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Monday Musings: the magic of boundaries

The elusive search for work-life balance, or work-life integration, has been floating around for longer than I can remember. Now that many of us are working from home, the delineation between our work life and personal life is even murkier. If you're still seeking "balance", let me assure you that balance isn't what you really need. What you really need are boundaries.

When we say we want balance, we typically mean we want more time to do the things that are important to us or that recharge our energy tanks. The problem is that time is finite, so if we want to create space for something new, we have to say goodbye to something else. This is where boundaries come into play. Boundaries demarcate, and carve out space for something where space did not previously exist. Boundaries are actually the method by which we get to 'balance'.

It's such a simple concept, and yet simple doesn't always mean easy.

Setting boundaries can be really uncomfortable because boundaries inevitably require us to say no to something, and saying no can be a trigger. As a culture, we've somehow made it less acceptable to say no, particularly without a damn good reason. Saying no unapologetically and without explanation can fill some of us with tremendous anxiety. What will people think? Will they think we're selfish, lazy, uncommitted, incapable, or even weak. Or worse, will you label yourself as one of those things?

Boundary setting can cause our egos to hop to attention. Our ego doesn't want anything to do with change. In fact, our ego is fiercely committed both to maintaining the status quo and avoiding discomfort. So if saying no causes discomfort, our ego is going to tell us we shouldn't do it even if it's actually really, really good for us. If you're thinking that our egos sound like jerks, be kind. They're just trying to protect us in the only way they know how. The thing is, once we're wise to our ego's tricks, we can choose a different path. We can experience the discomfort, and then let it go. We can learn to say no, honour our boundaries, and ultimately carve out the space we need to feel balanced.

Here's how you can make progress with setting boundaries:

First, get clear on the boundaries that are actually important to you.

It's surprising the number of times we know we feel imbalanced, and yet we are not clear on what we need to drop or pick up to improve our situation. Is it signing off work promptly at 5 every day so you can spend time with your family or fit in a workout? Is it blocking space in your calendar mid-day to get fresh air and recharge for the afternoon? Is it saying no to a virtual holiday gathering with friends because you would rather have quiet time to yourself this weekend?

Take an inventory of what tends to boost and deplete your energy, so you know what you need more of and less of in your day. Use this inventory to identify where you would benefit from boundaries.

Second, start the real work.

Once you know the boundaries you want to set, the real work begins. Because if you're reluctant, nervous or resistant to saying no or to honouring your boundaries, your ego might be getting in the way. This is an opportunity for reflection:

  • What is it that's really making it difficult for me to say no or to honour my boundaries? I want you to be honest with yourself, because this is the crux of what's holding you back. Is it that you feel like you're disappointing people? Is it that you fear being fired or judged as less competent than your colleagues? Is it that your identity is wrapped up in being everything to everyone else?

  • Can you sit with this discomfort and let it go?

  • Have you considered what you will gain by establishing boundaries? How will you feel and what will be different or better for you? Having a clear purpose for your boundaries will help you hold to them in tough times. Remember you're not just saying no just to be difficult, you're saying no to make space for something important to you.

Go forth and set boundaries, my friends. Feel well.

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