After my father died in 2010 and I thought I was done having kids, I felt compelled to say yes to almost everything. Deliver a proposal for a potential client by tomorrow morning? Absolutely! Write an eight-hundred-word, unpaid blog post for a barely read website? Count me in! Fly to Texas to join a panel discussion for free? Sure. It’s business development! But the day before that panel in Texas, I suffered a crippling anxiety attack. Not to mention, my Amex bill could top $10,000 a month with all that uncompensated travel in the name of “business development.” Although I had the best of intentions when I said yes, I burned a few bridges with last-minute cancellations.
It wasn’t merely that giving too much time to pointless efforts increased work hours and decreased time with family. Being an entrepreneurial doormat stripped me of an essential strength: the ability to maintain the healthy boundaries I needed. After too many years of regretting saying yes or being unable to follow through, I learned my lesson. As an introvert, saying yes too much wreaks havoc on my mental and physical health, my time, and my finances. I had to respect my personal limits, even if I didn’t like them.
Every time I suffered an anxiety attack on a trip or felt depressed while standing in the middle of a cocktail party, my personal boundaries were being crossed. I just wasn’t tuning in. That’s the challenge: to tune into these messages, and then define your boundaries.
Boundaries are your bottom line, and limits are the rules you put in place to maintain your boundaries. You might need to set limits on your personal time, distance yourself from coworkers who get too close, get rid of clients who are discourteous, and stop doing work that creates emotional turmoil. Give yourself permission to feel when your boundaries are being crossed. Find your boundaries and your limits so you can define the terms of your work and success.
To understand the difference between a limit and a boundary imagine you’re in a swimming pool with a rope dividing the shallow from the deep end. Whenever you’re unable to stand securely, the boundary has been crossed. A limit, on the other hand, is a declaration of a boundary—it’s the rope itself. Limits are tactical: I will not check email after 5 p.m. on a Friday, because working during the weekend sends me off into the deep end—the boundary.
Your success in maintaining your limits is as much about managing your emotions and anxieties around other people’s expectations as it is about you actually getting things done. The magic is realizing you don’t just have to fulfill expectations. You can meet your boundaries and make others understand your needs. Living out your own terms of success requires intense focus and self-regulation, as well as practice, with everyone from your romantic partner, to your family, to your team at work, to your boss, and to your clients—even Facebook.
Tune in to discomfort and resentment. Both of these emotions are common signals that your personal boundaries are being threatened, but they are also emotions we are taught to suppress and question. When an interaction or situation triggers either emotion, examine the interaction or expectation so you can set the boundaries you need.
Think about the people in your life who really matter to you. Next, consider the primary expectations you have for yourself. Then consider what expectations other people have. It can be helpful to review others’ expectations in your mind, and think about where misalignments may occur. When you’re making a change, it’s really helpful for your nearest and dearest to understand why and how you’re making it. As long as you’re clear about your boundaries, you have freedom to create limits.
When you work for someone else, setting limits can be challenging. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Your boss cares about two things: can they reach you if they need you, and if they need you, will you come through. People who look at the big picture are generally able to set reasonable limits in other ways. As the boss, I like to keep my boundaries clear with my clients, too. I am direct when I need to put family or personal matters first. Being choosy about my clients and extracurricular responsibilities makes this easier.
Before starting my own business I worked in politics, start-ups, and a huge client services firm, so for many years I had no idea it was even permissible for anyone below the CEO to say they might be unavailable or unwilling to work at any moment. When I began to pay attention, to study workplace flexibility, and, most importantly, to ask lots of questions of leaders who seemed to have solid limits, I realized the world wouldn’t end if I didn’t always answer an email immediately. When leaders are open, clear and unapologetic about the lines they draw, the rest of us have permission to consider our own boundaries.
However firmly we set our own boundaries, all of us constantly break our own rules. Sometimes you just need to; for instance, answering e-mail after hours during a busy time at work. But it’s also a worthwhile way to see if the limits you’ve set are really necessary. If you realize you’re leaving yourself enough time for personal responsibilities at work, maybe you can lighten up on work at home. Being comfortable with breaking your own rules is actually really liberating.
Steve Jobs famously said, “Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.” Saying no and setting strong boundaries makes you powerful! I know it feels scary, especially if you’re starting out or starting again. In my case, learning to say no meant realizing that my inability to do it stemmed from insecurity. I feared that turning down any opportunity was pure hubris. If I turned down an opportunity, certainly few other chances would come along, right? I’m no Steve Jobs. It doesn’t matter. Every no is time you can put to good use and innovate, or further your own work.
Don’t waste your “no” time second-guessing your decision or feeling guilty. Use the time well, and you, too, will innovate.
This is an excerpt from HIDING IN THE BATHROOM: An Introvert’s Roadmap for Getting Out There (When You’d Rather Stay Home), written by Morra Aarons-Mele. Morra is the founder of the award-winning social impact agency Women Online, and was founding political director of BlogHer.com. For more information visit her at www.womenandwork.org.