I attended a small liberal arts college well known for its media communications program. Although more students claimed this major than any other on campus, the talent pool was still quite small. As a result, a student who excelled in one particular area of media production was quickly recognized and highly sought after.

I saw it happen over and over; sometimes a student just wanted more experience, but other times the student would say yes to project after project in order to avoid disappointing his or her friends and peers. By the end of the year they were exhausted, burnt out, and majorly frazzled.

Maybe you have experienced something similar, either as an outside observer or in the same situation as the frazzled student. Wherever you are — working full time, interning, studying, crunching numbers, or taking coffee orders — now is the best time to learn to set limits for yourself.

Limits are Good

It’s far too easy to be overwhelmed by expectations, both our own and from others. We can compare ourselves to those around us and feel like we are falling way behind. As women, especially, we may find ourselves feeling pressure to keep up with men in our careers.

Limits are both extremely necessary and personal. Your limits will be different from those around you. What comes easily and naturally for your co-worker may trigger anxiety and stress in you. And this is okay! Being able to identify those things that feel overwhelming is the first step to setting boundaries and staying healthy.

 Being able to identify those things that feel overwhelming is the first step to setting boundaries and staying healthy.

Awareness of Feelings

In an article for Inc.com, authors Dana Gionta and Dan Guerra explain three feelings that arise when we allow our limits to slide: Discomfort, resentment, and guilt.

When we allow managers or co-workers to blow past our limits, resentment inevitably follows. At the same time, we feel guilty for letting someone down, fearful of what they will think or how they will respond to us. And, as a result, we feel discomfort with the burden of work now on our shoulders.

No one wants to be taken advantage of or steamrolled. Gionta and Guerra encourage those in these situations to rate their level of discomfort, resentment, and guilt on a scale from 1-10. If you rate any of these feelings within the 7-10 range, it’s likely time to establish or reinforce a boundary.

The Hard Truth

Sometimes we have to say no. This can feel like a weakness, but it’s actually a huge sign of maturity and strength. Being able to say no to those things which bring up the negative feelings listed above will free us up to say yes to things that make us feel alive and full. It takes practice and can feel strange at first, but it’s so worth it.

There may also be times when we need to have a conversation with someone who may be taking advantage of us. Sometimes a co-worker or boss may not even be aware of the intensity of their requests or demands. When we say “yes” or “no problem” to each and every request, it’s likely they may think we gladly welcome these added responsibilities.

 Sometimes we have to say no. This can feel like a weakness, but it’s actually a huge sign of maturity and strength.

If you’re beginning to feel overwhelmed, the best thing you can do is be honest. Schedule a time when you and the other person(s) can sit down and chat about the limits you have put in place for yourself and why you feel like they will be beneficial to everyone involved. This takes a lot of courage, but the benefits outweigh the initial awkwardness.

Boundaries vs. Laziness

Let’s face it, there are some tasks we just don’t want to do. Every job comes with some responsibilities that we may not find very pleasant. Setting boundaries does not mean refusing any and all tasks you don’t enjoy doing. That’s called laziness. It’s important to distinguish between responsibilities that are just a bit of a pain, and ones that genuinely cause anxiety, stress, and those feelings of resentment or guilt.

What kinds of boundaries have you set for your work life?

Image via Melody Munn


  1. I absolutely agree that having accountability to the boundaries that we set for ourselves is crucial. I work for a nonprofit, and it can be easy, even subconscious, to take work home, to “just finish this one little thing.” But of course that becomes five hours later, me resentful of my job, and not any more healthier for the work that was done. A coworker of mine regularly asks what I did on my day off, what fun place I went after work on Wednesday, show I watched over the weekend, or favorite passage of a book I read. She helps me maintain my time away from the office as not only time away from work but also time for me to take care of myself, to remember that I am worth more than my job and the work that I do. Perhaps we can be more attuned to who each of us is outside of our job and encourage the participation in our passions, retreats, and explorations.

  2. I really liked that you distinguished between being lazy and setting boundaries. I think that point is truly fundamental to understanding what adds value to your life, what zaps your energy, and what are just necessary evils.

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