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How I Learned To Create Boundaries at Work

When you work for someone else, it’s easy to feel like you can’t say “no”. But Nicole Lapin, author of career guide Becoming Super Woman, can show you how it’s done.

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I admit, for years I was horrible at setting boundaries with my friends, family, and colleagues. I was a people pleaser–if my friend asked for help, I dropped what I was doing to be by their side. If my boss asked me to take on another project, I pulled three all-nighters in a row to get it done. I understood geographical boundaries as lines that mark the limits of countries or states, but for me, personal boundaries were a foreign concept. But it turns out personal boundaries are so important. They are a line you draw between acceptable behavior and any behavior that compromises your Emotional Wellness. They allow you to make yourself your priority. When I didn’t draw these lines, I experienced severe burnout. 

It’s not enough to roughly know where the boundaries are in various areas of your life. Would the heads of countries be cool with it if their borders were roughly drawn? I. Don’t. Think. So. You shouldn’t be either. So let’s define and set some clear boundaries, here’s what I do to set mine:

Complete These Sentences

Others cannot _________________________________ 

I have the right to ask for _________________________ 

To value myself and my time, I can _________________ 

I’ll go first. My sentences look like this: 

Others cannot: make judgments about my family history, make fun of mental health issues, or wrongly accuse me of something. (Other examples: scream at me, get physical toward me, tell racist jokes, put me down, try to embarrass me in front of others, make comments about my size, go through my email or texts without me knowing.) 

I have the right to ask for: help when I need it, alone time, and affection. (Other examples: another dish when mine is prepared incorrectly, silence in an Uber, quiet time during a facial or massage, help with housework, a customer service supervisor.) 

To value myself and my time I can: keep “me time” sacred, stay in when I am too tired to go out, and say “no” when I don’t have time to do something. (Other examples: cancel plans when I’m sick, return text messages and emails on my own timeline, go on a trip without inviting or telling a friend, change my mind when something doesn’t feel right.

Your personal boundaries are like your bill of rights. What do you have the right to do? What do you have the right to expect from others? It doesn’t matter what your bill of rights includes, as long as you act in accordance with what it says. 

Set Your Own Limits

If you’re working for someone else, you probably think that your boundaries are not up to you. But whether you’re a VP, entrepreneur, or just starting out your career, you can and should set professional boundaries. Drawing the line at the office will not only help your own sanity, it will make it easier for you to keep your promises and earn you the respect of others. 

Let’s do the same exercise we just did, but this time specifically for work: 

Professional relationships cannot __________________ 

I have the right to express ________________________ 

To do my best work, I need and have the right to ask for ________________________ 

I’ll go first again. My sentences look like this: 

Professional relationships cannot: be passive-aggressive. (Other examples: make me feel bullied, intimidated, or silenced; become sexual; sabotage my work; overwhelm me with communication or gossip.) 

I have the right to express: when I feel like I am unable to accomplish something asked of me. (Other examples: when I am unable to answer something on the spot; my goals and ambitions.) 

To do my best work, I need and have the right to ask for: space to stay laser focused on the task in front of me. (Other examples: help from others, help with resources, advice, and mentorship.) 

Setting professional boundaries doesn’t mean that you have to be super rigid or tough. Give yourself some wiggle room to get involved with new adventures, projects, and deeper professional connections (and understand that sometimes you have no choice but to say “yes” to that urgent task your boss just assigned you). Keep the context in mind. If a colleague has an issue and genuinely needs your help, the nice thing to do is help a sister out. But, if this becomes a regular thing and starts to eat up your time or makes you uncomfortable, then you gotta tell that woman to fly on her own. Just like little kids test boundaries to see what they can get away with, the people you work with and for will test yours. So will your friends, family, and even significant other. 

The boundaries you set and enforce—or don’t—set up a framework that guides people on how to treat you. If you don’t set boundaries around your domain, which includes your time, your energy, and even your feelings, people can and will take advantage of you. As many of the greatest female leaders out there will tell you, sometimes breaking that glass ceiling requires putting up some scaffolding first. 

Excerpted from Becoming Super Woman: A Simple 12-Step Plan to Go from Burnout to Balance.  

Nicole Lapin is the New York Times Bestselling author of Rich Bitch and Boss Bitch. She is the host of the nationally syndicated business reality competition show, “Hatched.” She has been an anchor on CNN, CNBC and Bloomberg. Her latest book, Becoming Super Woman, is available now. 

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