Let’s get one thing straight about setting boundaries. Boundaries are not selfish. Boundaries are self-CARE.
Selfish is getting stranded on a desert island with a group of people and eating all the food. Selfish is sailing off into the sunset in a 4-man lifeboat and watching our friends drown. We’re being selfish when we’re concerned exclusively with our own advantage, regardless of anyone else’s.
Self-care is different. Self-care means being clear about what is ok and what isn’t ok. What we will and what we won’t accept. We put boundaries in place to protect ourselves, our health and our psychological well-being. Because unless we take care of ourselves first, how can we possibly take care of anyone else?
The problem is, people get confused between selfish and self-care. They believe setting boundaries is selfish and so they don’t set them. As parents, we’re completely comfortable setting boundaries with our children on what we will and won’t accept. However, we don’t seem to be able to do the same with our fellow grown up’s. We do things we don’t want to do because we don’t want to offend or appear selfish. We self-sacrifice, which ultimately leads to resentment.
Even when we’re brave enough to set a boundary, what is often missing is the reinforcement. If a boundary is to work, we must hold people to account on it and give feedback, otherwise the boundary is pointless. This comes up all too often in the workplace. Here’s a typical scenario.
I’m a team leader and I work in an open plan office. I’m constantly being interrupted with questions and it’s stopping me from getting on with what I need to do. Because they’re my team, I feel like I need to be there for them 100% of the time, otherwise they won’t be able to do their jobs properly, which ultimately reflects badly on me. So, because I can’t get my own work done, I live in self-sacrifice and I feel resentful.
I decide to put in a boundary. I tell my team “I also have a workload I need to manage and things that I need to achieve on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. When I’m constantly interrupted with questions, concerns and problems, it prevents me at times, from achieving what I need to achieve. My request (setting the boundary) is, that unless it is business critical, please save up your questions and concerns for when I have time to answer them. These times will be Monday morning 9-11am and Thursday afternoon, 2-4pm. Sometimes I may need to be flexible with those times if I have an important meeting or I’m on Holiday, but I will let you know in advance.”
The boundary is set. So far, so good. But, people have been used to things being a certain way, so they carry on doing what they’ve always done. The following week, say Wednesday morning, something happens and I have 2 or 3 people asking questions. Herein lies the litmus test. The critical juncture in which the success of the boundary hangs in the balance. In this instance, here on Wednesday morning, if I don’t reinforce the boundary, challenge and feedback, the boundary will become null and void.
So I might say “Is this business critical?” If the answer is “no,” then I might reply, “then I just want to remind you that I requested Mon 9-11am or Thurs 2-4pm as the time to ask any questions, unless they are business critical.” AND THEN I DO NOT ANSWER THE QUESTION. So, I’ve given them feedback that they’re challenging the boundary. I say that I’m not going to engage with the question now and that we’ll discuss it tomorrow afternoon in the allocated time between 2-4pm.
I can hear the wincing from here! It’s this part of boundary setting that’s the biggest challenge. I get it. Reinforcing the boundary can seem confrontational and a little selfish. But let’s stop that thought right there. If we’re changing a behaviour or way of working, very rarely does this happen overnight. The boundary needs constant reinforcement by reminding people and giving feedback, if it’s to work.
Putting boundaries in is a challenge. But holding ourselves to account on them is absolutely crucial to their success, otherwise there is absolutely no point in setting them in the first place. Remember, setting boundaries isn’t selfish, it’s self-care. So be brave. Set a boundary. Start small and then work up to a big one. Then reinforce it. We don’t have to be abrupt or confrontational, but do it we must. It’s the only way we can finally stop self-sacrificing and living in resentment and start doing the things that we really want to do.