Updated: Jul 10, 2020
Learning to draw boundaries is an essential skill for the driven professional. For anyone with a strong sense of personal responsibility, it's all too easy to say yes to any and every need that comes up. For anyone that's a people pleaser saying no feels more costly than pitching in, and giving people what they want. For anyone that prides themselves on being helpful, supporting someone in their time of need feels non-negotiable.
But the problem with always volunteering yourself, saying yes, and taking on new responsibilities is that not every problem is yours to solve.
Chris Prentiss said, "If you attempt too much, you will end by succeeding at nothing."
Your job isn't to take on the world. Your job isn't to be everyone's friend. Your job isn't to make everyone else's life easier.
Your job is to do the best you can with what you've got in any given moment. And doing your best means drawing boundaries.
I was recently working with a client that's overworked and exhausted because she says yes to taking responsibility for every problem that feels like it's remotely in her wheelhouse. Sometimes a metaphor goes a long way, so I explored with her the analogy of the neighbor's tree.
Just because there's a tree on your neighbor's property that affects your property doesn't mean you're responsible for maintaining it. You might have to advocate for them to trim it and take care of it so it doesn't fall on your house. But it's not your responsibility to do or pay for the work. In this instance, there's a clear boundary and it's called a property line.
So, as problems arise at work it can be helpful to ask yourself, whose property does this tree reside on? Asking yourself a question like that adds a little levity while interrupting your knee jerk reaction to say "I'll do that!" Reflecting on the answer also enables you to make a more conscientious commitment. After all, taking on things that are not your responsibility only weakens the collective!
Of course, like anything, you can take drawing these boundaries too far. I've worked with some organizations where people are so quick to step away from a problem because it's not their responsibility. Yet they do have some skin in the game, and their ignoring it only makes matters worse for everyone.
There's a fine line between internalizing responsibility and supporting the collective. Sometimes, drawing a healthy boundary simply means bringing the problem to the responsible party's attention in a supportive way. After all, the neighbor might not have noticed that a branch of their tree has started scrapping your gutters on windy days.
As we wrapped up discussing boundaries my client serenely said, "this analogy really resonates with me. Our neighbor's tree needed work and I offered to help pay for it."
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