Don't feel guilty about setting boundaries

Karen Natzel
BridgeTower Media Newswires

Most professionals I coach have diverse and demanding roles in their organizations. They define vision and strategy, generate and track budgets and schedules, run meetings, ensure clients are satisfied, provide subject matter expertise to solve complex issues, guide their teams, and make difficult decisions. In short, they are responsible for overall organizational performance — and they are overcommitted and stretched thin.

On a recent coaching call with a vice president, I discovered she was working ridiculous hours to meet the never-ending to-do list. My concern was her schedule was not sustainable, nor setting a good example for her team. She wanted better work-life balance (and less stress), but couldn’t see how she could achieve it. It became apparent she struggled with having and enforcing healthy boundaries.

Curious and perplexed by why boundaries can be so difficult to create and maintain, I spoke with clients and colleagues about their experiences with boundaries — why it’s challenging and what works for them.

It seems people with good boundaries know what they want and what it takes to get it; they know how they want to spend their precious time, and they possess a healthy level of self-worth.

This clarity of one’s wants and needs, and the belief one has the right to fulfill it, are prerequisites for any person to truly and effectively commit to creating the work-life balance desired.

Boundaries are a tool for putting structure or framework into one’s life. They help you define what’s important to you — and what you are willing to accept and what you are not. They are guidelines for shaping what’s reasonable and permissible as behaviors. Boundaries help you focus time, money and energy more intentionally. They help you surround yourself with the kind of people, thinking and experiences that contribute to your growth and success. And, it turns out healthy boundaries build good relationships!

So, how do you know if your boundaries have been crossed, when you don’t know what they are? We are constantly pinged at home and work to respond to the next invitation, problem to solve, task to do or shiny new object to pursue. A full calendar does not equate to a full and rewarding life. As pressure mounts from overcommitting, we find ourselves with less capacity or tolerance for saying yes. As we near exasperation (or panic), we may finally find our voice to say, simply and calmly, “no.” Sometimes the throes of chaos spark a moment of clarity of what’s really most important.

If boundaries are healthy, why is there resistance? People challenged with boundaries may be people pleasers eager to help their colleagues. Often, in our desire to be a contributing team player and be supportive of the organization’s objectives, we overextend ourselves. We enable poor management by saying “yes” to help out, when in reality, there needs to be a more accurate assessment of the organization’s resources and priorities. When this happens repeatedly, it can generate resentment, dissatisfaction and burnout.

Many people feel selfish and guilty when they try to create boundaries. They schedule dedicated solo time to work on a project or get some exercise, only to allow that time to be hijacked by the needs of others. If you find it difficult to say no, examine your reasons. Are you uncomfortable with disappointing someone? Do you get satisfaction out of being the “hero” or “go-to person” for fixing things? Do you lack clarity around what it is you’re trying to accomplish?

There’s a perception that boundaries are restrictive, and for those of us fiercely independent people who aren’t naturally rule followers, we might disregard anything that we believe stifles our creativity or freedom. Yet healthy boundaries give us the necessary framework to manifest what we say we want.

Having good boundaries requires getting clear on what we want our experience and relationships to be about. That clarity sets the tone and direction for mapping out how you spend your time. As you focus on priorities, you’ll find you gain traction on getting the right things done and you build momentum, trust, credibility and confidence. You also model good, sustainable behavior to your teams. As you make room for taking care of what’s most important to you, you are investing in your own satisfaction and self-worth.

Tips for success

Here are some starting points:

• Get clear on your intent and create value for your boundaries. Understanding your “why” will guide your decision-making.

• Say no and accept no. Be clear about what you have capacity for and respect others’ boundaries. “Thanks for the invite. I’m afraid I can’t go because I’m taking my girls to soccer practice. Send me photos and I’ll be sure to post them on our intranet.”

• You are responsible for how you treat others, but you are not responsible for what they think of you.

• Be assertive and respectful, and not aggressive, defensive or apologetic. Own it and drive it.

• Address it neutrally. Don’t take it personally or assume bad intent.

• Be consistent. Incorporate boundaries into your personal brand and leadership style.

Notice how you feel at completion of an activity. Are you drained and spent, or energized and accomplished? Let your emotional awareness serve as a guide in crafting boundaries that fit you.

What are you giving your “yes” to? Living a life with healthy boundaries requires living a fully committed and intentional life.


Karen Natzel is a business therapist who helps leaders create healthy, vibrant and high-performing organizations. Contact her at