Boundaries. Where do they come from? How do we set them? What does that even mean for a PM?
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Issue #11

Let's Talk Boundaries

This week I had a therapy appointment and ended up doing a deep-dive into the idea of boundaries with the therapist. When we started talking, I thought that I was pretty good (and getting better) at setting boundaries for myself—but turns out I was really wrong (therapy has a blunt way of pointing this out to you, every time you think you've figured something out). 

Setting boundaries is nothing new to me as a project manager, and even more familiar to me now: I follow the holy trinity of setting project, freelance, and remote work boundaries. But there's a lot more to our boundaries and where they come from—and it's fascinating.

Basics on boundaries

A healthy boundary allows you to take responsibility for your own actions and emotions, while at the same time not taking responsibility for the actions or emotions of others. Unhealthy boundaries mean taking too much responsibility for others' emotions and actions, or expecting others to take responsibility for your own emotions and actions. 

Boundaries can easily get tangled up into the projects we work on: we become friends co-workers, have difficult clients or stressful projects, interact with all levels of employees and management, and generally are one of the hubs of communication on projects—all while enforcing project and professional boundaries (like not working after hours, responding appropriately to criticism, and dealing with tough conversations).

Unpacking where our boundaries come from

We begin creating our personal boundaries from childhood, influenced by our parents and peers. It's easy to map this to how our professional boundaries get set: not only are they influenced by our own personal boundaries, but they come from years of learning from experience and professional influences. A common CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) method to understand the origin of boundaries is to list out types of boundaries and what your attitude is towards them now, what you feel is or isn't appropriate about them, and where you learned or set those boundaries.

The "5 Things" exercise in this article can be adapted nicely for our professional boundaries and quizzing ourselves about what is and isn't working right now. We can also evaluate by asking ourselves:
  • When a situation occurs, how uncomfortable, resentful, or guilty do I feel in the moment?
  • How often do I worry about what other people think?
  • When did I last say no to this person/situation, and did I feel guilty about it?
  • Am I saying yes to things when I don't have the time, energy, or ability to do this myself?
  • Am I overly involved in this issue?
  • Do I care more about this situation than is appropriate for my position/involvemen in my work?
  • Do I feel like I deserve respect or I have to earn it by being ‘nice’ or acting a certain way?
  • Do I speak up when I feel it is necessary?

More reading

Emotional boundaries are another consideration when communicating at work—specifically, how communication can effect emotions. Harvard Business Review has a great article about creating emotional filters at work.

This Huffington Post article about healthy and unhealthy boundaries explains the types of questions you can ask yourself to quickly gauge where your boundaries fall—and how to re-engineer those. Here's another great source for setting boundaries and asking good questions of yourself.

Establish new boundaries using these tips or read this article on workplace-specific boundary-setting.

Other links:
  • Helen Holmes shared a great article this week about preparing conference talks.
  • Ela Conf wrote a huge post about all of their challenges and struggles in running a conference—and it's worth a read.
  • Holly Davis is killing it with her bi-weekly software delivery-focused newsletter. Check out the most recent issue here.
  • I recently learned the term "rubber duck debugging" and love it—and thanks to a surprise Amazon delivery I now have 18 rubber ducks to talk to when needed.
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Copyright © 2017 Natalie Semczuk, All rights reserved.

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