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The vital question everyone asks me | The Career Toolkit
The vital question everyone asks me The vital question everyone asks me The vital question everyone asks me

The vital question everyone asks me


Boundaries. What are they, I hear you ask?  It is a question I get asked so often: when I coach individuals, when I speak to hundreds of people, and all places in between. Not just what they are of course, as we are all pretty smart, we get the concept. More often it’s how on earth do I actually create them, and when I do, how do I keep them in place? It is not a surprising question really is it? Between work, friends, exercise, study, kids (or if not kids, a boyfriend who can really be a big kid), family, the house, the car, not to mention the shopping, the shoes, and the general body maintenance, who has time for boundaries?

Well, that’s just the point. We need to make time. Because having effective boundaries in place actually creates time, helps us manage our energy, and can keep us on the track towards being a cool calm success, not a hot crazy mess.

Anyone who knows me, or has heard me speak, will know that this is one of my all-time favourite topics. I think it is one of the most important things we can do for ourselves, on the road to becoming healthy, well-balanced, successful women, in this ever increasingly chaotic, technological and all consuming world we live in. In fact, I would go as far as to say that I think it is really, really hard to achieve those things, if we aren’t good at managing our boundaries.

The reality is that knowing your boundaries is a key part of respecting yourself, being able to state your needs, and letting people know what will and won’t work for you. For our bosses, it helps to set expectations, so it is clear what you are and are not prepared to do. In our relationships, it helps to clarify what we need and what is and isn’t acceptable. And for ourselves, it is critical so that we have parameters around our work, social and personal lives, so we can manage our careers, our families and our health and wellbeing.

When you don’t establish and respect your boundaries, you are essentially saying that other people’s needs are more important than your own. Now, that may not be your intention, and you may not even believe that. But when you say ‘yes’ when you know you should be saying ‘no’, this is the outcome. And the more you do it, the more you let those boundaries slip, the less your needs will be met. Sometimes this is necessary, when it’s a need from your child, or an urgent, one-off requirement from your boss. But when these things become the norm instead of the exception, then we have a problem.

Many of us have trouble establishing boundaries. We can be unclear on what they should look like, worry that people won’t accept them, worry you won’t be able to implement them. So you think to hell with it; it’s all just too hard. Then the question becomes, how badly do you want what you want? For many of us, the need to please has been so deeply ingrained in us from an early age, so switching our brains to ‘me first’ can be too much of a hurdle to jump over. But it can be done.

So what can you do to become better at knowing, setting and managing boundaries for yourself? Let’s break this down to make it easier to gain clarity.

Knowing your boundaries

The first step is to understand what your boundaries should look like. This is all about what your needs are, and not at all about pleasing everyone else. Let me repeat. This is about you. What you need. It’s about what will make your work life or home life (or both) more effective, enjoyable and manageable. Now many women I know find this really hard.  And I have, too, in the past. We are used to servicing everyone else’s needs before our own, and when we look at this differently it can be quite confronting. That’s okay. It’s a process that can take time.

We start by identifying the areas where we need some boundaries. Think about things like the time you leave the office each day or on certain days of the week. Or about the boundaries you need to set in your relationship about domestic work at home (we could write a whole book on this one); or the boundaries you need to place about looking after your health. I find that these are three of the primary areas many women focus on first.

The work one is huge, as the parameters we set here determine so much of how our life works. For me, when I completely overhauled my life seven years ago, I set up my role to be four days a week. I set very clear boundaries around my day off (Friday) and I was very clear with my boss, my peers, my team and my assistant regarding Friday, as well as parameters for my other working days. While this took a while for me to implement, knowing what I needed (picking up my son from school two days a week, not taking calls on Fridays, although I would check my email etc.) allowed me to manage my working week effectively and maintain my sanity. And I chose the role I took carefully as I knew I could manage my boundaries effectively, whereas in some other roles this would not have been possible at all. So there needs to be a reality check there too.

Setting your boundaries

Once you have identified what boundaries you want to set for yourself, effectively communicating with the key people they impact is critical. You can get into trouble really fast, if you have decided to leave the office at 4pm twice a week, but have not communicated this with your boss, in an environment where this discussion would be expected. Not a good strategy. Similarly, setting a boundary of not doing the washing up one night (your agreed chore), taking a bubble bath instead, but not communicating this to your partner or setting a new expectation with him (or her), can also create a potential issue.

When you set new boundaries, things change. Your expectations of yourself, your expectations of others, and importantly, the way others view you and what you are doing, are all key factors that need to be managed. This does not need to be hard, but it does need to happen. Otherwise you are running your own race, all on your own, and people will get left behind. And they may not like it. So identify what your boundaries are, set them, and discuss and communicate with people who are impacted, so you can clearly articulate what you are doing, why, and what support you need from those in your life. You will find the process so much easier when you do this. And the change will have a much greater chance of sticking.

Managing your boundaries

Now comes the potentially challenging part. It’s one thing to work out what boundaries you want to set, and another to tell people – but it’s a whole other story to manage and enforce them, when the rubber hits the road. And the cold hard truth of it is that you are the only one who can manage them. Yep, you’re gonna have to do it. But it can be done.

Years ago, my friend Michelle used to work for me. Not only was she the most productive person I ever had in my team, she was also the best at managing herself and the boundaries she had set up. She was exceptionally clear about how she wanted to work, how she performed at her best, and most importantly, at executing her personal and professional life to honour the boundaries she had set for herself. She still astounds me with what she can accomplish, and a large part of it is how she manages her boundaries.

The hardest part about all of this is keeping your boundaries in place when you’re in the thick of it, and people are crossing them, pushing back on them, or just flat out ignoring them. Now, as we know, we live in the real world. From time to time, you may need to make an allowance and one of your boundaries may slip a little. And that may be okay from time to time. But here’s the thing. If you continually let this happen, your boundary turns into a blurred dotted line, and eventually it can become all too easy to just give up altogether. Boundaries need to be kept in check. You are the only one who can do it, and you are worth the effort.

Three key things to remember:

1. Take a look at your professional and personal life, and work out where you need to create some boundaries. If you don’t know where to start, think about the times when you feel compromised, resentful or uncomfortable at work or home – this will be a good sign of where your boundaries may have been crossed.

2. Take the time and thoughtful effort to determine how to implement new boundaries. Then clearly communicate them to those around you, so they have clear expectations of what you will and won’t do, when you can do it, what is acceptable, and what isn’t.

3. You matter. It can be challenging to go down this path. However, it is essential if you want to be a strong, successful, well woman who is respected by others, and by yourself.


This is an extract from my book Getting Real About Having It All, check it out here and read the first chapter for free or buy it online here.

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