Setting boundaries can feel challenging, especially when you’re in a situation where there’s a power differential. It can also be difficult if you weren’t able to establish boundaries early on in your relationship with another person — especially when that other person is your boss.
Though the road to building boundaries isn’t always an easy one to travel, there are steps you can take to make establishing them with your boss less burdensome. Using tips from psychologists, set boundaries with your boss more easily by employing the following tactics:
1. Understand why you’re setting your boundaries.
“Ease your dissonance with a list of the reasons why your boundaries are necessary,” suggests Dr. Shawn Meghan Burn, a Professor of Psychology at California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo. Remind yourself why you need to set boundaries. If taking calls from your boss at dinner or answering emails before the sun comes up has negatively impacted your personal life or well-being, don’t downplay it. Sometimes we put off things because we forget how important they are, but reminding yourself of the consequences of not setting boundaries can make pushing through the discomfort of creating them more bearable.
2. Identify your exact limits.
Just saying to your boss that you need boundaries isn’t enough to establish them. You have to listen to your body to really get a sense of where we should set our boundaries.“Those feelings help us identify what our limits are,” says psychologist Dr. Dana Gionta. Create concrete limits for what you are and are not able to do. If you have a boss who discusses their personal life with you too frequently, and that makes you feel uneasy, tell them that you don’t want to discuss non-work related topics with them.
3. Speak with someone you trust.
Speaking to your boss about anything serious can create a sense of dread, so it’s important to have someone to reach out to in case you feel stressed or overwhelmed. Instead of keeping it inside, turn to someone who you can count on to bring you comfort or advice. “In these difficult situations, practicing self-care, reaching out to one’s support system, or seeking counseling can help tremendously,” recommends Johanna Howe, a Licenced Clinical Professional Counselor at Johns Hopkins.
4. Repeat self-affirming statements.
If you feel uneasy about discussing boundaries with your boss, that’s normal. To combat this, work to change your internal dialogue. “Further offset ambivalence and strengthen commitment to boundaries with affirmative self-statements,” suggests Dr. Burn. For instance, if you find yourself imagining the worst outcome, change the script in your head. Tell yourself that you are strong and capable. Remind yourself that you are prepared to deal with whatever the outcome of your discussion is, and remember the times when you’ve successfully confronted someone before.
5. Be up-front.
“Even though we know intellectually that people aren’t mind readers, we still expect others to know what hurts us,” says Dr. Gionta. Resist the urge to beat around the bush when you speak to your boss. Tell them what you want and why you want it. If your boss is giving you assignments that you know are out of your range or telling you about their personal life more than you care to hear, let them know that. Using euphemisms or unclear language can lead to misunderstandings.
6. Emphasize that you’re both on the same side.
Focus on how these boundaries will help you reach a common goal. Howe provides a personal example of a woman in her community who incessantly pushed her to volunteer for more projects than she was able to handle. When Howe expressed her needs, she focused on what they had in common. “You know we both really want to make the neighborhood a great place to live, but I can only do one large project this year,” she told her neighbor. By reminding the neighbor that they were on the same side, Howe presented the idea that the boundary was being set for the good of their neighborhood—something they both cared about. When you approach your boss, acknowledge that you both want you to provide the highest quality of work as possible, and that can only be achieved by setting boundaries.
7. Create small boundaries first.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither are boundaries. “Build upon your success, and try not to take on something that feels overwhelming. Setting boundaries takes courage, practice and support,” says Dr. Gionta. Instead of avoiding talking about them all together, work up to addressing larger issues by first communicating about smaller ones.
Kayla Heisler is an essayist and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet. She is an MFA candidate at Columbia University, and her work appears in New York's Best Emerging Poets 2017 anthology.