Watch those Boundaries!

by Dr Galia Barhava

What do I mean by boundaries? I mean being clear about who you are, your role(s), and how to say no to things that trespass across your boundaries. Of course, the key to having clear boundaries is having enough self-insight about who you are and what you are prepared to share or to do in terms of information, time, effort, or emotional energy.

I often joke that if I had a dollar for every time I spoke to a client about boundaries, I’d be a very wealthy person.Over the years I found that many women, especially, struggle to set their boundaries and say ‘no’, particularly in the professional context.So much so, that in the 2022 book ‘The No Club’ by Linda Babcock, Brenda Peyser, Lisa Vesterlund, and Laurie Weingart, the authors share a staggering statistic that the median female employee spent 200 more hours per year on what they call ‘non-promotable’ work than her male counterpart.

Non promotable tasks are tasks that are invisible, like editing a part of a colleague’s report without being acknowledged for it, doing administration work ‘at the side of your desk’ – tasks that aren’t specialised, and that many people could do.In a word, the more ‘admin’ side of life.

Professional Boundaries

When I work with people and groups, be it as a coach or facilitator, I often observe that we treat people who have clear professional boundaries with greater respect, and how we tend not to trespass on those boundaries. By contrast, people who don’t have such clearly defined professional boundaries tend to be pushed further and further to take on and do more.

Nothing is actually said, but that pressure exists, and I see how they struggle to say no, or else realise too late that they should have said no earlier on!

Look, I get it – it’s hard to say no, especially for women.We have an internalised expectation that we should say yes.We are often flattered when we are asked to do something, and we feel guilty when we say no.Sometimes we feel like we might not be asked again….


I learned my professional boundary lesson very early in my career. I was on a demanding 20-hours-plus-a-day international project with a difficult client group. At the time I felt it was my job to do everything for them – and I mean everything! I noticed that the more I did, the less they appreciated me, and yet they expected me to do more and more work.

My colleague, however, was much clearer about her role on that project. From the outset, she laid down the rules and set very explicit expectations: “This is what I am here to do, this is what your role is, and that’s how we’ll work together”. The clients tried their luck with her, but she pushed back – politely and with a smile – but firmly nonetheless! And to my dismay, they respected her far more than they did me.

That was a good lesson learned. Granted, in some professional environments – particularly in professional services – there is an expectation that you will do everything for the client: if they say jump, you should reply “how high?”. However, throughout my career both as a professional services provider and as a client of these services, I have consistently found that it is the providers who know and maintain clear boundaries that are treated with the most respect. Clients also seem to appreciate these providers more and use them more. I am a firm believer that the things we say ‘no’ to define us.

Personal Boundaries

It is much harder to set boundaries in your personal life or when you’re dealing with something you feel very strongly about. Perhaps the emotional involvement in personal matters clouds our good judgement. Research will back me up on that with the ‘fight or flight’ theory of negative emotions. When we feel a strong negative emotional response, our ability to think broadly and creatively is compromised, our vision narrows, and our body tells us to choose either to fight the person who is a threat or to flee the situation. Rational, self-reflective thought processes do not come into it.

The trick is to recognise when this is occurring, then take a step back and re-establish the boundaries. What I have observed, in myself and others, is that once boundaries are established, you still have the option to lower them again when you feel safe about the situation.

An Analogy

Sometimes when I discuss this concept with friends or clients, they are puzzled, so I started using the analogy of a physical fence between houses. Picture this: you have no fence between you and your neighbour and they have young kids who love coming over to play with your kids. At first this is really nice, but as some family issues arise in their home, they start to eat all three meals at your place, and you find yourself bathing the kids every other night.

You are starting to feel desperate and helpless because your increasingly close relationship with the neighbour’s kids is beginning to interfere with your relationship with your own children. The boundaries, both physical and emotional, are just not there.

So, you build a physical fence. You’ve thought about it for a long time and now is the time to do it. Almost overnight, the neighbour’s kids stop coming around so often. You have time to be with your kids, and you return to having a civil and friendly – but more distant – relationship with your neighbouring family. After a few weeks, when you feel things have settled down, you invite the neighbour’s kids over for a play-date and, maybe, dinner again. The relationship warms up but it is under your control now: you invite them when you feel you are able to, and they pick up on your lead and back off to give you more space.

On Control

We have to be mindful of our boundaries, both professionally and personally, and check with ourselves that we are comfortable about where they are. If need be, we should be able to assert our boundaries and re-establish them if we feel they are being trespassed.

You might be thinking right now: that that all sounds very logical, but how do you actually do it?

The key to knowing what to do is having self-insight and trusting people around you who will always provide you with a healthy perspective – so that you can regain yours.

Keeping a Healthy Perspective

Having perspective is crucial. People around you might have noticed your boundaries blurring, but, for a host of reasons, they might not tell you. The key is first to recognise that something is not quite right.

In my experience, this comes from listening to your ‘gut’ feeling. Picture this: a colleague starts coming into your office every day, closes the door, and proceeds to tell you about her problematic and stressful relationship with her mother. The end result is that you find yourself unable to complete your own work, leading to you having to work late and miss out on spending time with your loved ones. You might think that something isn’t quite right, however, you’ll probably feel conflicted or even guilty because you want to be there for your friend in her time of need.

At this point, I try to listen to my gut and leave the guilty, conflicted feelings aside. I specifically try to get perspective from someone who has good judgement and who I trust. The reason the perspective of others is so important is because when you realise that something isn’t quite right, you are usually emotionally involved and not thinking as clearly as you normally would. To make sure I am reading a situation correctly, I check with people I trust and listen to those who care about me.

By the way, in my experience, when you invite people to give you their perspective, they are happy to provide it. But you also need to be prepared to listen and follow through if you agree with them! That way, they feel like their advice was respected and listened to.

Stepping Back

Part of the process of gaining perspective involves stepping back from the situation, to give you the headspace to listen and reflect on the advice and different points of view. As you step back to listen, in many circumstances the boundaries re-establish themselves without you having to do anything explicit. Sometimes less is more: we think words are so important, but in face-to-face interactions, body language and non-verbal messages are far more powerful than we realise.

The ‘Recipe’

  • Have people around you who are wise and have great perspectives.
  • Be mindful of how you feel in your interactions.
  • When something doesn’t feel right, trust your gut and gain perspective.
  • Come up with some clear strategies to say ‘no’ if you need to!

More often than not, the act of being mindful and reflective, and taking the time to think and gain perspective, will suffice.

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