Careers

Setting boundaries: how to overcome a fear of being ‘difficult’ while enforcing boundaries at work

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Lauren Geall
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Pushing back against the colleagues and work systems which encroach on your boundaries can be a scary prospect – here’s how to get started.

Beyond the day-to-day responsibilities, one of the most stressful parts of any job is navigating the social side of the workplace. No matter how well you get along with your colleagues, knowing how to communicate your wants and needs in a clear and effective way can be a challenge – especially when it comes to setting boundaries.

As easy as it is to talk about the benefits of setting boundaries and establishing a clear work/life divide, standing up for what you want isn’t always so simple.

While many of us understand how important it is to log off on time, not answer emails outside of hours and get some space from work on the weekends, pushing back against the colleagues and systems which get in the way of these boundaries can be an anxiety-inducing prospect – especially if you fear being seen as ‘difficult’. 

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So, what can you do to overcome these fears and set the boundaries you deserve? According to Gemma Perlin, a leading behavioural change coach, the first step is simply interrogating where all these fears and beliefs come from.

“Ask yourself where the voice in your head that tells you that setting boundaries means you’re difficult really comes from,” she recommends.

“Is that something you really think or something you’ve been influenced to think? Also ask yourself where your fear of being called difficult comes from, too – what’s driving these beliefs is what you want to work out a lot of the time.” 

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Interrogating where your fear of being difficult comes from will put you in a better place to deal with it.

Once you’ve become familiar with your fear and where it’s coming from, the next step is challenging that fear and the beliefs associated with it. 

“Really have a conversation with that voice, and start to recognise that it’s just a story or narrative that you’ve been told,” Perlin suggests. “Is it worth listening to that voice when it can actually inhibit the way you want to live your life and approach your career and relationships?”

She continues: “Having that conversation gives you awareness – and the moment we have awareness over what’s going on we have a choice not to listen.” 

While the idea of ‘setting boundaries’ has become a bit of a buzzy concept over the last 18 months, Perlin is keen to stress just how important having boundaries at work can be – and why, in turn, overcoming a fear of being seen as difficult is so valuable.

“Besides allowing you to look after yourself by preventing burnout, boundaries also provide clarity for everyone,” she explains. “Without boundaries, how do we really know where we stand? If we think of boundaries as a real-life, physical concept, it’s easier to see just how important they are – we know where our flat is because we know where the walls are.

“If there are no boundaries, no one knows where they’re supposed to be going. They give a sense of real clarity and reassurance – we often think that people need to guess what we want and what’s going on in our heads, but we never really know what other people expect.” 

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While overcoming your fear of being seen as ‘difficult’ may not happen overnight – especially since, Perlin adds, this is often something women struggle with because we’ve been conditioned to be helpful and accommodating 24/7 – taking the time to interrogate your emotions is a great place to start.

Your wellbeing at work is incredibly important – and setting healthy boundaries is just one part of the puzzle. 

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time.

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