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Seven Kinds of Boundaries at Work

All too often, we forget to take care of ourselves at work. We do our best to treat our colleagues well and assume positive intent on their part, but every now and then, they don't have our best interests in mind. And, while it's a good idea to have boundaries in place whether your colleagues are intruding on them or not, it's especially important to do that when it starts to look like you're not being respected.

What is a boundary?

A boundary is a limit or space between you and the other person; a clear place where you begin and the other person ends. Imagine it like a fence in your backyard -- you control the gate and decide who you let in and who you keep out, who you let into the whole backyard, or who you let just inside the gate. Boundaries give you more ownership of your own internal landscape. They allow you to adhere to your values and beliefs, and honor your own experience more successfully.

Healthy boundaries aren’t always “natural” or easy to put in place. If you grew up around people who didn’t have them, it will take more intentional work to clarify where you end and others begin. But good news! It's totally possible.

Clearly defining where you end and others begin is an act of freedom and kindness (though at times it may feel more like "making rules" or saying no). It means getting to know yourself better and getting clearer on where you stand and what you stand for. And then making that clear and not taking crap for it when you do.

I like to think of work-related boundaries as existing in seven different categories:

  • Physical

  • Conversational

  • Material

  • Time

  • Emotional

  • Mental

  • Internal

(I've left off sexual boundaries because I'm really hoping none of you is having sex at work. The end.)

In my next few posts, we'll look at each boundary in greater depth, what it looks like when it's violated, and what it might sound like if you were to enforce it. I've started with physical boundaries because they're the most external boundaries and they're easier to see. Understanding physical boundaries may help to better understand the other six kinds.

Physical Boundaries – To control your privacy, personal space, and body

Research shows that the average American needs about two feet of personal space around them to be comfortable. But your physical boundaries are about more than just space.

Physical boundaries are about the kind of touch, interaction, or physical power dynamics (even without touch) that you find acceptable. These boundaries vary depending on the situation and the person(s) involved in it – for example, you may be comfortable hugging a partner but not a boss. Or you may be comfortable hugging, but not the first time you meet someone, or not after they've had too many drinks at the company holiday party.

Physical boundaries can be violated by actual touch or by physical threats, as well as by someone invading your privacy or non-bodily physical space (like your computer, office, or home).

These violations can look like:

  • Standing too close to you in the elevator

  • Putting a hand on your body without permission

  • Pushing papers or trash onto your side of the shared desk

  • Touching your hair

  • Blocking your path

  • Using objects to invade your personal space (breath, hair, backpack, etc.)

When a physical boundary is violated, I can feel it. I feel antsy, awkward, and generally uncomfortable in the center of my body. I want to move away quickly or make the whole experience stop right away. Sometimes I'll even laugh because I'm so uncomfortable, even though the situation is in no way funny.

Standing up for your physical boundaries teaches others around you what is and is not ok with you. The goal in standing up for your boundaries is to do it before the boundary is crossed, but when that's not possible, state your boundary as calmly and unemotionally as possible (which, as you can imagine, is harder once it's been crossed).

You might say something like:

  • “I'm not a hugger – let’s shake hands instead.”

  • “I’ll sit over here so I can have some space.”

  • “Your seat is on the other side of the table.”

  • "If you keep touching my leg, I'll end this meeting."

  • "I'd like you to keep your stuff in your area and out of mine."

Instead of simply outlining what you don't want, it's helpful to indicate what you do want, or what is ok with you. And if you end up issuing an ultimatum (like ending the meeting, above), you need to stick to your guns and do it or you've taught the other person that you're all talk and there aren't any actual consequences.

Start by identifying what is and isn't ok with you physically. Do those change based on the person and the situation? Note that. And pay attention to how you feel when a boundary is crossed. Identify what you'd prefer in that situation, and then write that down.

And remember, setting boundaries is about teaching other people how to treat you. Not everyone will like it, but anyone who doesn't respect it doesn't deserve your time.

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Jan 16
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

So helpful!


Feb 15, 2023
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