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Creating a Happier Work Environment for You and Them

By Raquel Cadena, Community Administrator, Associa Mid-Atlantic, AAMC

Have you ever felt trapped in a situation where someone’s actions have negatively affected you, but you’ve felt powerless to change things? Sure, we all have. Do you sometimes find yourself accommodating someone else’s demands, putting their needs over your own, or struggling to put a stop to it? Saying no can be difficult, especially at work. Especially if your personality type drives you to want to please your employer, your co-workers, your partner, your family, or your friends. 

Setting boundaries in a polite but professional way can be difficult and taxing work. It requires a high degree of emotional strength, that increases exponentially depending on how important or meaningful the person or circumstance is to you. In order to have a better relationship with ourselves and with others, and to improve our own mental health, learning how to set appropriate boundaries is essential. 

So, what did you say boundaries are?
In “Set Boundaries, Find Peace,” Nedra Glover defines boundaries as, “the gateway for healthy relationships.” Boundaries are the personal rules and acceptable behaviors we define within a relationship that protect our emotional and mental stability. They help us act according to our values, and fulfill our need to feel safe, comfortable, and respected in our relationships.

Since boundaries are personal rules, they necessarily vary by person. It’s not another person’s responsibility to guess what our boundaries are. Nor is it their responsibility to ensure our rules are respected. It’s our responsibility to communicate our boundaries to others, and to be sure others respect them. To communicate our boundaries, we must be capable of respecting them ourselves first. People will treat you the way they see you treat yourself.

Are boundaries that important?
When we respect our own boundaries, we’re better able to maintain our emotional well-being and elevate our self-esteem. They help our relationship with others by creating an environment of respect and mutual consideration and empathy. Boundaries assist us in avoiding conflicts and misunderstandings. The resulting open communication established by having clear boundaries in our lives will result in better efficiency. Most importantly, boundaries can help you live an authentic life.

We tend to overestimate how much we can tolerate, especially high-functioning people or people-pleasers. Setting boundaries is a proactive way to practice self-care. Self–care goes beyond taking a spa day or a day spent in bed. Not having boundaries or allowing others to cross them leaves you feeling overwhelmed. Without boundaries, our lives might feel unbalanced. This can leave us feeling depleted, depressed, frustrated, and burnt-out. In turn, we may feel resentful towards others. Resentment impacts the way we drive our relationships and blocks us from being authentic and our best selves.

Signs that you need healthier boundaries:

  • Sleep is affected.
  • Avoidance of phone calls from people you know may ask for something.
  • Feeling overwhelmed.
  • Feeling resentful towards others that ask for your help.
  • You find yourself making comments about helping others and getting nothing in return.
  • You entertain fantasies about dropping everything and disappearing.
  • You have zero time for yourself.
  • You look for opportunities to escape from situations instead of dealing with them proactively.

Why it’s important to establish boundaries at work.
Work is where we spend much of our time. It’s natural to want that experience to be as pleasant as possible. Everyone would prefer to be happy while at work, rather than feeling miserable and anxious for the day to be over. Having poor limits, or not having them at all, will lead to burnout, decreasing our performance and our ability to bring positive results. Setting limits at work helps make clear your role(s) to others, what they can expect from you, and improves teamwork.

Having boundaries will help you navigate daily matters and relationships in a smooth way, without feeling mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted. Clear boundaries enhance productivity by helping employees stay focused on their own task without unnecessary distractions. Respecting boundaries cultivates a culture of mutual respect and trust. This reduces the likelihood of misunderstanding and helps to create a more harmonious workplace.

Why don’t we set boundaries if they are so needed?
Setting boundaries may be essential, but it’s also hard! It’s understandable why setting limits with our co-workers, supervisors, or clients can be a challenge. The main reasons we may struggle are:

  • Fear of looking mean or rude.
  • Wanting to be seen as a good “team player.”
  • Fear of not being likeable.
  • Fear of losing a relationship.

How do we set boundaries?
Now that you understand why establishing boundaries is so critical, what’s next? How do we set these vital boundaries? It’s important that you identify your values. What you are willing to accept – accept, not tolerate? What are your non-negotiables? Here is what you need to know to set boundaries at work in an effective manner:

  • Identify your limits. Identify what you are willing to accept and compromise on. This will help you to identify what exactly is causing you to feel overwhelmed.
  • Know what your responsibilities are, according to your position at work. This may mean that you need to ask the appropriate department to provide you with a job description, or to ask your supervisor to provide a clear rundown of the tasks of each employee.
  • Communicate clearly. Do not assume people will know what your boundaries and limits are. They won’t! You need to be direct and clear. Express what you are not willing to accept, according to your responsibilities. Repeat as many times as necessary.
  • Say no. You can be afraid to decline tasks or projects, but decline anyway, when the request exceeds your capacity or falls outside your responsibilities.
  • Prioritize. Focus on what is more important and urgent, and delegate or postpone less critical tasks when possible.
  • Time management. Set realistic deadlines and avoid overwhelming yourself. Take breaks. Do not underestimate the power of eating your lunch away from your desk. Even if it’s only 15- minutes, take the breaks you’re entitled to and ensure that they are yours. Breaks are a great way to disconnect your mind and recharge your batteries.
  • Stop working 12 hours a day. It may look as if you are getting so much done, but the only thing you are achieving by working overtime constantly is depriving yourself of sleep, having poor sleep, and minimizing the power of your immune system. Overwork will lead you to feeling exhausted during work, slow and miserable, and inevitably getting sick, forcing you to take days off unexpectedly. 
  • Stick to your boundaries. Consistently enforce your boundaries to ensure they are respected by others. People will try and continue trying to push your boundaries. Stick to your first answer.
  • Be vulnerable. Don’t take on something you’re unable to commit to completing. Communicate as soon as possible that you will have to decline the request. People may not like boundaries, but they like having someone commit to something and not deliver even less.
  • Respect others’ boundaries. Yes, it goes both ways! It is just as important to respect other people’s boundaries as it is to have them respect your limits.

It’s okay to say no. Yes, even to your boss.
Saying no to your boss can be dauting, but sometimes it’s necessary. If you are going to say no to your boss, be sure to do so respectfully and assertively.

  • Be honest and direct – clearly state your reasons for declining the request, whether due to workload, conflicting priorities, or personal boundaries.

  • Offer other alternatives – propose solutions or compromises that could meet their needs without overburdening you.

  • Express appreciation – acknowledge the opportunity and express gratitude for being considered even when you decline.

  • Maintain professionalism – avoid excuses and overly detailed explanations.

  • Follow-up – follow-up with your boss to ensure they understand your reasons and to address any concerns.

  • Focus on solutions – emphasize your commitment to finding solutions and meeting your responsibilities effectively.

Choosing discomfort over resentment.
Best selling author, professor, and social worker Brene Brown stresses the importance of choosing discomfort over resentment. She says, “my mantra reminds me that I’m making a choice that’s critical for my well-being – even if it’s not easy. Setting boundaries is not easy work at all, especially if you have not been great at setting them before. It’s important to understand that there’s no setting boundaries without guilt.

It is normal to feel guilt when we put a stop to people pleasing. It is better to feel discomfort for a moment than feeling resentful later. Our body tells us when something is not okay. We feel fearful of the consequences of saying no, but it’s important to push through that discomfort to avoid feeling angry towards the world and ourselves.

Boundaries are essential to keep harmony at work, defining rolls, and avoiding unbalance. Learning to be assertive when communicating limits teaches others to respect you. A lack of understanding boundaries brings unhealthy habits and resentment towards others and yourself. Healthy boundaries are an indicator of how you allow others to show up for you and how you show up for others. Setting boundaries is not selfish – it’s essential for maintaining your health, happiness, and productivity.