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Boundaries = Freedom

Boundaries = Freedom

While it may sound counterintuitive, boundaries can provide a great sense of freedom. They clarify expectations, set limits, and give you a clear way to decide if those limits work for you or not. They provide definition around what is and is not appropriate in terms of behavior, working styles, and interactions.

Defining your own boundaries is empowering, because you are saying, "This is what works for me and this is what doesn’t." It helps you identify and protect where you need more personal space, time, or energy.

[Related: Powerful Professional Women Don't Get Paralyzed By Guilt]

That being said, sometimes being told where you cannot go immediately makes you want to push back. Pay attention to that; it is an important instinct to listen to. Is it your standard reaction or is it more situational? What are the common themes around that reaction? If it is a structural or institutional way of thinking that is triggering you, then you need to make sure you work in places that provide newer thinking and ways of operating. If it is more of a blanket reaction, you probably need more independence all around.

Close your eyes and imagine being dropped into a room in total darkness. How do you feel? Scared? Nervous? Are all your senses heightened? Your energy goes to finding the walls, the ceiling, confirming the floor is steady and there are no holes or obstacles.

When you know where those things are, you can be calm, creative, and productive. The boundaries define your space and give you room to grow and settle in because you know the space you can fill in that room. Having this clarity also helps you figure out where you have outgrown a boundary and need to find the door out - or need to add a new boundary, even for just one person.

[Related: When a Colleague Pushes Your Buttons At Work, Should You React?]

What is so hard about boundary-setting is that it is usually an unspoken set of terms, and it can feel awkward to try to explain explicitly to someone else. Especially to someone who doesn’t get the concept or assumes they should have full access to you on their terms, no matter what.

We tend to naturally gravitate to and develop friendships with people with shared boundaries. But in work situations, you are put together based on a different set of criteria and characteristics, so ending up with people with shared rules of engagement is more luck of the draw. It has the best chance of working when your work environment has a strong culture that you really identify with. When it doesn’t work, it is important to set those boundaries.

Only you can protect what is important to you, whether it's something small, like leaving work at a consistent time every day, or something bigger, like how you define success in your career. You cannot control others’ behavior, but you can control who you will work with, what you will accept, and how you will react. And you can control being proactive about getting yourself in a place where others' boundaries are aligned with yours.

[Related: In Defense of Millennials: Embracing Their Strengths For An Inclusive Work Culture]


Throughout her twenty-five-year career, Michelle Bogan has mentored colleagues and clients, founded and led women's groups, and helped promote many women and men to leadership positions. In 2018, she founded Equity for Women to advance the mission of empowering women at work.

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