A boundary used to mean the fence around your garden. A personal boundary, meanwhile, was the sizeable gap you deliberately left between your chair and that of the office creep at the drunken team meal. Now, like almost everything else, boundaries have also moved into the emotional and behavioural sphere as “self-care practices” we can mobilise to support our lives and careers.
I don’t say this to mock. I am delighted that being, as they say, “intentional” with our boundaries has evolved in recent years. Last month I even spent £40 on a boundary-setting workshop led by a famous American yoga and breathwork guru. (If you aren’t familiar with breathwork — it’s amazing. But that’s another story.)
Even as an off-duty journalist, I still wrote down everything the guru said. Here’s one for free: “To create a boundary is an act of love.” It’s woo-woo, but it makes sense to me. It means that it’s a positive thing to communicate our needs to others around us before tensions escalate into rows and miscommunication, whether that’s at home or at work.
Still, after two hours, and with stiff joints from sitting on the floor, what I realised was that all boundary setting is just a fancy way of allowing yourself to say no to stuff you don’t want to do. (Please don’t @ me — I know it’s obvious, but I’m a sucker for out-there courses and therapies.)
Until about 10 years ago, many of us inhabited professional workplaces built by and for white men. Anyone not matching that description had to work extremely hard to get on, and saying yes to everything was built into the deal.
I shudder to think, for example, of how many hours I spent on a now-defunct newspaper, trying to edit its financial pages with just one super-productive colleague. Naturally we never talked about boundaries, or work-life balance. There was no way we could stop work from taking over our lives, or even articulate what was happening (which was that I was newly married but almost never saw my husband).
Until someone names and vocalises a state of being or a trend, personal boundaries being one example (and see also self-care, mentoring, inclusion, pipelines, even quiet quitting), then it cannot be part of conscious efforts to achieve agency over our careers and lives, nor can we go on to engineer structural change in our workplaces.
Our new notions of personal boundaries come courtesy of younger generations raised online, who had to find their own limits, or else allow the performative, always-on world to overwhelm them. The writer and podcaster Emma Gannon, in her book (Dis) connected, advises reconnecting with friends, not obsessing over our online selves, and going analogue to “lean in to what makes us human”.
Putting up some protective barriers around our IRL selves is important, but it’s do-able because we aren’t accountable to anyone else. How best to do it at work, in a constructive way without damaging your own prospects? Helen Tupper, co-founder and chief executive of career development company Amazing If, suggests using a technique called “I can, if”. It works like this: “Share what you are working on and say ‘I can take this on if XXX is delayed’ or ‘I can do this presentation for you if someone else can cover me in the meeting’. The technique of ‘I can, if’ forces people to consider the other things you are working on and make a priority call.”
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Exceptions apply. There are times when we knowingly take on too much, to gain a new skill, secure a promotion or get noticed. If pushing yourself to your limits — and beyond — is your own choice, then you remain in control. But as Tupper points out, there will still be a cost: “Whatever it is, you always need to ask yourself, ‘If I’m saying yes to this, what am I saying no to?’”
I am saying yes to saying no more often these days. But that’s because I can. I am relatively senior and the culture in most workplaces has vastly improved for white women. The barriers often remain for many others, including visible minorities, neurodiverse colleagues and people identifying as LGBT+.
One of the nuanced aspects of the recent “quiet quitting” trend was that it can be a privilege to be able to set limits on what we do. Many people who feel marginalised in workplaces still have to push their boundaries to fit in, or to be noticed for promotion.
If we, as managers and leaders, get better at saying no and being reasonable about workload expectations, that’s going to benefit everyone. And it would leave more time for yoga, or breathwork — or for your best, decidedly non woo-woo, life.
Isabel Berwick is host of the FT’s Working It podcast