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Why setting boundaries at work isn’t just about other people.
When you hear about a problem at work, what is your initial response?
- “I need to help fix that”
- “Sounds like a problem for someone else”
- Ignore it all together
Most successful people will have some variation of the first response. Solving problems is how you create value and build your reputation. That has always been my instinct and it has served me well in my career.
Jumping in to solve every problem is also a sign of not setting boundaries at work.
I first realized this one time when I was working on a frustrating project. As I was spending hours and hours on trying to fix something I angrily asked myself, “Why is this my problem?”.
In pausing for a moment to answer my own question, it hit me. I knew exactly why this was my problem. And as much as I wanted to blame my manager or co-workers, I had to face the truth.
It was my problem because I had essentially asked for it to be my problem!
You see when the issue was first raised, I had joined the discussion along with several colleagues. But rather than stopping there, because I had that initial thought of “I need to help fix this”, without even realizing it, I had agreed to take the next steps in working on it.
People are always going to ask things of you at work. It can be awkward to say no and feel like you are letting other people down. But often setting boundaries at work is less of an issue with saying no to other people, and more of an issue with saying no to our own thoughts.
Below are some of the most common thoughts that stop us from setting boundaries at work and how to shift them:
“I need to help fix that”
It’s lovely to want to help solve problems. But the overwhelming need to carry responsibility for and solve all problems leads you down paths that don’t always serve your actual goals. If you have this instinct, pause for a moment, and ask yourself, “Is this my problem to solve?”. Even if you have the knowledge and skills to solve it, is it possible that there is someone else who is more suited for it? And by putting time into solving it, what other more important problems are you not focusing on?
As you ask yourself these questions, a helpful replacement thought is “I’d like to be helpful on this issue, but it doesn’t make sense for me to take full ownership of it at this time”. Once you’ve convinced yourself of this, it will be much easier to graciously convince others as well.
“I don’t want to be out of the loop”
Getting left out of information loops can be a scary prospect and in order to avoid it, we often get involved in things that we aren’t really actively contributing to. In this situation, ask yourself, “Is that fear is really grounded in reality? Do I really need to know everything that is happening?”
If you don’t really need to be informed about every part of a process, replace this thought with: “I trust my team/colleagues to share information with me as needed”. From there, you can graciously bow out and focus your attention in other areas.
“Everyone is going to think I’m….”
Often times we fail to set boundaries because of what we are afraid other people will think. We want to be seen as cooperative, helpful, and capable. If you say no to a project or event, you might feel afraid of letting other people down. The reality is that you might let someone down and they might be frustrated with you, but it’s unlikely that that will 100% skew someone’s opinion of you. Most people will move on to find someone else to help them and not spend much more time thinking about you.
If you feel yourself saying yes to something because you are afraid of what other people will think if you say no, replace this thought with: “It’s possible some people will be disappointed that I can’t do X project, but I know that I am creating more value by spending my time on Y project”.
“This could be my only chance to….”
When interesting opportunities come up, it can be hard to say no because you are afraid of missing out on something. Even if you have other plans and priorities, you might find yourself saying yes because you don’t want to lose the chance that has been offered to you. But because time is inherently limited, you are losing out on something else by saying yes. Sometimes this might be worth it, but you want to make sure you are making that decision intentionally, not just out of fear of missing out.
When you start to feel that sense of panic that you might be missing out on something, replace this thought with: “This is a special opportunity, but it is possible that something else will come up that is a better fit for me”.
“If I was smart/capable/dedicated/insert word here enough I would be able to do more”
This is where we beat ourselves up into thinking we can do it all, take on too much, and then end up not being able to do great work on anything. Here’s the truth: no matter how smart, how productive, how capable you are – you can’t do it all. That’s just a fact. There will be trade-offs in life, and when you realize that this is a truth and not a reflection of your abilities, you can confidently evaluate what you do and don’t have time to do.
If you are struggling to say no and start to think this thought, replace it with: “There are only so many hours in a day and it is normal to have to say no to some things. Doing it all is an illusion”.
Setting boundaries at work often seems like an issue involving other people. But before you start having difficult conversations with others, make sure to look at your own thinking and start setting boundaries with yourself. Starting with yourself will give you the confidence and clarity to clearly articulate your boundaries to others at work as well, so you no longer find yourself stuck asking “Why is this my problem?”.
Further Recommended Reading:
Want to learn more about understanding and change your thoughts? –>Read this Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Primer
Want to learn more about how to love your job? –>Love the Job You Hate to Get the Job You Want