Boundaries and limitations: What's the difference?

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Shawn Healy
BridgeTower Media Newswires

One of the main causes of high levels of stress and burnout is the feeling that you lack control over the important aspects of your work life.

Whether this refers to the seemingly endless workload or the constant pressure to bring in clients, attorneys often default to their limitations at the expense of good boundaries. Before we proceed, let’s define a couple of terms.

Limitations are naturally or externally imposed cutoff points that mark the end of your ability to function in a certain capacity. Limitations are outside of your control. Your supervisor’s instructions not to do something or your physical bodily needs for sustenance and rest are examples of limits that entice people to push up against as a way of relieving guilt (“I did all I could” or “I worked as long as I was physically able”). Working to the point of your limitations might be guilt-relieving, but it is also an example of giving up control in an important area of your life.

Boundaries, on the other hand, are self-imposed cutoff points that mark the separation between work obligations and a personal life. Healthy boundaries allow people to have some control in their lives when it comes to work or the demands of others in general. Setting healthy boundaries is an act of exercising control in your life. It is both empowering and difficult. Since boundaries are self-imposed, by definition this means that you are stopping prior to your limitations. This means that you could do more, but you are choosing not to do more at that time.

By setting a boundary, you are putting yourself in a potentially uncomfortable position. This discomfort often comes from a belief that you should not put yourself before others, especially if you are in a profession in which it is your job to help others.

As a clinical psychologist, I have been taught (and teach others) about the importance of having good boundaries in your work life. Healthy boundaries are a way to take care of yourself, increase your sense of control, and model to others how to take care of one’s self. Although it may feel like a selfish act, it is in fact necessary and mutually beneficial. You are able to help others stay afloat only if you yourself are able to swim.

Despite it being a badge of honor or a reflection of a good work ethic, limitations are stopping points that are controlled by something other than our free will. Working until you fall asleep and working until you run out of hours in the day or days in the week are a few common limitations that attorneys work up against.

On a smaller scale, the inability to say “no” is one boundary that eludes many. Not only are these practices unhealthy in multiple ways (e.g., you decrease your pain tolerance when you do not give yourself a stopping point; you make your body stay in the fight or flight mode for too long and your body does not adequately repair itself; or you prevent yourself from doing the best work), they also are inefficient (your concentration, mental processes and memory are impaired when you are tired).

A few tips on where to start: If you feel as though your life lacks boundaries and you often work up until you hit your limitation, try a few of these tips and look for other ways to practice setting healthy boundaries in your life.

Practice saying “no.” Saying “no” only when you literally cannot comply with the request (e.g., you cannot be in two places at once) is a limitation. Practice saying “no” when you actually have the ability to comply with the request. Start small with inconsequential requests to gain some experience with it before moving on to more consequential requests.

Protect your leisure time. Try to have a consistent time that you end your workday. If you tell yourself that you are leaving at a certain time without exception, you will be more efficient with the time you have prior to that point.
Treat your leisure time commitments as if they are work. You wouldn’t stay late in your office if you were due in court. Treat your personal activities and commitments with the same gravity.

Take regular breaks. If you know that the difficult work you are handling will end at a certain time, your pain tolerance increases and you become more efficient. Taking breaks also helps your brain engage in different processes that can make problem-solving easier.

Challenge your assumptions. Often we have unhelpful beliefs that limit our thinking. Whenever you recognize that you have been holding onto beliefs that contain “should statements” or absolutes (e.g., I can’t, I have to, I must), try rewording those beliefs to remove “should” and absolutes and see what options come to mind.

In summary, healthy boundaries are necessary for good mental health, lower stress levels, and overall quality of life. Despite the fact that setting boundaries includes a sense of discomfort, the benefits far outweigh the risks.
Take care of yourself.

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Shawn Healy is a licensed clinical psychologist on staff with Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers of Massachusetts who writes and presents on a variety of topics germane to the practice of law. Email him at shawn@lclma.org.

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