down. The best thing you can do is to try to allow time and not immediately react to pushback. It can also look like naming that behavior, stating the impact of not honoring your boundary, and highlighting the feelings created by their response.
Patience with Yourself
Healthy boundaries are the end result of mastering many skills. You probably have some of these skills, but are still working on others. That’s totally normal. Wherever you are on this journey, rest assured you are going in a fruitful direction.
Hannah Curtis, LCSW is a burnout prevention expert who works with individuals and organizations to improve boundaries, increase confidence and self-worth, and transform work culture. She is the creator of Sustaining Work Wellness, a staff-retention/burnout prevention program for mission-driven, forward-thinking non-profits, healthcare organizations, schools, and small businesses. For more information, email Hannah at [email protected]