Setting and Enforcing Personal Boundaries

Do customers get in your personal space? Do they trample on your free time or push you too hard to get extra work done or cut ethical corners? If so, you might have what my mentor D2 calls boundary issues: both setting them and enforcing them. Today I’ll spend a little time discussing how that happens and what you can do about it.

How It Happens

When it comes to strangers, I have very strong defenses most of the time because I don’t know or trust their motives before they ask me to do something. It’s a little harder to push back when the person pushing you is someone you know and are expected to trust, such as a leader, peer, or customer…or even friends or family members.

When I was quite young, in first grade or so, a friend of mine was going through a rough time because her parents were getting a divorce, as mine had recently. She wanted to talk about it with me, and for some reason, that day I decided to play Insensitive Jerk and told her, pompously, “I don’t have time for you.”

The comment hurt her feelings, cost me a friend, and earned me an enemy.

That situation was pivotal for me because it shaped how I would act with friends from then on. I told myself that I would a) never do that again, and b) always make time for a friend who needed me. I gave up that boundary, so to speak, because I thought I was doing others ill by enforcing it.

What about when friends took advantage of my goodwill? That has happened, too, unfortunately. I quickly acquire a reputation for being “a soft touch” and being willing to render assistance or behave agreeably regardless of the merit(s) of the request(s).

There’s a word for that. It’s not kind or generous, it’s stupid.

Another “boundary” I’ve insisted upon is keeping personal business out of the office. Years ago, a companion violated that boundary by texting me with personal matters during office hours and forced me to choose between enforcing the boundary and maintaining the relationship.

Recently, I’ve also had to learn to maintain set a limit on how much I will allow work matters to impinge on my free time. That has been difficult because I’ve prided myself on being responsive and am also aware that contract work could appear at any moment. However, that boundary has become important to me, as I learn to establish some minor level of control over my free time. And really–if someone is messaging you at 11 o’clock at night, isn’t that something that could wait until morning?

Sometimes well-meaning people (family, friends, significant others) in your life try to push you in to a line of work, an activity, or a lifestyle you don’t enjoy. You don’t want to disappoint, so you go along with whatever the suggestion is, even if that suggestion does not appeal to you because you don’t want to disappoint.

Others among you might face violations of your personal space due to harassment or ethical violations because someone is asking you to do something that shades the truth, violates a company policy, or skirts the law. There are actual written guidelines for many of those, and if you are known as someone who is willing to do anything, even break the law, to do a job (the TV show Better Call Saul is an example of how that behavior can go off the rails), you will gain a reputation for being an unethical character.

Why Does This Matter?

The bottom line is that personal and professional boundaries do matter. You can only allow yourself to accept the impositions or unkindnesses of others for so long before it causes you pain, irritation, or professional or even legal problems. Yet you also can’t keep yourself so closed off that you never do any favors for anyone on the job or that you never help a friend or companion. Why does this matter to the technical writer? Because, in the end, you need to look out for yourself, to maintain your personal and professional integrity, and to remain true to yourself, your ideals, and your principles. If you let others run roughshod over you and cause you to do whatever they want at your expense, you will lose your sense of self-respect and, eventually, the respect of others.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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