The Power + Relief That Comes from Setting Boundaries

Photo by Marek Studzinski on Unsplash

You have to stop setting yourself on fire trying to keep everyone else warm.


Last month I gave a workshop at UCLA where Lucy (names changed), one of the participants, shared that she’s frustrated with a co-worker who consistently criticizes her work while attempting to micro-manage her. Adding to the frustration is that the co-worker is a peer and not a supervisor. 

Lucy bottles up her annoyance and can’t leave those feelings at work. She doesn’t know what to do. 

We explored ways in which she could “retrain” the coworker by establishing boundaries. While Lucy was open to what I had to say, she ultimately admitted, “I don’t know if I can do this!”

A few days after that workshop I was doing an onsite with a client who brings me in once-a-year for a fine-tuning with her team. Ann, the department head, invited me to facilitate a four-hour session. 

It was a remarkable morning as these five people put aside phones and work to focus on each other – individually and as a team. 

With insight, humor and candor they examined the changes of the past year: where they are now as a group that has several new members, as well as what further improvements they could commit to making.

What quickly surfaced was the reality that as a group they’ve not been effective at Setting Boundaries. Saying NO does not come easy to this generous and competent group of women.

Because of the pressures on their time, it’s often easier to say, “I’ll do it” since they can get the “it” done fast and right. Because they’ve gotten into the reflexive habit of saying “I’ll do it” they’ve almost forgotten how to say “No.”

Their organization’s culture enjoys a glossy reputation to the outside world and its leaders are focused on keeping that prestige pristine. However, internal reality doesn’t match-up as those same leaders do not generate the needed appreciation for the work people do.

Within this culture they’ve become so good at what they do they’ve developed a mindset that they are responsible for saving people and events. 

And so, the conversation circled in on issues of respect – for self and others.

The group recognized that they can’t change people or systems or culture. 

So, what can they change?

Their own behavior and attitude.

I reminded them of the three core truths:

  • We train people how to treat us.
  • Old habits die hard. 
  • Change happens only when we are aware of how we trip ourselves up.

And then came the “Ah, ha!” moment.

During one of our breaks, Cathy received an email from Karen, executive assistant to the president, who asked if she’d arrange parking passes for client guests the president was going to meet with later in the day. 

Cathy pointed to that email as a perfect example of what contributed to her own and the team’s frustration. Why can’t Karen get the passes herself?!

Good question!

Of course, the answer is – why should she? 

In the past, whenever Karen has asked Cathy to do something she herself could do, Cathy has said “yes.” And in saying “yes” Cathy was training Karen to be helpless!

Cathy used the email as an opportunity to immediately practice setting boundaries. She created a short, polite response saying she wasn’t able to fulfill the request.

What happened next?

Life went on. 

Karen arranged for the passes and the guests were able to park.

Other examples quickly surfaced and the group was amazed at how easily they’ve allowed people to steal their time and snag them in drama that had little, if anything, to do with them.

They re-embraced the truth of the truth: 

Bottled-up frustration eventually leaks out in weird (if not explosive) ways. Readjust your attitude, take responsibility, address it, AND then it’s easier to let it stay at work.

But – there was the lingering echo of old mantras: “I can’t set boundaries” because. . .

“It’s not worth the trouble.”

“I don’t want to not care.”

 Of course, you CAN set boundaries – if you choose.

Is it really not worth the trouble?

Why is it not worth it? 

Why is being treated with respect not worth it? 

Why is your sanity not worth it?

I don’t think it’s about “not caring.” 

In the case of Ann and her team they do care. It’s about readjusting the look and feel of their care.

It’s about caring so much you’re not willing to be a doormat or do other people’s jobs for them.

It’s about caring to form a new understanding of “respect.”

How to say NO?

Have a coaching session with yourself and answer these questions:

1.         How do you normally respond when someone oversteps a boundary?

2.         How normally do you feel?

3.         How would you like to respond?

4.         How do you want to feel?

5.         What would you have to do to feel that way?

6.         Why are you reluctant to do what you need to feel that way?

7.         Is there something else you could say/do so as to get closer to your desired feeling?

In the weeks since that four-hour, eye-opening conversation, Ann has reported that the team has had opportunities to practice setting boundaries in ways they have not done previously.

In the process, they are not only retraining others how to treat them – they’re retraining themselves in how to treat their own selves.

now THAT’s the business of confidence!

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