How to Set Your Boundaries at Work During Quarantine

Setting boundaries at work is like a muscle. Small, regular, repetitions can transform the process into a habit, and make it feel less overwhelming.

Image: Boxer Rebellion, 1983, Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Managing boundaries at work is already difficult in normal times. Especially in intense and highly competitive work environments, it often feels hard to set boundaries. The expectations are high. Constant outperformance feels like a pre-requisite. Finding yourself in quarantine, and working from home, can add to the pressure.

Work can often get overwhelming. Pressure starts mounting. The demands are never-ending. Time feels short and every day is a race.

Sometimes you just want to stop and catch your breath. But there’s no space.

What you do never feels enough.

Your goal? Fit everything that needs to be done. Respond to all the asks. Please everyone’s expectations.

The reward? Recognition of your efforts. The appreciation of others. A good performance review. The prospects of career progression.

You know that, in theory, all this could be solved with more ease. If only you could manage your workload better. If only you could push back on things that seem too much. If you could be a better time manager for yourself. But why does it feel so hard in practice?

You’re not in an ideal situation — and that’s ok

Let’s admit it, few of us are in ideal situations. We rarely receive the empathy or understanding we would like from managers or colleagues. Most of us have to negotiate our boundaries in far from ideal situations. This, of course, creates a sense of frustration. If only others listened or understood us better, how easier things would be.

That sometimes creates resistance to our situation. We get tense because others are not meeting our expectations of good behaviour.

To act and create a change, we must first accept. The situation is not ideal, and others are not meeting us halfway. Release the tension.

Boundaries can seem like an indicator of bad performance

It often feels like setting a boundary at work is like giving up on being your absolute best. In work cultures in which you are expected to give your all every single day, that can be especially tough. Incidentally, that’s also a sign of a toxic work culture.

Sometimes, setting a boundary feels like a personal defeat. If you set a boundary, does it mean that you’re not up for the job?

The doubts start mounting, maybe you are simply not good enough to do everything. Maybe others will also start thinking you’re not good enough either.

Can you see a pattern here?

Performance is linked to our sense of self-worth

The way we perceive our performance at work is deeply linked with how we perceive ourselves overall. Great performance and praise make us feel good with ourselves. Falling short of what we, and others, expect of ourselves makes us feel bad.

That’s not necessarily always a bad thing. It can help us improve. It’s also a basic human survival mechanism. But it only works in our service up to a point, after which it backfires.

That happens when we associate our sense of self-worth with our performance. Work provides us with a perfect opportunity to prove our own worth. If we do not perform excellently, maybe we have to get used to the idea that we are not perfect.

Setting a boundary therefore makes us entertain a deep-rooted fear that we are not perfect, and that we will be rejected if we are less than perfect. A toxic work culture only exacerbates this belief, which makes it even more difficult to challenge.

Break the cycle between self-worth, performance and setting boundaries

First things first: be gentle with yourself (and others!).

Setting boundaries at work is like a muscle. Small, regular, repetitions can transform the process into a habit, and make it feel less overwhelming.

Develop daily awareness: recognising this cycle helps lessen its grip. Repeat this sense of awareness daily.

Befriend yourself: engage and play with the idea of not being perfect. Do you really have to be perfect to do good work? Can you appreciate yourself even if you’re less than perfect?

Set small, regular boundaries: granted, there’s a fear of how other people react when you set a boundary. This can be overwhelming and stop any progress. Start by experimenting with these limits. Example: explain how you’re prioritising your workload and propose alternative deadlines (“I am happy to do this, and contribute to that project. Here are my current priorities and expected timelines. I propose this deadline. What do you think?”).

Experiment with saying no: gently experiment with saying no to certain responsibilities, start small, and find your balance. Though we might initially think that this puts us in danger, it signals to others that they should respect our time, too.

Go for one small push towards better boundaries every day or week. It doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Stay tuned for more resources and articles on how to set boundaries at work.

I am a coach and trusted advisor to driven and gifted people who feel there’s an inkling of rebellion in them. I help them create more fulfilment and reduce stress in their work and careers, on their terms. Connect with me here:

Coach — Career and Work Transformation | PhD Researcher | Facilitator

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