You’ve seen some short illustrations here and there, but now I turn to longer examples of setting boundaries. Perhaps you’ll relate to some of these situations and can apply them to your own life. I focus mainly on setting boundaries at work, dating, and with family members. At the end, there is a chance to fill in some questions so you can consider how to address boundaries in your relationships.
Boundaries around Work Schedules
For my first example, I draw on one summer in graduate school in which I held a patchwork of jobs and was working on my dissertation. One of these jobs was as a therapist in a program monitoring teens who were awaiting hearings. My clients, the teens, lived in all parts of the city, requiring me to drive from one side to another in rush-hour traffic. It wasn’t until the next summer that I finally figured out what to do. (To my credit, no one in my support system to whom I’d complained had thought of it either.) My solution was simple, to block out a section of each day, and the caseworkers could schedule their clients in these times. By making a small change, I felt better; I was no longer becoming frustrated with heavy traffic and no-shows. I had more time and energy to focus on my dissertation once I didn’t have to be available to the caseworkers and clients at any day and time.
Withdrawing from a Commitment at Work
There are many times at work (or in our personal lives, for that matter), where we accept (or are given) a commitment, but it starts becoming a much larger project than we had originally foreseen. Here is a graceful way to withdraw, using “I” messages: Thank you for the opportunity to collaborate with you on this [fill in project]. [List here what you have accomplished since last go-round.] I spent a significant amount of time on this and hope you find it acceptable. With [other time responsibilities], I really cannot dedicate any more time to this project, unfortunately.
Setting Boundaries with a Superior
Yvonne’s “presenting problem” as we call it in mental health provider language, was insomnia due to anxiety – racing thoughts of doom, a tight chest and tense body, out-and-out fear. Part of her anxiety was caused by demands placed on her by the owner of the dental practice where she worked. The head dentist would put work on her desk at the end of her day.
First, we examined her fear that if she said anything to him, she would be fired; the likelihood of that happening, she admitted, was low. The dentist had fired one of the receptionists before, but that was because she hadn’t shown up for work one day. Yvonne was a responsible employee so that didn’t pertain to her. Second, we discussed an appropriate boundary to set, which Yvonne decided was to leave at 5 pm each day. Finally, she was able to say to the head dentist: “If you need something done at the end of the day, I’ll have to get it much earlier to finish it on time.” She reported that the dentist barely acknowledged the statement, but he was careful about not burdening her at the end of the day from then on.
Quitting a Job
Sara had held a particular job after graduate school because, although the pay was low, it provided the two-years’ worth of licensure hours she needed. After the two years were complete, Sara felt guilty about telling her supervisor that she wanted to phase out. In this particular situation, we did a couple of role plays, and then we did the following where I played her supervisor as she feared. Note that in the following dialogue, it is written as if Sara and her supervisor were in interaction.
“I just wanted to talk to you a little about my plans,” Sara started off during her weekly meeting with her supervisor. “It’s a little ways off still, but I wanted to tell you in advance.”
“Oh, okay, this doesn’t sound good,” said the supervisor.
Sara started in with a smile. “I was always hoping to return to Springfield – you know that’s where I went to grad school and some of my friends settled there? What I would like to do in six weeks is go part-time here. That way, I can hopefully transition a new person here, and I can start to establish myself in Springfield.”
“Wow, that’s a lot to take in,” said her supervisor, shifting in her seat.
“Yeah, I know, it is a lot.” Here, Sara showed that she was hearing her supervisor’s budding concerns.
“I have to say, I’m feeling – well, used that we spent so much time developing you, and now you’re leaving when you get your licensure.” This was the explicit fear Sara had discussed.
“I know how much time you’ve put in to developing me as a clinician, and I really appreciate it, so I can see why you’d feel that way. I have to say – and we’ve talked about this a lot – that the corporate culture here really rubs me the wrong way, and I’m interested in seeing what another kind of setting is like.”
You can see here how Sara spoke in a series of “I” messages that the supervisor could not really argue with. Yes, she was disappointed that Sara planned to leave, but she could understand, given what information Sara has shared. In reality, as it often happens, Sara’s supervisor did not give Sara any pushback about her decision, and, in fact, said she had expected it.
Setting Boundaries with Colleagues
Allison, an attorney, said she worked with a colleague, who, while full of charisma and “rainmaking” skills for the firm, would lean on her to do his preparation for court appearances. Allison had talked to the partners about it, and they were sympathetic, but nothing changed.
After exploring the situation, Allison and I did a role play wherein she played her colleague, Robert, complaining about the amount of prep he had, and ending with a lament about needing Allison and her team’s assistance. Allison was able to state, “I’m sorry, Robert, my paralegal is scheduled on my matters.”
I pushed back as Robert, “Come on, Allison, you can give me some of her time. I really need it.”
“I’m sorry, Robert, we’re completely booked,” she answered.
“What am I going to do without her?” Robert asked.
When we processed the role play, Allison admitted she would have caved long before in her actual interactions with this particular colleague. She said, as I had challenged her as Robert, in the role play, she’d started to wonder in her mind whether she could have moved her paralegal’s schedule around to fit in Robert’s work. “I’ve done that before,” she admitted. The reason she had come to therapy, however, was the amount of stress she felt at work with all she had to keep up with.
When she reported back after carrying this out with her colleague, Allison said that he had not “given her a hard time” and instead, seemed to take it in stride. Perhaps when she said no for the first time, he realized he was making unreasonable requests.
Kimberly worked in a company in which the employees had to get – and keep – business. A long-time customer of hers needed a special report which was beyond Kimberly’s expertise. Therefore, Kimberly had to reach out to a senior colleague because it fell into his specialty area. He, however, didn’t follow through with deadlines, and neither the client, nor Kimberly, could get a hold of him. When he eventually replied, the report was complete, but the bill ended up being much more than the customer had expected. Kimberly was left feeling embarrassed in front of a customer with whom she’d previously enjoyed a good working relationship. Kimberly was worried about talking to her senior colleague, partly out of respect for the hierarchy in place at her organization and because she wanted to keep a good collegial relationship with him.
In this case, Kimberly and I worked together to formulate how this interaction could go. As a result, Kimberly scheduled a video conference call with her colleague and explained to him that she valued her customer and was always mindful of the cost parameter the customer had set, and careful about setting deadlines that she could realistically meet. If there were additional costs, she would let the customer know first and then get them approved in writing before she proceeded. Since they couldn’t undo the damage, she requested that he have contact with the client in which he took accountability for what happened, and that he worked with the higher-ups to deal with the cost problem.
Kimberly reported that, during the call, her colleague was pleasant, but with an undercurrent of dismissiveness. He said this was how he always worked, people were usually okay with it, and that the customer was not being realistic about how much it would cost to do the specialized task. He agreed to rectify the situation and seemed confident that he would be able to work it out somehow. Kimberly, at that point, felt like she had done everything she could, since she’d also apologized to the customer and had shared with her own supervisor what had happened. The anxiety for which she had come to treatment was reduced as she was able to draw more boundaries around her work.