How to Set Boundaries Without Giving Up Power
Clients often tell me that they struggle with setting boundaries at work. The feelings associated with this are resentment, victimhood, and powerlessness.
Here's the good news: It's totally possible to set and maintain boundaries without giving up personal power when you take 100% responsibility for your own emotions and actions. This leads to both self-empowerment and healthy relationships.
In this episode, you'll learn
- How other people and external circumstances don't create our feelings,
- How emotional dependency leads to manuals that disempower, and
- The difference between a manual and boundary
If you'd like to register for the upcoming free webinar or to get in touch with me for a trial coaching session, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you'd like to read past podcast transcripts, go to https://www.jamieleecoach.com/podcast
Full Episode Transcript
Hello! Welcome to Episode 53 of Born to Thrive with Jamie Lee. I’m your host and coach, Jamie Lee.
I’m so excited for what is to come for this little podcast that started on the Anchor platform.
I started last year, started recording it in my closet, and I have been doing it for almost a full year now and I am invested in growing this podcast and making sure that I deliver the best quality content, the best coaching content that I can offer you so that you can thrive.
Not just survive, not just get by in your life and your career, but really thrive.
That is my intention because I do believe that we are all born to thrive. We are all born with the capacity to thrive and be the best version of who we can be.
So, today I want to talk to you about how to set boundaries without giving up power.
My small group mastermind has been discussing pushback and how we can reframe pushback so that we don’t feel so resistant, powerless, and victim-y around pushing back when we have set boundaries.
And I think it’s really simple.
It’s simple to set boundaries.
It may be simple but not easy to set boundaries.
We are 100% capable of taking 100% responsibility for our emotions and not attaching our emotional lives to how other people and especially bosses, coworkers, partners behave or don’t behave or don’t live up to our expectations.
And we can set boundaries that are simple statements, like “If this happens, then I will...” “If somebody touches me inappropriately, I will immediately leave the situation and call the authorities.”
This requires taking full responsibility for our emotions, for our actions and it’s never about what other people have to do, it’s about how we will act to honor our commitment to ourselves.
Why is it so hard?
I think it’s because, as I talked about in the earlier episode, we have been trained from a very young age to think that outside forces cause our feelings inside.
We have been told to not say certain things at the playground because it hurts Johnny’s feelings.
We have been told to grow up and be a good citizen to make our parents proud.
We have been told that our actions make our friends and our allies and people who are in relationship with us feel a certain emotion, that our actions and words help other people feel safe, feel good, feel loved, feel secure.
And then we think that our bosses and our coworkers, their actions cause us to feel like we belong, feel safe in the workplace.
And I am here to say that is not the case. It’s simply not true.
It’s not true, because when people say certain things...let me give you an example:
If somebody says, “What’s wrong with you,” it’s not the fact that somebody said, “What’s wrong with you?” Let’s say this person is close to you, lives with you, loves you.
Okay, this happened to me in my own life with somebody that I’m in a relationship with and they say, “What’s wrong with you?”
Now, when they say that, just because they said, “What’s wrong with you?” doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with me, doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with the relationship, or that there is something wrong with the person who said it, even though it would be very tempting to think any of those things.
I can think, “There’s something wrong with me,” and feel shame. I can think, “There’s something wrong with him for saying that,” and feel judgment, anger, and blame. Or I can think, “Hmm. I wonder why he said that.” Or I can think, “From his point of view, I can see why he would say that,” and feel compassion.
The point I’m making here is that outside circumstances don’t cause our emotions.
What other people do and say don’t cause how we feel inside. It’s what we think about what has happened that cause our emotion.
Just like with the simple statement, “What’s wrong with you?”, you can have many different perspectives on that one little statement.
So what we think about what happened is always our choice but, when we were growing up, we were taught that outside forces cause our feelings inside. And this taught us to become emotionally dependent on other people, external circumstances.
And when we are emotionally dependent, as if we are emotionally children to other people, we develop what I would call manuals. Emotional manuals, not operating manuals that we have at work, right? Manuals on how other people should behave so that we can feel good.
And we have many manuals. 99.98% of the population have manuals for other people. And these manuals are often not written down or explicitly shared with the people for whom we have created it. They’re almost always in our minds.
And it’s something like, my boss should give me credit for the work I did.
If I keep my head down and do good work, I should get a promotion, even if I don’t ask for it.
My boss should invite me to meetings to make me feel included and safe in my job.
My boss should care about me.
I’m totally talking about how I used to be in my former life as an employee because I had a lot of manuals toward my boss and I attached my emotional life to the manual because I wanted to feel validated, recognized, like I belonged, like I was secure and safe in my job and I had developed these long instructions of how my boss should behave towards me so that I can feel good.
And in doing so, I gave up my power and ended up feeling very resentful, powerless, annoyed and miserable.
The reason why I’m talking about manuals here at length is because, in my own experience, I have seen that - now this is before I learned these powerful coaching concepts - before I knew them I was conflating and confusing manuals for how other people, especially my boss and my coworkers should behave to make me feel good with boundaries that I hadn’t really decided on.
So how you can set boundaries without giving up any power is to first drop the manuals because, hey, let’s face it, they don’t work. And when we do create these manuals for other people, they just make us feel resentful and powerless.
And then set clear boundaries and honor them without creating expectations that other people should respect it or do anything because, at the end of the day, everyone, all the humans, are allowed to be, to do, and to think as they already are, as they already do, as they already think.
Other people are never in our control and when we try to control other people, it just exacerbates, it just makes that feeling of powerlessness and resentment worse.
The only thing that we can control, really, is how we think about situations, how we create emotions in ourselves, and what we do.
And this is really powerful stuff because when we can manage our own minds and think on purpose and create the emotion that we need to drive the action that we want to take, then we create results in our lives.
But about three years ago, I didn’t know that. I was an employee and I want to share with you a situation that had happened at work that might seem kind of vague. Vague in terms of, is it a boundary violation or is it a manual issue?
So, I want to share with you what had happened and I want to offer some of my perspectives and the new perspective that I’ve gained now that I understand these new concepts around setting boundaries.
So, three years ago I was working for a man. Let’s call him Dan. And I worked at an open office. One day, Dan came into the office and he decided to shift the angle of his desk, which was right next to mine, and as a result, he shifted mine and somebody else’s desk that was right in front of mine. So, we were in a triad and he shifted the angle of the entire triad of desks.
He just didn’t give me any notice about it. He didn’t say anything before he just got up and shifted the desks.
It really pissed me off at that time!
I had the thought that he does not respect me, he does not respect my personal space, and in my head I was thinking, “What a jerk!”
We’re really talking about two inches of space here, okay?
But because I had the thought that he does not respect me and that he should, I was feeling resentful. I was feeling powerless in the situation.
Because, you know, I had, in general, these unspoken expectations that he should make me feel valued, respected, and like I belong and I am safe at work by treating me with respect, and that he should invite me to meetings and include me in discussions.
And, of course, he did not invite me to all the meetings. Of course, he did not include me in all the decision-making processes, and, as a result of my thinking, I was often seething silently and very often complaining bitterly behind his back.
I was acting out like an emotional child. I was attached to him, I was looking to him to satisfy my emotional need.
So, this day, my other coworker whose desk was part of the triad, she came into the office, she saw what had happened, and it seemed to me she didn’t give as much thought to the situation as I had and made it this big thing about how he doesn’t respect me and blah blah blah.
She simply came into the office, she saw that her desk had shifted by about two inches, and she moved her desk back to the original location. So, I’m like, great, I’m gonna follow. I jerked my desk right back into the original place and I didn’t say a word to Dan. I didn’t even look at him. It was so totally awkward.
The result I had created from thinking that he doesn’t respect me was that I felt resentment. And the action that I took from feeling resentment was that I did not look at him, I did not say anything to him, I gave him power in the situation.
And then I was wallowing in that sense of powerlessness. And then I hated on him when he didn’t live up to my unspoken expectations. And then I jerked my desk back, even though I had hated on him for doing the same thing. In fact, I had mirrored his action which I had judged as disrespectful.
I did not show respect. I did not show curiosity. I did not show presence of mind and engage in the conversation that goes something like, “Oh, I see that you moved our desks. What’s up? Did you have an opinion about how our triad was situated? Did you have a better idea of how we can be sitting in this office?”
Imagine the impact that could have had on our relationship, right?
But I didn’t go there.
Now, I think it’s true that I could have set, for myself, the boundary that if somebody moves my desk, I will move it back into its original place.
I could have decided for myself, even though the desk doesn’t personally belong to me, we work in an office space that belongs to the company, we’re using equipment that belongs to the company, working on the desk that belongs to the company.
I could have still created a personal boundary for myself that said if somebody moves my desk or things on my desk, I will put it back into the original location.
And, had I done that instead of making it about other people and how other people are impacting my emotions, had I done that and just simply honored my commitment to myself, to this new created boundary, I think I could have engaged in this situation with no resentment, no anger, no blame, no sense of victimhood.
Imagine how powerful that could have been.
I recently helped another client with a similar situation but not about her desk, it was about how she was getting assigned tasks. It was about how she was getting assigned to do tasks from a coworker who is the project manager. My client is the doer, she’s the subject matter expert in her field, the coworker is the project manager. Let’s call the project manager Benny, just for the clarity of our conversation.
So, my client was having problems with Benny because Benny was, in my client’s estimation, not giving enough thought to how long the tasks take, how long the project actually takes to do, and how to best serve the client and one particular situation that was creating a lot of stress for my client was that Benny had assigned a critical client project task at 4:00 pm on Friday. And this is not a task that can be completed in a hour. It takes three hours.
So my client was feeling very frustrated and she felt that Benny should do a better job. Benny should give more thought to how to do Benny’s job to make my client’s job easier and ultimately serve the client needs better.
And so what had happened was my client was having manuals, creating manuals for Benny and Benny was not living up to those manuals because, let’s face it, when we create these manuals that invest our emotional lives to them, 99.99% of the time, people will not live up to our manuals and this will create more stress, resentment, feelings of victimhood, anger, resentment.
And so, at the end of the session, the client decided that she was going to create boundaries for herself to honor her commitment to herself to be the best at what she does and not make it anything about how Benny should behave.
So, she decided her new boundary was if Benny does not assign tasks on time and my client knows what needs to get done, my client will initiate the task regardless. She will do what she needs to do if she knows what it is that she needs to get done, she will do it anyway.
And she said that the effect of having created this boundary for herself and honoring this boundary, not making it mean anything negative about Benny and not creating these expectations, not being in this judgy, blamey, victim-y place, it made her feel empowered.
And also it made her a leader. It made her a person who takes initiative, somebody who takes the proactive solution and runs with it, somebody who creates solutions, not waits for other people to tell her what to do so that she can do it.
So, I’m curious what your thoughts are on setting boundaries because I think this is a really powerful tool that can help liberate us from so much unnecessary stress in the workplace.
And again, just to recap, boundaries are what you will do in a specific situation to honor your commitment to yourself. It’s never about what other people have to do because when you create manuals for other people, it sets you up for stress, resentment and powerlessness.
And everyone is already allowed, everyone is already doing what they do and so when we just acknowledge and accept the fact that people are allowed to be, to do, and to think as they are, it gives us the freedom to show up and to honor our commitments 100% of the time.
Thank you so much and I look forward to speaking with you again next week.