Setting boundaries with co-workers can be tricky when your natural inclination may be to avoid ruffling any feathers. This month, we talked to Courtney Misener, director of programs and engagement at House of Hope in Cedar Rapids, about setting and maintaining boundaries at work.
House of Hope, a faith-based non-profit, offers a variety of housing services and classes, including a class on boundaries for individuals and work groups.
“Boundaries are like property lines around your home,” Misener said. “What’s within our realm of control are our own thoughts, behaviors, attitudes and responses. What’s outside the realm of our control are the thoughts, behaviors, attitudes and responses of others.” She asks class participants to picture holding hula-hoops around themselves to help them visualize this concept. “It all sounds elementary until you start trying to apply it and realize it’s hard,” she said.
Deciding what you’re going to tolerate — whether it involves not answering emails at night, not allowing someone to give you too many tasks or not absorbing someone else’s negative mood — is what having boundaries is all about. One reason people struggle to set boundaries is that, as Misener teaches, it involves changing your own thoughts and actions, not the other person’s.
“It’s more learning not to be reactive when someone uses a certain tone or learning to voice your concern when expectations are too high,” she said.
Acquiring this skill takes practice.
“It’s important to become a student of your own behavior,” Misener said. She says one way to do this is by analyzing what you’re chasing. If avoiding failure at all costs is what’s important to you, for example, consider whether you’re breaking your boundaries to avoid it.
“One way we can tell that we’re off is if we’re doing things we otherwise wouldn’t do in an effort to gain someone’s approval or to avoid losing it,” Misener said.
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One example of a boundary issue Misener brought up might sound familiar to anyone who’s worked in an office setting. “There’s always a fixer who’s trying to keep the peace in an office, and also, she’s dying inside. It’s because she’s taking on way more than she should,” Misener said. Instead, when someone else is stressed out, listen to the person and provide resources if you can, but don’t take it back to your desk. “It’s thinking, ‘This is where I end and you begin.’”
Misener stresses that you have to be aware that maintaining boundaries carries some risks, like the possibility of making people feel rejected if you refuse to absorb their stress or the possibility of professional repercussions if you voice concerns about an unreasonable deadline.
“You have to respect and understand the cost of your boundary,” Misener said. She feels it’s worth it; otherwise, the effects can leech into other parts of our lives. “Our physical bodies take a hit. Our families take a hit. The ones who pay for it are the people we love.”
Quotes on boundaries
“When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated.” Brené Brown
“Much of the time, the things we feel guilty about are not our issues. Another person behaves inappropriately or in some way violates our boundaries. We challenge the behavior, and the person gets angry and defensive. Then we feel guilty.” — Melody Beattie
“It is necessary, and even vital, to set standards for your life and the people you allow in it.” — Mandy Hale
Book about boundaries
Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend
Dealing with the CrazyMakers in Your Life: Setting Boundaries on Unhealthy Relationships by Dr. David Hawkins
Where to Draw the Line: How to Set Healthy Boundaries Every Day by Anne Katherine