“It felt like I had no choice.” These words were spoken by a successful corporate executive who managed million-dollar high-tech projects, and pioneered new ways of communicating within her organization and for her clients.
She was describing what can happen when we don’t have good boundaries.
“I resented feeling like I had to say ‘yes’ to every request, no matter what,” she continued, “I watched colleagues heading out to lunch, going home at a reasonable hour, while feeling like I had to make the client happy at any cost.”
You might think this was an expectation within her corporate culture. It wasn’t. As she came to realize, it was a question of her own boundaries — or lack thereof.
As this executive studied people who received the respect and consideration she longed for, she asked, “what do they have that I don’t?” The answer finally came to her: they respected themselves first…and, they set good boundaries.
Let’s pause for a moment to explain what we mean by boundaries. According to best-selling author and productivity coach, Valorie Burton, a good way to get the concept of “boundaries” is to think about owning a house. Your property has a specific boundary around it. Everything inside the boundary is your responsibility, and what’s outside is not. “When we begin to blur those lines,” Burton says, “we find ourselves in situations that become very frustrating.”
In the case of our executive, she was so busy trying to please others and prove her dedication to the cause, she would willingly take on tasks and timelines that went beyond what was required for the position. The executive eventually discovered the boundaries she’d blurred, and she made changes. “Now my colleagues and clients respect my time, ” she explains. “They know I’m available in an emergency–but they also know how to define ’emergency’. I’ve also stopped being the office therapist. I take time for people who truly need my help, but I no longer indulge those who just want to come in and complain.”
Here are her 3 tips for discovering the power of your boundaries:
1) Know yourself. We all have boundaries. Resentment, frustration, and stress are clear signs that yours might be being crossed. Knowing yourself means knowing how to interpret the signs.
2) Take responsibility. “I kept wishing other people would change so I didn’t have to,” she says, ”I kept waiting for them to stop bombarding me with what felt like unreasonable requests. It wasn’t until I realized they were doing it because I was letting them, that everything started to change.” Remember, we really do teach others how we want to be treated.
3) Allow flexibility. Having strong boundaries includes being clear about what each situation actually requires. Don’t say “yes” just for the sake of being agreeable–but don’t say “no” just for the sake of maintaining brick-wall boundaries. When you’re clear about what’s right and real for you, flexibility comes naturally and you don’t have to worry about being taken advantage of.
Establishing boundaries can feel risky at first. But as our executive points out, “If you look at the truly successful people in the world, they have clear boundaries. They know it’s not selfish to be true to yourself.”
Recommended Training Resource: Studies documented in multiple sources, including Harvard Business Review and CFO Daily News, show that a stressed-out employee costs 40% more than an unstressed worker. One of the primary causes of stress, as we’ve all experienced, comes from the people we work with..and our own wobbly boundaries. Based on the bestselling book, our video and training program Working With You is Killing Me outlines how to “unhook” from difficult situations in four different ways.