We do a really good job protecting our things: We lock our homes. We lock our cars. We put up gates to safeguard what matters to us. But while we are great at setting physical boundaries, we’re often much worse at setting boundaries that protect our physical and emotional health.
And yet these boundaries are crucial: They give you the time and space to take care of yourself. What’s more, upholding your boundaries sets the tone of what you allow and expect from others.
There are certain boundaries in my life that I am very good about keeping. I habitually protect time and space for exercise and sleep — it’s a core part of who I am and how I live my life. For me, these are non-negotiable. And if I let those boundaries down, I know that over a period of time I’ll feel exhausted and I won’t show up as the person I want to be.
Of course, there are other boundaries that I’m not good at preserving — determining and sticking to your boundaries is a work in progress for everyone. But these are some of the best ways I’ve found to get to know your boundaries, enforce them, and get others to respect them as well.
Find your line in the sand. Not sure what your boundary is? You’ll know it when someone unknowingly says something or makes an ask of you that raises an internal flag and makes you uncomfortable. It may make you think, “That’s not who I am,” or, “That doesn’t feel right.” That feeling is a big red flag — a boundary is being pushed. The next step is up to you: Will you allow it to be pushed?
Sometimes it’s good to push boundaries — like learning to swim after being afraid of the water for most of your life, for example. It may lead to adventure, or personal or professional success. On the other hand, if you find yourself regularly negotiating away your personal guardrails, take inventory and assess how it feels. If it’s stressing you out, or pushing you to compromise in ways that feel counter to who you are, stop.
Bend, but don’t break. Life doesn’t always go according to plan. When something pushes against your boundaries, consider how you can be flexible, but avoid compromising where it really counts. For example, if you usually exercise in the morning, but you work for a global organization and have early conference calls, consider another time you can carve out of your schedule without ditching your workouts altogether.
Even with my own non-negotiable boundaries, I’ve found easy ways to flex as needed. I prefer to go to bed between 9:30 and 10 p.m., but sometimes I choose to blow that up to hang out with friends. Of course, if we constantly allow ourselves to ignore the boundaries we’ve set, it’s a problem. And letting others’ priorities consistently take precedence over our own can also take a toll. It’s important to respect our own boundaries (as much as we can) so we set the same example for others.
Ask for what you need. You’re entitled to set boundaries, but getting others to respect them starts with you. If you don’t talk honestly about your priorities, people won’t know what they are.
Be vocal about your boundaries in the early stages of any relationship. For example, if you know you need to leave work a little early on Tuesdays for an important appointment, clarify that need with your team at the start. Explain that it’s an important boundary in your life, and that you’d like their help in sticking to it. This is another spot where flexibility comes in: Maybe you can make yourself available early on Tuesday mornings to ensure that your team has access to you when they need it.
Suggest solutions. Not long ago, I was asked to speak at a very cool event. I really wanted to do it, but it was on a Friday morning during a week I was already traveling to three other cities. To get there on time, I’d need to land well after midnight the night before, then be on stage at 8:30 the next morning. So I was honest with the person who invited me. I said, “Can I make it work? Yes. But will I show up at my best? No. Can I help you find another speaker instead?” I was willing to do anything else I could to help, so that I didn’t overrun my boundaries and give the audience anything less than my best.
You can apply this idea to the workplace, too. If someone asks you to help on a project, or do something that pushes against your boundary, weigh the benefits. If the people or the project or the mission is important, then have a real conversation with the person. Maybe you can contribute in a different way, or at a different time, than what was asked — or just by opening up a conversation, you may be able to work with them to adjust the request so it’s doable for you.
Of course, if you’re working in an environment where you feel threatened or afraid to uphold your non-negotiable boundaries, think about whether this is the right workplace for you. If your boundaries are being frequently overrun, it will affect your mental and physical well-being.
Share your goals. It’s important to talk about your boundaries and your well-being goals. Sharing those with others — in your personal and professional life — lets them know what matters to you as a person. And as a leader, being open and authentic creates a culture that gives others permission to do the same. It makes everyone feel that what matters to each of you matters to everyone else, even when your priority might be your kids, and another person’s might be their knitting group. With this mutual respect in place, people will show up to work and not feel resentment toward someone with different boundaries and priorities. Of course, some boundaries are private — and in that case, there is no pressure to share it so openly. But it’s good to remember that wanting to support someone else is human nature. If you know a person and like working with them and want them to be happy, you want to let them get home to marathon train, to have dinner with their kids, or to make it to book club. And then in turn, they support you. Speaking up about your boundaries and priorities empowers others on your team to set and stick with their own boundaries, better manage their well-being, and take control of their lives.