At some point in our lives, we have most probably all become a little (or a lot) stressed. It’s quite common – in both our professional and personal lives – to hear others allude to “Feeling so stressed right now!”, or “Being so overwhelmed” with whatever the presenting challenge is – be it home life, or our work lives. It’s so common in fact, that often we don’t realize that by the time we feel stressed and overwhelmed, on some level the damage has been done. The stress response in itself is not the problem – but the fact we’re feeling stressed in the first place can tell us something extremely important: we are already beyond our window of tolerance, and our personal or professional boundaries have been crossed.
What is stress?
Stress can be caused by a build-up of pressure in response to personal or professional stressors – let’s be clear though that those stressors don’t necessarily have to be negative or traumatic: positive or negative moves and changes in our personal or professional lives can contribute to a sense of pressure and overwhelm. For instance, buying a new home or a first-time home is largely seen as a positive experience. The process, however, can take a toll, demand emotional and psychological resources, and a sense of feeling stressed can ensue. The same goes for positive changes at work. A promotion, usually a positive indication of professional growth, often comes with an increased salary and therefore increased responsibility. A moment to celebrate, but one which comes with the likelihood of an increase in pressure and demand. Stress itself is not all bad – the psychological and physical symptoms of stress bring us an opportunity to reflect and listen to mind and body. In this sense, think of stress as the engine warning light on a car – the engine light itself is not the problem, but the underlying problem is. When our engine light comes on, it’s time to pull over and investigate, or even call for help. In an ideal life, we would rarely or never see our personal engine light come on to indicate a problem. Although it’s very likely that we will experience this at some stage in our busy modern lives, the old adage applies – prevention is better than the cure. One of the ways we can maintain and manage ourselves before we begin to feel stressed is by setting boundaries for ourselves, personally and professionally.
What are boundaries?
Boundaries are the limits we set for ourselves in any context of our lives. When we think about the literal meaning of the word ‘boundary’, we might think of hard and fast rules, or in legal terms such as property boundaries. True, boundaries do allude to where things end and new things begin in this sense. But in psychological terms when it comes to managing ourselves and how we feel about things, a boundary is not something we can actively see, feel, or get any physical sense of. So, knowing the thresholds can be difficult. It’s also true that it’s easier to feel when boundaries have been crossed because of the symptoms of stress that tell us when things are becoming overwhelming. Boundaries though are a key step along the way towards self-care, and self-compassion. When you understand how to set and maintain healthy boundaries, you can bypass symptoms of stress and keep your engine warning light at bay.
Healthy boundaries are flexible boundaries. When we don’t set limits for ourselves, we leave ourselves open to be taken advantage of – personally and professionally. Equally, if we are too rigid with our boundaries, we risk disconnection from those around us and therefore isolation from the support of closeness of family, friends, and colleagues. Setting healthy boundaries and aiming for balance enables us to put ourselves first when we need to, which in turn enables relationships to stay safe and our emotional energy to be protected. In this way, different situations and relationships require different boundaries to be set and maintained – you might still want to be involved in a friend’s situation, but it doesn’t mean you have to take the emotional burden. Likewise, it’s ok to say ‘no’ when demands placed on you at work or anywhere else are too high.
When it comes to setting boundaries at work and at home, there are some tips we can take on board to ensure that we really are taking care of ourselves:
- Identify blocks to boundary-setting
A good first step is to identify what might stop you from setting boundaries with others. We may have had a sense recently or over a long period of time that we’re being taken advantage of, and that demands upon us are too high or unmanageable. Nonetheless, it keeps happening. Before we do anything, it’s important to know what might stop us from setting healthy boundaries. Asking ourselves why we might not be setting the correct limits in different situations is crucial to understanding the blocks underneath – whether this is born from a sense of fear, or from a sense of low self-esteem, and so on. Fears and perceived threats will hold us back – it might be that we’re imagining conflict with a friend if we say no, or being fired from our job. Here we can play a game of ‘true or false’ with ourselves – what’s the evidence that our worst fears will come true? Writing this down helps to stay with what comes up for us, and also provides a reference tool.
Our professional identity is important without a doubt. We have to survive and thrive if we want to get along, and although we don’t think about it, we do actually spend a great deal of our adult lives in the workplace. This is why it’s important to know what your priorities are at work. Taking everything on without knowing why we’re taking everything on will lead to burnout. When we don’t know our why factor, we become detached, and meaning is lost. In this regard, it is always a good idea to check in with ourselves about our why factor: Do I know why I am doing this? Does this have meaning for me or am I taking on too much? On a more micro level, if we let ourselves become overwhelmed with tasks without prioritizing, we can lose a grip on what it is we need to do. Taking a few moments to write down priorities for the week or even the day can make a huge difference.
The same goes for our personal lives. We can easily become a sponge for everybody else’s problems when all we want to do is help. Ultimately, without self-care, self-compassion, and self-respect, all our emotional energy can become depleted. We can never fully be present and help others without first helping ourselves, and before we become involved in being there for other people in our network, it’s important to check out why we want or need to do this. Sometimes, we have no choice – but if we know there is going to be a great cost to our emotional energy, we usually need to find ways to recover and regenerate as well.
- Transparency is key
When it comes to setting professional and personal boundaries, communication is key. This starts with identifying our own avenues of assistance, e.g., who we can go to and who we can talk to. In a work setting, this looks like being honest and upfront with managers or colleagues. If we have a sense that we will be unable to manage a task, a project, or anything else, speaking up before it’s too late can go a long way. At home or in our relationships outside of work, being honest about ourselves and what we can or can’t do for others will help to protect a sense of wellbeing. Sometimes we get caught in the trap of thinking that we will do this one thing and then all will be well – remember, other people don’t know what you’re thinking, and so will not be able to tell your boundaries just through guessing. Once you have crossed your boundaries once, the likelihood is that the demand will continue to present. Saying no doesn’t have to mean conflict, and assertiveness doesn’t have to mean aggression.
- Define golden rules
As we practice more and more, we can start to define our golden rules. Definition is key to making things concrete. This is a work in progress and not a final destination – it’s important to define, check, and re-define our boundaries to suit our needs as we grow both professionally and personally. In order to define our golden rules, we can use our past experiences to try to understand what we will and will not accept from others, and what is tolerable or intolerable for ourselves.
Ultimately, establishing boundaries keeps us safe and protected at a level that keeps us interacting with others and the world around us. With time and practise, we can arrive at a healthy, robust place of being able to maintain balance – and if we are able to maintain balance, we are able to prevent becoming stressed and overwhelmed. Giving ourselves permission to not only be well, but also stay well, gives us a good chance at healthy progression at a suitable pace. Sometimes, permission is simply allowing ourselves to take on that it’s okay to say no.
Workplace Options helps employees balance their work, family, and personal needs to become healthier, happier, and more productive, both personally and professionally. The company’s world-class employee support, effectiveness, and wellbeing services provide information, resources, referrals, and consultation on a variety of issues ranging from dependent care and stress management to clinical services and wellness programs. To learn more visit www.workplaceoptions.com.
Disclaimer: This document is intended for general information only. It does not provide the reader with specific direction, advice, or recommendations. You may wish to contact an appropriate professional for questions concerning your particular situation.