Q & A Today: Setting Personal Boundaries
By Eileen S. Lenson, MSW, ACSW, BCC
Posted on June 27, 2021
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Q: A colleague and I carpool to work together. The problem is that even though we have a specific time to meet, she is often late; always with an excuse. This means I get to work just in the nick of time or slightly late. It causes me to feel rushed when I finally get to my desk and have to play catch up because I’m late. Recently she borrowed money from me for lunch. It wasn’t a large amount, but she never paid me back.
That was the last straw for me. I’m getting quite annoyed, feeling used and taken for granted. Please tell me if I am making too much of these issues? She’s noticing that I’m more tense and sullen during the morning drive, and has begun to ask what is wrong. Should I just let these issues slide so it doesn’t affect our relationship? – Mary
A: Mary, you are not making too much of this. You obviously have strong feelings regarding work and money. Boundaries are what you set for yourself so that you can feel comfortable engaging or not engaging in activities related to work and money. Your co-worker is disrespecting your boundaries and that does not sit well with you.
We have lots of different types of boundaries, and we exercise them all through the day, even though we often are not consciously aware we are doing so. Locks on the front doors of our homes protect our physical boundaries by preventing people from entering our home without our permission. We protect our emotional boundaries when we tell someone we don’t want to hear a joke that involves inappropriate racial content. Our material boundaries such as wallets and banks protect our money. And we even have boundaries built around how we allow others to impose on our time. The problem arises when we establish these boundaries for ourselves and others disregard them. You not only have a right to have reasonable boundaries but must also be prepared to defend them.
This is because boundaries help us feel good about ourselves whereas disrespected boundaries cause us to feel hurt and resentful. But before you start blaming your co-worker for being selfish or insensitive, I encourage you to first review what message you may be giving her that your needs – or boundaries – don’t matter.
We often think that others should know how we’re feeling, not realising that none of us are good mind readers. Sometimes people blame the offender for making them upset rather than evaluating their own role in not establishing and enforcing boundaries. It is incumbent upon us to be clear about what we want from others in regard to behaviour. I encourage you to think about whether you’ve clearly and consistently conveyed your needs to your co-worker.
Some people get their boundaries trampled because they don’t recognise that they have a right to their feelings, such as being angry when someone violates their needs. When this happens the hurtful behavior continues. Another common reason includes not wanting to upset the other person, even making excuses for the offender engaging in the upsetting behaviour.
When you don’t establish boundaries you’re not taking proper care of yourself. Boundaries can help you avoid getting physically sick because the emotional stress you build up when they’re being trampled by others can create maladies ranging from poor sleep to head and stomach aches to feeling a lack of energy.
I assume you now realise personal boundaries are essential and that failure on your part to not be aware of or express them creates resentment and feelings of being victimised. I suggest letting your co-worker know that your arrival time at work is a high priority for you and that you expect to be repaid when she borrows money. Doing so can be healthy and good not only for you but also for your relationship.
Communicating your wants to your co-worker removes any misunderstandings or guesswork on her part. Find a time when she is available to talk. Focus on the behavioir, taking caution to not personally attack or shame her. Keep it as simple as possible without lengthy explanations. Tell her why the boundary you’re discussing is necessary.
Expressing yourself assertively is a healthy way to talk about the issues rather than let them continue to grow and fester. This entails describing your feelings about her behaviours. Use “I Statements” rather than “You Statements.” Approaching her with “You Statements” like “you are inconsiderate when you…” are shaming and accusatory and will likely provoke a defensive reaction in her. If you will instead use an “I Statement” and say, “I realise you have a lot of things going on in the morning, but I feel frustrated when you are late for carpool because it causes me to start off the work day on the wrong footing. I need for us to leave for work on time.”
Having said this, determine if she heard you correctly. Does she understand how you feel? Does she agree to what you have said? Hopefully, speaking up about the importance of adhering to the agreed upon carpool pickup time and expectation to be reimbursed for loaned lunch money allows her the opportunity to respect your ‘line in the sand’. As a result, you’ll have cleared the air with your co-worker and will likely be more positive in your future interactions with her.
However, the possibility exists that despite your attempt to take care of yourself and strengthen the relationship by being direct, open and honest, it may not come to be. You have no control over how she will respond to your decision to establish better personal boundaries.
Your co-worker may choose to react defensively and angrily. She may even continue to disregard your boundaries and be late for the morning carpool. If this should occur then honouring your boundaries includes sharing your observation that the carpool simply does not work at this point in time and you will need to make different arrangements for yourself.
Good luck and best regards,
Eileen S. Lenson, MSW, ACSW, BCC is author of Overcoming Adversity: Conquering Life’s Challenges, by Australian Academic Press. Eileen is a life and business coach and public speaker residing in the United States. She has spent her professional career working in medical and psychiatric hospitals and in her private practice, counselling people experiencing emotionally traumatic events.
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