Boundaries are guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify for themselves what are reasonable, psychologically safe and permissible ways for other people to behave around them and how they will respond when someone steps outside those limits.
Setting healthy boundaries in the workplace is essential to protect and take good care of you, the other person and the health and wellbeing of the relationship between you so that you can both thrive and grow, feel a sense of belonging and trust, and continue to flow and engage. While setting boundaries for yourself is crucial, it is even more crucial to respect the boundaries that others have set for themselves, without judging or questioning them.
Healthy balanced boundaries at work make the difference between a healthy, happy culture and a toxic, dysfunctional one. Unhealthy boundaries cause emotional pain that can lead to dependency, depression, disengagement, anxiety and even stress-induced physical illness.
The solidity of boundaries
These are solid and do not allow space for overstepping. If you set a rigid boundary, you will find you tend to be inflexible. You will not seek help, and may even be confrontational or aggressive if people try to approach your boundary in any way. Anyone who tries to push or challenge it will be met with a very clear and loud, “NO”.
These are easy to move across and flexible. Even though the boundary is detectable, it is easy to abuse and ignore it. Porous boundaries allow big room for pushing it over without even the need for a discussion.
These are boundaries that are respected and clearly in place yet allow room for flexibility. Balanced boundaries create a calm sense of trust and psychological safety in relationships.
The solidity of the boundary you set depends on many factors including how safe you feel with the person you are setting the boundary with, your needs, the setting and what is best for the relationship. Boundaries often need to be revisited if relationships are to flourish. To challenge the solidity of boundaries or renegotiate them in a healthy manner requires a combination of empathy, courage, curiosity, agility, clarity, respect and direct positive communication, all essential core coaching competencies according to the International Coaching Federation (ICF).
Types of boundaries
Here are some of the important boundary types:
Physical boundaries include your body, sense of personal space and privacy. They include what clothing you wear, appropriate body language, acceptable physical touch, eye contact, and physical distancing. They also include rules for privacy such as looking through others’ personal files and emails or desk without permission, entering someone’s office without knocking, showing up unannounced.
Emotional boundaries protect your sense of self-esteem and self-worth, including the ability to separate your feelings from others. Emotional boundaries are violated when others trigger, ignore, dismiss, belittle or invade your feelings and emotional needs. This includes a lack of empathy, stonewalling, emotional or verbal abuse and emotional blackmailing. It sometimes shows up as allowing someone’s mood to dictate your level of emotions and reactions.
Intellectual boundaries help us to protect creative and innovative thoughts and ideas, so they are not attributed to others, or used by others without appropriate mention of the originator. They include intellectual property rights. Sacrificing your plans, dreams, visions and goals in order to please others are also intellectual boundaries.
Time boundaries preserve one of the most precious and finite of our resources. At work, time boundary issues include co-workers or employees who demand your time in unreasonable ways, being asked to be available at all hours or on vacation, being asked to do tasks that could easily be completed by someone else, not knowing how to say, “No,” to tasks you are unable to take on, and being asked to attend meetings or events where your time is used ineffectively.
Energy boundaries involve your reflection time, relaxation time and activities that help reduce your stress, increase your focus and your wellbeing. These boundaries are violated when others are high maintenance or do or say things that rob you of this energy. Examples include disrespecting your needs, invading your privacy, creating turmoil and making unreasonable demands.
Freedom and autonomy boundaries include your right to make your own choices and have the space to innovate, create, experiment and share your ideas, being able to take your own decisions and be accountable for them, and to be the person you want to be.
Material boundaries include money and possessions. They involve setting limits on what you will share, and with whom, and the freedom to spend money as you see appropriate. Material boundaries are violated when someone steals or damages another person’s possessions or when they pressure them to give or lend them those possessions. They are also violated if you feel you have less financial autonomy than you would like, or you are unable to make reasonable decisions due to material insecurity.
Language boundaries include how people are allowed to address you, how formal or informal they are allowed to speak in your presence, the language they are allowed to use with you, the tone of voice you accept, whether you allow them to raise their voice in argument, the level of profanity you allow, and more.
Responsibility boundaries include what you are held accountable for, what is expected of you, how much load and responsibility you carry, to which extent you allow people to take advantage of your sense of responsibility and feeling of duty towards others, and the level to which you are penalized for mistakes and errors
Reaction boundaries are internal boundaries about picking your battles where you consciously decide at any given moment about your internal reaction and its external manifestation. You regulate what you will absorb and be triggered by and respond to versus what you will let slide or ignore while turning a blind eye and being silent.
Barriers to boundary setting
The concept of healthy, clear boundaries seems simplistic and almost counter-intuitive. Why then is it so difficult? Here are some of the common reasons for the pitfalls we fall into:
- Being unclear ourselves about what boundaries are healthy for us;
- Not having a clear conversation around designing boundaries at the beginning of the relationship;
- Not recognizing a boundary unclarity issue for what it is when it occurs;
- Fear of rejection and, ultimately, abandonment;
- Fear of confrontation;
- Guilt and fear of isolation; and
- Safety and security concerns.
Tips for setting healthy boundaries
- When you identify the need to set a boundary, do it clearly, calmly, firmly, respectfully and in as few words as possible. Do not justify, get angry or apologize for the boundary you are setting.
- You are not responsible for the other person’s reaction to the boundary you are setting. You are only responsible for communicating your boundary in a respectful manner. If it upsets them, know it is their problem. Some people, especially those accustomed to controlling, abusing or manipulating you, might test you. Plan on it, expect it, but remain firm. Remember, your behavior must match the boundaries you are setting. You cannot successfully establish a clear boundary if you send mixed messages by apologizing.
- Every time a boundary is crossed, remind the individual of your boundary and ask for his/her help in maintaining that boundary.
- At first, you will probably feel selfish, guilty, or embarrassed when you set a boundary. Do it anyway and remind yourself you have a right to self-care. Setting boundaries takes practice and determination. Don’t let anxiety, fear or guilt prevent you from taking care of yourself.
- When you often feel anger or resentment or find yourself whining or complaining, you probably need to set a boundary. Listen to yourself, determine what you need to do or say, then communicate assertively.
- Learning to set healthy boundaries takes time. It is a process. Set them in your own time frame, not when someone else tells you to.
- Identify ways to position yourself in a time and space that minimizes the opportunity for your boundaries to be crossed.
Now coach yourself
Reflect on your boundaries in a certain relationship that you want to see improve.
- What are your boundaries like now?
- What do you see? How do you feel?
- Visualize what it would be like if you had more healthy and comfortable boundaries.
- What would be different? Who would you be in that relationship then? What would you bring?
- What is one step you can do to improve your boundaries?
- How do you think the other person will respond to those changes?
- What are you willing to do for this to work?
- How will you hold yourself accountable to the boundaries you set?
While boundary improvement and boundary maintenance take courage and effort, they can and do bring a sense of well-being, productivity and better workplace relationships.
Partnering with a professional coach in a thought-provoking way, as an individual or as a team, can also help unlock a lot of boundaries to reach new heights and ensure more psychological safety in your workplace.
Discover some great true stories of profound change through coaching at https://experiencecoaching.com/
Rania Abu Rabia is an international leadership and coach development facilitator and an executive leadership coach. She is an ICF Master Certified Coach (MCC) and a CPTD (ATD), with a diverse multi-cultural background in executive leadership, business, coaching and positive psychology. Rania draws on the latest ﬁndings in behavioral sciences blended with her own hard-won wisdom to get to the heart of, and speak about, what really holds people back from enjoying more success in their work, and greater fulﬁllment in their lives.
At the core of Rania’s work is enabling change agents and organizations to overcome the #1 barrier to vulnerability and growth – the fear that hinders crucial conversations, stiﬂes innovation, undermines collaboration and breeds a deﬁcit of trust. She challenges herself and other leaders to embrace the adventures of life and dare to make a difference!
Rania has over 25 years of executive experience, having worked in senior leadership positions in multinational organizations in Canada, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt before becoming a full-time facilitator, coach and speaker for the past 12 years. She is also the president of the ICF Egypt Chapter.
About the ICF:
In 2020, the International Coaching Federation (ICF) celebrates 25 years as the global organisation for coaches and coaching. ICF is dedicated to advancing the coaching profession by setting high ethical standards, providing independent certification and building a worldwide network of credentialed coaches across a variety of coaching disciplines. Its 37 000-plus members located in 146 countries and territories work toward the common goal of enhancing awareness of coaching, upholding the integrity of the profession, and continually educating themselves with the newest research and practices.
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