“You need to set clear boundaries”

“How can I possibly get all this done?”

“This project is going to fail, I am going to fail. I am a failure.”

“I can’t do this, I am not good enough”


Does anyone else’s inner voice talk to you like this? Do you feel the energy leeching from your body and you seem to be fuddling with talks that normally are simple?


Overwhelm seems to be a workplace norm for many of us, I read recently ( that burnout is now classified as a diagnosable condition according to the World Health Organisation.   Regardless of your belief around preventing conditions through vaccination, there are very effective preventable steps you can take to manage and resist burnout.


Burnout can feel and appear very much like depression, where you experience a loss of control over your days and life, and you have little to no energy to move into the challenges.  Ultimately your performance drops and you are circling in this spiral of exhaustion.


How can you step off this roller-coaster?  Set clear boundaries.


Has anyone ever told you that this is what you need to do?  Set boundaries, and you stand there like “OK” whilst internally thinking “WTF does that mean?”  Me too.


So I made it my mission to understand what are boundaries and what it means to set clear boundaries.


Simply put, boundaries are understanding and communicating what is OK and what is NOT OK; including:


Physical Boundaries

Personal space and physical touch. What is/isn’t appropriate in a variety of settings and relationships (shake hands, hug, kiss on cheek or lips).  Also, what is important about your physical space – not only your bodily space, but maybe your bedroom, diary, facebook account email etc.


Thinking & Beliefs Boundaries

Have you ever had your thoughts or ideas summarily dismissed?  Intellectual boundaries are relating to respect of others opinions and acknowledging that we are all entitled to think differently.  Also, what do we choose to talk about or not? I have noticed that the anti-vaxxer conversation had become a great source of intellectual boundary breaches.


Emotional Boundaries

Your feelings.  What to share and how much? Healthy boundaries around your emotions are gauging what is appropriate to share, as well as, what is appropriate to ask.   Do you gradually share your story as the relationship develops or do your announce it straight away?  Emotional boundaries are violated when someone belittles or judges your feelings – ‘You shouldn’t feel like that.  Stop being so sensitive’.


Safety Boundaries

We all thrive in an environment in which we feel safe.  This means we are confident and comfortable in our connections and positions within an environment, we feel connected to another.  Our safety is breached when we are made to feel undervalued or victimised. Bullying and harassment are common behaviours which breach our safety boundary.


Time Boundaries

This is how you use or allow your time to be used. I think this is probably the highest casualty of boundary breaches, with many of us working long hours at the detriment to family time.  Healthy time boundaries are about setting aside time for the activities that matter: family, hobbies, study, reading, selfcare, exercise… etc.  Breaches are when one or more roles in our life take an extraordinary amount of time at the expense of other roles.


Sexual Boundaries

Are the emotional, physical and intellectual aspects of sexuality.  Healthy boundaries are a mutual understanding and agreement of limitations and desires between partners, as well as, what touch and talk is OK in other settings. Breaches include unwanted sexual touching, talking or pressure to engage in or witness sexual acts and commentary that is not OK.


Cultural Boundaries

In our diverse workplaces, it is important for us to let others know what is OK and NOT OK according to our familial culture, and what supports us to be engaged at work.


Well-Being and Mental Health Boundaries

“It takes courage to say yes to rest and play in a culture where exhaustion is seen as a status symbol” Brene Brown.   We are each responsible for our mental health and well-being; take the time to take care of you.  Let others know when you need support, understand that seeking help is courageous.


Material Boundaries

Our money and our possessions.  What do you share or give away and with whom?  I find the constant cold-calling asking for money or for me to change utility providers breaches this boundary for me. Being robbed or broken into breaches this boundary, and also a personal sense of safety.

If these are the types of boundaries we can all establish and live courageously with, how do we go about knowing what is OK or NOT OK for ourselves?


Here goes, ten tips I have come up with
(with the help of life experience and the wisdom of others)

Know What Matters to You.

How do you want to be as a human being?  What are you life guiding values?  Values are important to us all, they are not negotiable (no one can tell you that your particular value is wrong), they have no ‘rules’ (I should…; You have to…) once we place rules on values they become belief systems, morals, judgements. Values DO NOT judge.

Our values can clash too, if love and honesty are important values to you, how do you live both when you partner asks “Do I look fat in these jeans?”  Sometimes one value becomes more important than another.

We all live our values through our behaviour (what we say and what we do), and we judge others and their values through interpreting their behaviour through OUR values.   Hence why we get into conflict.

So, what matters to you?  What are your most important values? You can have a go at this exercise to understand values, if you wish.

Once you have an idea of your values, then consider these in the relation to the ‘roles’ you have in your life: parent, friend, employee, manager, dog owner, boss, artist, professional, daughter/son, partner… etc.  How do you want to livethese values in each of these roles?  How will these roles either support or challenge setting boundaries?  What do you need to consider when developing boundaries, e.g. Are these busy periods at work? Are there special days ahead? Is there someone you know who sets boundaries really well?


Know Your Limits.

What are your physical, emotional, mental, spiritual limits? When is ‘too much’.  You learn your limits through close and mindful attention to yourself, notice changes within your body and mind, as they occur. Reflect on what your body feels like when you are safe, and notice and note the changes when stress or fear, as well as joy and excitement come at you.

We learn about ourselves through mindfulness activities.  Mindfulness is about taking the time to listen within to what is happening within yourself.  I have found sitting comfortably and following a guided mindfulness exercise focussing on my body has elicited a tonne of surprising information.  Want to have a go, one of my favourite exercises can be found here.

One thing about our limits, it neither serves us nor supports us to compare our limits with someone else’s.  We are unique and every cell in our body is different to another person, so it is unreasonable to expect we all will have similar limits.

Also, some days you have broader limits than others, get to know your body, emotions, mind and spirit well enough that you can pick the days that you need extra care or tighter boundaries.


Give Yourself Permission to Set Boundaries.

The toughest barriers to setting our boundaries are the thoughts and feelings we get hooked up in when we consider saying “No” to someone else.

We all experience difficulties setting boundaries, mainly because of:

  • Fear of rejection and abandonment – ‘they wont like me anymore’
  • Fear of confrontation – ‘I don’t want to start an argument, I would rather keep the peace’
  • Guilt – ‘Who am I to say No? It’s not right and I am not being a good person if I say No’
  • Unrealistic expectations – ‘It is my job to keep everyone happy’
  • Unhelpful Thoughts – ‘I should be able to cope with this’
  • We have never been taught or seen someone successfully set boundaries
  • We fear for our safety if we say ‘No’. If you are dealing with someone who is physically dangerous or threatening to you, and it may not be safe to set explicit boundaries, then please seek professional support.

If you are caught up in any of the above, Notice these thoughts and feelings, Name them for what they are – normal reactions to change and learning new skills, and Neutralise them by reminding yourself what matters to you, your values, and how living these values for yourself first is how you can be more of the best of you, more often.  You have a right to boundaries, give yourself permission and work to preserve them.


Communicate Your Boundaries Clearly. 

Let people know what is OK and not OK. Put a message on your email, or sign on your door.  Tell others your intent for setting boundaries and what you believe to be the benefit for you, and for others.

Clearly establish what constitutes an ‘emergency’ whereby boundaries may be breached.

Ask others to consider and set their own boundaries.

In many of the ‘overwhelm’ conversations I have with people, the common thread is the lack of clear communication of boundaries.


Bring up a boundary violation straight away.

The most common response I see, when boundaries are violated, is people ruminating on it, sometimes for weeks or even years, and then ‘exploding’ unexpectedly over what may appear to be acceptable (never been stopped before) behaviour.

Raising a boundary breach immediately, or very close to the situation, assists in retaining the power and consistency of the boundary, and there is often less chance of a defensive reaction from the other person when you raise the expectation in the moment.

Gossip, or not being caught up in gossip, is one of the most useful and yet challenging boundaries that people need to set in the workplace.    If someone is gossiping, we often avoid saying anything to stay out of the drama, when saying nothing actually implicitly indicates agreement with the gossip.  My tip:  Tell the gossip politely and clearly that you do not wish to participate in the conversation, and move away.


Create Structure.

Having a structure, or agenda, for meetings or ‘drop-in’ conversations is one of the simplest ways to create boundaries to manage time.  An example of this, when someone drops into your office and says “Can I have a minute?” (It is rarely just a minute). You can respond with:  “Sure, but before you start, I literally only have 10 minutes to spare, is that enough time? And what would you like out of your 10 minutes with me?”  You have set a time boundary and an intent boundary.


Set boundaries at home.

When my kids were young I can remember thinking, “be patient, when they are teenagers you will be able to shower and toilet in peace”.  This stuff doesn’t happen unless you set boundaries, all they do is stand outside the bathroom and talk to you instead!

How can you set the boundaries for your own personal time?  What about at dinner – mobile phones or not?  And who’s chair is whose?  When will you have ‘off-line’ times at home? Who does the dishes? Washing? Floors?  You get what I mean.


Focus on concrete, observable, explanations for boundaries.

A manager is less likely to respond to “I am feeling overwhelmed, you must stop” in a helpful manner than they will respond to “I am feeling overwhelmed, my time is running short, if I take on more it will mean X wont be finished, is that OK?”   Think about the needs of others when you set workplace boundaries, and frame your explanations in terms of measurable or observable impacts when your boundaries are breached.


Prepare for violations.

Have useful statements or a useful ‘No’ for when you need it.  People will inadvertently breach your boundary when they are caught up in their own needs, have some useful and helpful reminders up your sleeve for these occasions.

If you have someone in your life that persistently ignores your boundaries, then develop stronger reminders and perhaps add a consequence for continued breach, E.g. “Jimmy, I have mentioned many times that I do not want to chat while I am in the shower, if you persist incoming in, you risk me getting cranky enough to not consider your request fairly.”


Review and update boundaries as your life evolves.

As we become clearer in our boundaries and experience the freedom of being in control of our choices, we often notice some of our boundaries are a little too rigid or no longer required.  It is OK to change.  It is OK to no longer need a boundary.  Check and correct regularly.  Be kind to Yourself, try this activity.