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Ask a counsellor: How can people pleasers start setting boundaries at work?

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Table of Contents

We’ve all heard about the crucial role of setting boundaries at work—learning to say no to extra tasks, establishing limits on the number of meetings we can handle in a day, and maintaining a professional distance with our colleagues. However, it’s incredibly easy to fall into the people-pleasing trap. For many of us, cultivating the assertiveness needed to uphold these boundaries is not an overnight accomplishment.

In this article, we delve into the significance of setting boundaries at work, the obstacles that prevent us from maintaining them, and most importantly, ways to protect our personal peace and reclaim your autonomy.

What exactly are boundaries?

Think of boundaries as essential safeguards for your mental and physical well-being. They act as a compass, clearly defining what behaviours or actions from others you find acceptable and those you don’t.

These boundaries are shaped by various factors, such as parental upbringing, cultural influences, social and community norms, and your own personal preferences that evolve over time. For example, you may not be comfortable with hugs, while your colleague might be more affectionate. This contrast can create tension, emphasising the importance of respecting individual boundaries in the workplace.

But first, let’s look at the five types of boundaries you can control.

Five types of boundaries

1. Physical

Physical boundaries encompass your body and personal space. In the workplace, these boundaries manifest through various aspects, such as physical interactions like choosing between a warm hug or a professional handshake, your presence in the workplace and after-work events, and even the level of communication you engage in with others.

For instance, if you have a colleague who frequently drops by your desk for casual chats and places his hand on your shoulder while at it, it could be considered a breach of your personal space and boundaries. Similarly, being pressured to forgo a necessary sick leave just to physically be present in the office is another example of crossing personal boundaries.

2. Intellectual

Intellectual boundaries revolve around your thoughts, opinions, and values. When presenting a new idea at work, it’s crucial to feel safe in an environment where others respect your perspective without fear of judgement. Additionally, maintaining your privacy is important, establishing a clear line on what you choose to reveal about yourself and your personal life.

This boundary can be violated if, for instance, someone at work inquires about your relationship status or income, or if a colleague constantly over shares or unloads their emotions onto you. Balancing a 9-to-5 job can be mentally draining, so the last thing you need is another aspect that burdens your mind.

3. Time

Time boundaries revolve around how you allocate and manage your time. If you’ve committed to working 40 hours a week, it’s valid to switch off and unwind once the clock strikes six on a Friday. Setting time boundaries may look like carving out private moments for focused deep work. A breach of time boundaries can be as simple as someone approaching your desk unexpectedly, especially when you’re wearing headphones, and chatting you up for longer than you’d like.

4. Material

Material boundaries encompass your finances, possessions, and agreements with others. For example, when someone borrows your office equipment, you have the right to determine your comfort level in sharing your possessions, whether it’s limited to office-sanctioned equipment or extends to your personal belongings. For instance, if your company expects you to use your personal car to transport a team for a shoot, it raises questions about crossing the boundary of personal possessions.

5. Relationship

Relationship boundaries encompass the emotional, intellectual, and physical aspects of human connection, including sexuality. In the workplace, these boundaries pertain to your expectations regarding interactions with bosses, coworkers, and colleagues. It’s perfectly acceptable for colleagues to become friends, but you may feel uneasy if your boss becomes excessively chummy.

Relationship boundaries also extend to communication dynamics, such as how you and others deliver criticism. If criticism lacks constructive intent or is delivered with emotional outbursts, it may cross a boundary and cause discomfort.

A guide to setting boundaries at work

Now that you know what boundaries are, here’s how you can understand what yours are and how you can uphold them.

1. Know your boundaries

What do your boundaries look like? What actions and behaviours do you find acceptable when it comes to the five types of boundaries? Are you open to receiving hugs from your officemates, or do you reserve that physical privilege for friends and family?

Take the time to define what is agreeable to you for each of the five boundaries. Remember to periodically check in with yourself to ensure these boundaries still hold true because, just like life itself, boundaries evolve. You may not think twice about working overtime at the beginning of your career, but that perspective can change once you start a family.

2. Explore different ways to say “no”

This is the tricky part — actually upholding the boundaries you’ve set. Not everyone acts assertively on their boundaries. Some of us even give others some leeway to overstep them because saying “no” is equally uncomfortable. If this sounds like you, you’re not alone. Here are some ways to get your message across without explicitly saying “no”:

  • “I won’t be able to make it; I have another commitment.”
  • “Thank you, I’m not able to take that on right now.”
  • “I don’t feel comfortable discussing this topic with you.”
  • “I appreciate you asking for my help, but my schedule is already full this week.”
  • “Please don’t go through my stuff, there are things that are private in there.”

As a rule of thumb, communicate with utmost clarity and leave no room for ambiguity or doubt. And, if you’re put in a spot by a question you don’t feel comfortable answering, you can respond with:

  • “I don’t really feel comfortable talking about that right now.”
  • “That doesn’t feel like something I want to discuss today.”

3. Take an “I” position

Now, not everyone takes “no” for an answer easily, but there are clever ways to increase their openness to respecting your boundaries. One tried and tested method is harnessing the power of “I” statements instead of “you” statements.

Instead of saying, “You always interrupt me with small talk when I’m in the zone, and I don’t like that,” try something like, “I find it challenging to focus on deep work when engaged in small talk.”

Starting a sentence with “you” can inadvertently put the other person on the defensive, as if they are to blame for your discomfort. However, by using “I” statements, we shift the focus to expressing our own preferences and needs.

It’s essential for us to clearly communicate our boundaries by confidently saying “no,” which helps others understand how to interact with us in the future. Remember, starting a sentence with “I” empowers us to share our feelings and thoughts without coming across as critical or accusatory.

Let’s resist the temptation to construct “I feel like you…” statements, as they can still evoke a similar response to “you” sentences. Instead, let’s concentrate on sharing our personal experiences and perspectives, fostering understanding without pointing fingers or assigning blame.

Ultimately, communication takes practice. Remember to use confident body language, plan ahead, be respectful, and learn to compromise, too, when necessary.

4. Listen and reciprocate

Healthy boundaries requires the mutual commitment of two individuals who are willing to listen, understand, and adapt their behaviours for a positive outcome. Here’s how you can actively contribute to this process:

i) Listen and seek to understand: You may be most productive in the evening while your colleague compartmentalises work to ensure a good night’s sleep. In this scenario, sending him work-related updates before his bedtime may strain your relationship.

ii) Acknowledge your feelings: It’s normal to experience emotions such as embarrassment when being “called out” and guilt for potentially putting someone in an uncomfortable spot. However, being aware of these emotions can help you respond constructively and avoid dismissing their needs.

iii) Ask for time to process the conversation: If you need time and space to reflect on what they’ve shared, kindly express this to the other person. Taking a moment to gather your thoughts demonstrates your commitment to understanding and finding common ground.

ii) Decide how you will take action: Consider adjusting your behaviours, making compromises, or finding alternative solutions that respect both parties’ needs. In this scenario, a possible solution could be exploring a communication platform that allows you to schedule messages for the following morning.

When boundaries get violated

Of course, setting boundaries does not guarantee that everyone will always respect them. There are various ways in which boundaries can be violated. Before determining your next course of action, it is important to consider the following:

  • Are your boundaries clear, consistent, and assertively communicated? Or do you unintentionally send mixed signals about what you are comfortable or uncomfortable with?
  • What is the nature of the relationship with the person who has violated your boundaries? Is there a significant power imbalance or closeness in the relationship that may affect the dynamics?
  • Is the other person genuinely receptive to your needs and willing to adjust their behaviour accordingly?
  • How long has this violation of your boundaries been occurring? Is it a recent incident or a recurring pattern over an extended period?
  • Has the other person displayed any violent or physically aggressive behaviour towards you? Have they made threats involving violence?

Even if not everyone respects them, it’s important to stay steadfast in maintaining clear and consistent boundaries that reflect your values. And if things start to heat up, you have every right to take action. Whether it means stepping back, cutting off contact, or reaching out to trusted allies, acting on a violation does not make you difficult. It makes you an advocate for your personal wellbeing.

How Intellect can help

In an office with low levels of psychological safety, employees must perform acrobatics just to get their voices heard. And in places where trust is practically nonexistent, employees might feel afraid to rock the boat by reaching out to HR even when boundaries are clearly trampled upon. It’s no wonder that sometimes throwing in the towel seems more appealing than speaking up.

This is where Intellect’s team of ICF-coaches, licensed counsellors, and psychotherapists step into the ring as neutral parties. They’re not caught up in the messy web of office politics, which means they can help you set and maintain boundaries to make your work life, or cope with feelings of overwhelm when these lines are crossed.

And guess what? We’ve got your downtime covered too. Our self-guided learning paths, like Assertiveness and Communicating Your Needs, use a CBT approach to help you navigate the tricky terrain of workplace relationships.

Learn more about how Intellect can support your workforce here.

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