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Set Boundaries to Set Yourself Free


Roof door FINALWhen you do social change work professionally, it tends to get personal, fast. We all come to this work with stories from our past and communities, the reasons we feel called to fight for justice.

Many of those experiences are felt very deeply, quickly creating bonds between us and the people we work with every day. I have so many beautiful and enduring friendships that have been born out of being co-workers first.

It’s also true, that this closeness can breed a difficult dynamic where boundaries are crossed, and staffers are left feeling exposed and raw without much space or separation between work-life and personal life.

So, let’s talk about boundaries.

Boundaries are difficult to set, and even harder to maintain. They require inner knowing, commitment, and a bit of tough love towards others. But, when structured well, boundaries can actually make us feel more secure, lighter, and free us up from other peoples’ stuff.

I used to have a boss that disguised her nosey nature as “getting to know you” leadership. It took me months of feeling uncomfortable, and slightly ashamed, after our conversations to realize that her supposed leadership style was, in fact, just straight up gossipy. As an introvert, I’m prone to this feeling of overexposure. But, for anyone, crossed boundaries are a sign that we need to raise our defense shields.

I find that boundaries get especially murky when issues of power and privilege are at play. If you’re already marginalized at work, it’s a much bigger challenge to stand up for your own needs.

In need of some boundary setting with your co-workers? Try out these tips.

1. Notice the pattern.

First, you have to start taking note of the moments you feel a little icky at work. Then, figure out if there’s a pattern to what just happened. Did you talk to the same person, and it got way too deep into your personal life? Did your boss just totally undermine you during that meeting, or even take credit for your idea?

Finding the pattern behind that feeling of smallness, exposure, or anger is the first step to figuring out where the boundary got crossed. It may be as small as someone asking you to hang out on the weekend (when you don’t particularly want to), or as large as a co-worker consistently making you feel less-than.

2. Enlist a friend. 

Call in the support squad. It’s quite hard in these situations to sort out what you need all by yourself. Staying in your own head keeps you feeling isolated. 

If you don’t have a coach, this is the right time to enlist a friend. And please note: Share with someone who you DON’T work with. Resist the urge (that we all have) to run straight to another co-worker and spill it all. While they may know exactly what you’re going through, and even have a story of their own, work relationships are much more complicated than other friendships, and ultimately, everyone is looking out for themselves and their own jobs.

Call up the BFF, and talk it out.

3. Decide on the right intervention, and then figure out how to stick to it.

Setting boundaries will likely feel a little hard. If saying ‘no’ isn’t something you’re used to, it’s going to take some practice before it feels natural.

- I’d love to tell you more about my weekend right now, but my brain is just so consumed with my to-do list. Can we talk more later?

- I hear you. And I’m here for you. But right now I just don’t have anything left to give.

- No, I’m swamped. I can’t take on another project right now.

Watch your tone, and work with your language until it feels right. The person or people on the receiving end of your boundaries might have strong reactions. It’s important for you to know that setting boundaries for your own happiness and well-being is not only O.K., it is part of being an adult. 

Enlist that same friend in helping you stick to your boundaries when the going gets tough.


Whether it’s with social justice co-workers, family members, partners, or friends, boundary-setting is hard to do. But the freedom and relief that you feel on the other side will be your reward. It’s a beautiful thing to stand up and declare yourself in control.

It might feel counterintuitive, but sometimes saying ‘NO’ is the fastest road to your own happiness.

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