Those in the legal profession face more demands than most, which makes setting boundaries even more important — but not more comfortable. Fortunately, there are ways to make it easier.
Setting boundaries rather than living with limitations helps us preserve our time and energy for our real priorities — but it can feel uncomfortable and difficult to do. We’re all experiencing challenging times, between an ongoing global pandemic and efforts to make real and overdue antiracist change. And of course, the legal profession is one of the most challenging — and the work is critical.
Biases, conscious and unconscious, create additional demands for some of us to prove ourselves again and again, making it even more difficult to establish healthy boundaries around work. We need to recognize the additional labor our systems require of Black professionals, women, and Black women most of all. White people need to prioritize antiracism, and be mindful of that priority and purpose in setting boundaries.
BOUNDARIES V. LIMITATIONS
One of the best uses of your time and energy, in service of your mental health, is to create and maintain healthy boundaries in all aspects of your life. Many of us are guilty of living our lives — professionally and personally, in whole or in part — within the confines of limitations. Limitations are the point at which you cannot do more or an external restriction prevents you from doing more. For example, you’re working late into the night and falling asleep at your computer (biological limitations), your neighbor asks for your help carrying a heavy box upstairs but you are not home, a client wants to schedule an urgent meeting but you are scheduled to be in court at that time.
Letting a limitation determine your availability makes it impossible to set priorities for yourself. Structuring your life with limitations can make you feel like you are “doing all that you can” and it relieves the guilt of saying “no” without a good excuse. The downside of living your life within limitations is that you feel a lack of control in the important areas of your life. It also makes self-care and maintaining your mental well-being very challenging.
Boundaries act in many ways as the opposite of limitations. Boundaries give you the control in determining your stopping point. Boundaries are self-imposed restrictions designed to foster appropriate interactions, enforce healthy expectations, and increase an internal sense of control in one’s life. Boundaries are good. Boundaries are essential for mental well-being.
THE PROBLEM OF DISCOMFORT
The secret to maintaining boundaries is the ability to tolerate the discomfort it requires. Setting boundaries is often very uncomfortable — particularly at first, which makes it difficult to do. It’s normal not to want to disappoint others, but it’s impossible to avoid. Ultimately, setting boundaries is more comfortable than the endless discomfort of living under the pressure of limitations.
The reality is that there’s no way to avoid all the uncomfortable feelings associated with telling people “no” without pointing to “a good excuse” that is outside of your control. This discomfort is commonly highlighted when you set a boundary (i.e. say “no”) and in response you’re asked “why?” — explicitly or not. Why can’t you meet me then? Why can’t you work late tonight? Why can’t you cancel plans this weekend and focus on my concerns? The dreaded “why” questions are the most common reason for people abandoning boundaries and simply working to the point of a limitation. And often many of us presume an implied why — all the time.
HELPFUL STARTING TIPS
A few expectations can help you prepare: (1) People will push back — it’s human nature; (2) You will be asked “why?” (3) You will feel defensive at first, until you develop more confidence.
Remembering a few things can help you through the discomfort: (1) Others do this, you can do this, and people will adjust; (2) You’re still a caring and compassionate person, and (3) It isn’t your job to make other people feel better — discomfort is necessary for growth.
And, a few strategies can make setting boundaries a little more comfortable and easier to start. Start by asking yourself: (1) What you have control over; (2) What you’re capable of; and (3) Whether your expectations are realistic. Then practice setting boundaries with the following principles:
- Start with setting small boundaries: Say “no” to small requests first — identify something that you could say “yes” to, but instead practice saying “no” and sticking to it.
- Give yourself time to think: Instead of saying “yes,” say “I’ll have to get back to you on that”. Many times, we say “yes” automatically only to discover that it was not the best response we could give. An intermediate step between and automatic “yes” and an awkward “no” can be the “I need to check my calendar and get back to you”. Stalling can help give you a moment to think and resist acting impulsively (even if that impulsivity is with good intentions).
- Prioritize your time and energy: Spend time thinking about what is truly important to you and then make plans to prioritize those activities or events over other things that might pop up.
- Practice sitting with discomfort: Telling someone “no” can be uncomfortable. Seeing that person express negative or sad emotions as a result can also be uncomfortable. So, instead of trying to make the discomfort end as soon as possible, just let the discomfort exist and remind yourself that it will end on its own.
- Practice focusing on one boundary first: You might gain confidence faster by focusing on one type of boundary, whether it’s something that’s easiest thing for you to decline, the most important — i.e. a constant source of drain, or somewhere in between.
HOW TO COMMUNICATE BOUNDARIES
Depending on the situation, you can consider a few options as you communicate a boundary: (1) Just say “no” without an explanation; (2) Say “I’m not able to do that right now: and (perhaps) provide a time in the future that you might be able to; (3) If someone is not explicitly asking you to do something, acknowledge the situation and their feelings but avoid volunteering to solve their problem. Further, if you’re being asked to do something outside your expertise or job description, provide a simple reason and avoid the temptation to find another way to say “yes” (e.g. “I can’t do that but I could do X.”)
It’d be easy to set boundaries if the recipients always smiled genuinely, said no problem, and went along happily each time we did it. As you receive messages back, reflect feelings to hear back to the sender. General communication skills help with boundary setting. Find more here on active listening. Find more here on conflict resolution. And find more here on communication generally.
For associates and interns, saying no to work can be particularly difficult. Believe it or not, many employers really value employees who guard themselves against burnout. Find more on the diplomatic way to say no to work here.
Finally, in particularly tough situations with pushy clients, bosses, or otherwise — consider this advice from a former hostage negotiator in this episode of Adam Grant’s WorkLife podcast: (1) Engage the asker in a process called “Forced Empathy.” Ask how the person expects you to be able to do it, with particular attention to what your tone of voice emphasizes — around 29:29 into the podcast, Chris Voss, a 24-year FBI hostage negotiator who explains the work as all about setting boundaries, explains that you don’t want to imply the request is absurd with your tone. You want to genuinely shift the question of how you can accomplish it to the person asking. (2) Label the asker’s behavior, testing whether they own it or reject it. For example, if your commitment is questioned because you set a boundary of not working past a certain time, you might say “It seems like the work I’m producing during the workday doesn’t demonstrate my commitment, and it seems like you’re more interested in what hours I’m in the office than what I’m actually producing.” Another important style tip from Chris Voss — as you represent your perspective, simply avoid using the word “I” as in, “What I’m hearing is,” which will feel more confrontational. (3) When you need another person to commit to your boundary, it can be easier not to look for a “yes” — instead, seek to find an alternative they aren’t “completely opposed to”. One final caution — if setting healthy boundaries in your work environment feels like hostage negotiations, you might want to consider developing your career in a better environment.
Operating within healthy boundaries allows us to prioritize activities, to practice good self-care, to be a good role model for others, and to have an appropriate sense of control in our lives. Despite the initial discomfort of setting and maintaining boundaries, the payoff is worth it. Observe others as you get started, and don’t hesitate to seek mentorship from those who have good boundaries.
A licensed therapist can help. Setting boundaries is easier when you recognize your own feelings and specific fears, and address them — which isn’t always easy to do on your own. Therapy can also help you with cognitive restructuring to help with boundary setting — recognizing automatic thoughts, fighting functional fixedness, using evidence to challenge absolutes, and making small word choice changes (e.g. should, can’t, etc.).
Set Better Boundaries (Harvard Business Review, 2021). “Boundary predators appear in every realm of life. From the boss who asks you to fix the slide show botched by a colleague (and to add three new slides while you’re at it) to the 10-year-old who asks for “just five more minutes” of screen time to complete their video game, it can feel like you say “no” all day long. The author supplies scripts and sample language to help you set — and hold — boundaries, no matter who is trying to push you to do more than you agreed to.”
Free & Confidential Consultations:
Lawyers, law students, and judges in Massachusetts can discuss concerns with a licensed therapist, law practice advisor, or both. Find more on scheduling here.
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This post was originally written by Shawn Healy, PhD and was updated from a previous version published on February 27, 2018 titled “The Secret to Maintaining Boundaries,” which now redirects here.