Updated: May 29, 2019
We had a fence installed in our backyard a few weeks ago. As someone with a strong need for privacy and a fondness for spending time outside, I am thrilled. Now that the weather is finally starting to improve, I’ve begun to enjoy my new outdoor oasis. It’s fantastic. Life is good.
And yet, it’s not all butterflies and rainbows (shocking news coming from me, I realize). You see, none of our neighbors wanted the fence, and no matter how tactfully we handled it, nothing was going to change that. So here I am, loving my fence while simultaneously hating that we went against our neighbors’ wishes. Hating that by improving our quality of life, we’ve potentially worsened theirs. Hating that we made them unhappy. And worst of all, hating that they might now hate me.
It’s all a little silly. And it leads me to two observations, neither of which is particularly earth-shattering:
I care way too much what other people think of me, and
I need to get more comfortable establishing boundaries, both wooden and otherwise.
These topics feel too big to tackle in a single post, so I’ll concentrate here on boundaries. For some insight into how to stop caring what others think, I direct you to this helpful HBR article. I also acknowledge that it can be particularly tough to let go of others’ opinions when it feels like your career lives and dies by them. (Yes, I’m speaking directly to assistant professors, although I suspect it applies to others as well.)
So on to boundaries. Setting boundaries seems easy in theory… just figure out what you want or need and make that clear to others. But it’s much harder in practice, especially when people start bumping up against those boundaries and expressing their displeasure—sometimes subtly, sometimes not.
For many of us, telling people “no” challenges our entire self-concept. It feels like we’re going against the core of who we are. We are considerate. We are helpful. We want other people to be happy and successful. So when another person’s needs or desires are in direct conflict with our own and there is no win-win solution to be found, we struggle. Often, our natural tendency is to retreat, keep the peace, and give others what they want.
And that’s a big mistake. Here are just a few reasons why...
Boundaries allow relationships to flourish. I came to the conclusion years ago that the best relationships are those in which we care about ourselves just as much as we care about the other person… not more, not less. Neglecting our own needs and betraying our values isn’t selfless or generous. It doesn’t strengthen relationships. To the contrary, it leaves us feeling bitter, and separates us from the people we want to feel most connected to. In the words of the ever-brilliant Brené Brown: “I choose discomfort over resentment.” Yes! (I will admit that I still go the resentment route far too often. Consider this post a public declaration of my commitment to embracing discomfort.)
Boundaries promote creativity and innovation. I’ve seen this come up again and again, both in personal and professional settings. If we’re floundering and uncertain about where we’re headed, trying something new can feel too risky. What if it throws us completely off course? In contrast, when we’ve established guardrails based on our values and goals (and clearly defined roles in the case of organizations), there’s no danger of veering too far off track. We are free to take healthy risks and explore new avenues, enabling us to achieve what would have been impossible otherwise. Don’t believe me? Take it from Steve Jobs, who is credited with saying “innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”
Boundaries prevent burnout. People seem to expend an immense amount of energy on things that would fall outside of their boundaries if they actually made the effort to establish and enforce them. Whether it’s managing other people’s emotions, worrying about what others think of us (there it is again), or doing other people’s work “because that’s the only way it will get done,” this problem is rampant. I’m as guilty as anyone, and I’m working to change that. Take a moment to imagine a life in which you only took responsibility for your own stuff and nobody else’s. Did you immediately feel like a weight was lifted off your shoulders? Yeah, I did too.
Boundaries cultivate respect. A highly accomplished leader in my field of study once told me that she rarely took time to meet with students because (and this is close to a quote) “students respect someone who has better things to do than meet with them.” Ouch. While this statement makes me cringe, there’s truth in it. We admire people who are clear enough to say no without apology, even if that means we don’t get what we want. Which brings me to my final point…
Boundaries beget boundaries. It can be very hard to set boundaries when we’re operating in environments that don’t value them. In fact, we might get significant pushback when we tell people that we aren’t checking email on vacation or that we’ll no longer be working on Saturdays. It therefore falls to leaders and others in positions of power or influence to set a positive example. It’s much easier to say no when you see your colleagues doing it skillfully, so learning to set clear limits not only helps you; it can have big positive externalities.
So where do we start? I’ll share some tips for setting boundaries and saying no in my next post. In the meantime, I encourage you to share your suggestions in the comments section. I bet that, together, you could create a veritable treasure trove of ideas! (To leave a comment, you’ll need to join the site by clicking the “Log in"/"Sign up” button in the upper right hand corner or at the bottom of the page.)
Thanks, as always, for your time. My gratitude knows no bounds. :)