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Too happy to help? Set boundaries and change your performance

Learn how to set boundaries at work in order to improve your performance, and develop a deeper appreciation of your own worth.
Stefania Montagna

Stefania Montagna

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Do you often think about the boundaries you set at work?

Or maybe that’s something you never think about?

In the spring of 2012, that was me: someone who didn’t even know boundaries existed.

Back then, I had been working for Google’s customer support team in Dublin long enough to have gained the fancy title of “Billing expert.”

No one liked billing. The role was about enforcing specific guidelines and remembering very set sequences of steps. When a billing question came up in a client call, most people rolled their eyes. I was sure that, had they been able to, most of my colleagues would have scratched the whole topic off their job description. But as Customer Support Representatives, we didn’t have that much agency. Instead, people were reluctant to learn how to handle billing queries properly, and so long queues were constantly forming around my desk. The problem? I was only too happy to help.

How a lack of boundaries feeds co-dependency

I recall one particular day. It was a sunny morning and I’d almost not noticed that. But I noticed the sun rays that peeked through the windows and hit the desk of a colleague, just as I was springing forward to assist her. That morning, I had been jumping from computer to computer (From teammate to teammate), taking care of solving a colleague’s billing issue after another. It was 11 by the time I managed to open my own computer. I’d been at work for well over two hours.

In the meantime, I’d been sacrificing my own work. When I opened my queue of e-mails, I saw the alarming number of red dots appearing next to the cases that I should have closed long before. My own Turn Around Time, I realised, was way off—something that would negatively impact my performance— and I looked at it with a mix of contempt and incredulity.

I resented the metrics. I thought that “helping” made me “noble.” The best team player.

The system, on the other hand, was flawed, I thought. It failed to recognize how much I was of support to the team, and the extra hours I put in, while everybody else went home at 5.

Every time I had a 1:1 with my manager asking me why my metrics weren’t up to par, I walked out ready to call it quits, tears almost streaming down my eyes and words of rage shouting through my head, enraged at my coworkers and their inability to “help themselves.”

Today I know something I didn’t know then, i.e., that my desire to help, combined with my inability to set boundaries, wasn’t empowering and constructive, but co-dependency feeding.

It was rooted in the misconstrued belief that if only I could “save the day,” I would get the recognition I craved.

Yet, most of my colleagues were never trying to save the day, and much less were they trying to “save me.” They, instead, had something I didn’t have and didn’t even know I needed: boundaries.

A Graffiti in Oslo showing a face made of lines: an allegory of boundaries?
Graffiti, Oslo – A face with boundaries?

Boundaries and the age of always-on

Boundaries are, in the words of Dr. Špela Trefalt of Simmons University, “physical, temporal, emotional, cognitive, and/or relational limits that help people to distinguish one entity from another.”

We use boundaries to define that which is mine, yours or ours, and, in a sense, that which is “in” and “out.”

For example, some people consider that colleagues are colleagues and should never be friends: they are setting a boundary. 

Hence, Trefalt reminds us, boundaries include two central aspects:

  • Placement: i.e., the conceptual territory to which a given boundary applies (For example, time of work or personal space). Placement also applies to where the boundary lies within that territory (i.e., I might be willing to flex my personal rule of not taking calls after 9 p.m. for my sister, but I won’t bend it for a client.)
  • Permeability: i.e., the likelihood of the boundary being crossed and under which conditions (Many examples of workplace issues relate to a potential blurring of boundaries, for instance, when a boss’s relative treats an employee as their personal assistant). 

One issue which has surfaced with the increasing pace of remote work, flexi-time, and the “always-on” culture is that boundaries have become blurrier and blurrier. Twenty years ago, the office, shop, or factory was the place to work, and home was home. But today, the boundary between home and work is no longer well defined.

A study by Eddelstone and Mulki found that the integration of work and family increases conflicts in both directions: both disputes at home arising from work, as well as workplace frictions arising from family dynamics.

Ultimately, they conclude, it’s because working solely from home leads to a tendency to overwork and to simultaneously allow one’s job to infringe over one’s family role.

Boundaries, narratives and the temptation of being “nice”

But boundaries are, first and foremost, negotiated.

When, as in the example above, I was allowing my colleagues’ work to always take precedence over mine, I was losing sight of my own worth. And by ignoring my limits, I was communicating to my colleagues that I was available to solve their issue. That, in turn, led to them “waiting for me” rather than struggle to solve it on their own.

It was almost as if, subconsciously, their success, to me, mattered more than mine.

Writing about family and organizational therapy, Salvador Minuchin offers that “each of us is constantly stimulus and response.” As he points out, in relationships, and therefore, at work, there are seldom “facts.”

Instead, perceptions are shaped by narratives, by constructs that become a shared reality of mutual understandings and prejudices (One might say, expectations).

As time passes, however, narratives might become crystallized into myths, reinforcing specific structures of behaviors.

To be clear, in my example, I was living up to my own narrative. My story was that of the “nice” person, the person who was always there for others. But that story served my needs: it was because “I was helping,” that I could find meaning in my work.

Back then, I thought that “to help” is to serve. It’s not. To serve the world is what helps. “Helping,” in other words, and particularly “over-helping” or helping without consent, doesn’t help. 

Yet, when I’m always availble, I can only elicit a response attuned to “my constant availability”. And this is how, as Minuchin points out, problems emerge.

An issue finds its roots not in the presence of something wrong, but in the molding of a stuck.

What gets fixated is a story that no longer works and a pattern of behavior that no longer serves.

The bottom line: If you’re not protecting your own boundaries, you cannot expect others to respect them.

Instead, you need to set and defend your boundaries to develop resilience and presence, both of which are crucial to your well-being, at work, and beyond.

The surprising link between boundaries and Impostor Syndrome

Parentification and the gradual suppression of one’s needs and boundaries

Back in 2004, researchers Mirsalimi, Jones, and Castro set out to investigate an interesting question. Are parentified children at greater risk of suffering from Impostor Syndrome? They asked.

The term parentification first appeared in 1973 and refers to an inversion of parent and child roles.

It’s a cross-generational process whereby parents unconsciously look to their children to satisfy some of their needs. These are needs—such as validation and recognition—that should have been met in childhood, but weren’t.

Through parentification, a parent gives their child a set of responsibilities s/he shouldn’t be asked to handle. By so doing, the parent ends up asking the child, however subconsciously, to suppress their own needs.

You might imagine a child doing house chores or taking care of a sibling. But parentification takes also another form. A child learns that they can never cry: “mom/dad, after all, can’t take it.” This is what’s called hidden parentification. Faced with a parent’s inability to validate their feelings, a child takes the only path available. She’ll suppress her own emotions and needs.

How a parentified child come to feel like an impostor

Sooner or later, a parentified child learns that, no matter how hard they try, ther’re never “enough.” The child develops a feeling of inadequacy cause, at the end of the day, s/he just can’t replace their parent’s parent(s).

During childhood, the suppression of the child’s emotions and needs serves a function: it ensures an emotional bond with the parent, something which is key to the child’s own survival.

But when such suppression becomes a pattern, it can become toxic.

In other words, Impostor syndrome—the feeling of not living up to a situation—might be a significant long-term effect of childhood parentification. 

Another long-term effect of parentification? An unhealthy hunger for achievement (…and how often do we confuse achievement with helping others even when they don’t need or haven’t asked for our help?)

Performance can be a way, for some parentified individuals, to measure their own self-worth, to feed their need for validation.

For others, the tendency might be to take care of literally everything. At home, they become the caretaker and the breadwinner. At work, they might be the person who takes notes, organizes the summer party, and does two full-time jobs, because “no one else can do it and we’re understaffed.”

Heroism, Saviour Syndrome and Western culture

Unfortunately, the tendency to overhelp to “save the day” and “save the world” is not just rooted in personal history. It finds its root in Western culture, too. As author Jordan Flaherty discusses with Nathan Schneider following the publication of his book “No More Heroes: Grassroots Challenges to the Saviour Mentality (2016), both Hollywood and popular culture feed the worship of “Saviour mentality” and of superheroes.

The message that a hero will come and save the earth, according to Flaherty, underpins everything. We see it in progressive movies (Like Norma Rae), educational programs, and even tech companies’ mission statements.

Isn’t it sexy to imagine that every big issue—from the pandemic to plastic contamination—can be solved with a technical hack?

Yet, behind that belief, there may lure another. If we just can bring our best self to the table one more time, and work that extra hour, we can be the savior. We can save ourselves, and maybe, the world.

Too often, we may not realise that, deep down, we are still trying to save: our parent(s).

Story of Marius and Scilla. When the Saviour becomes the victim.

Towards the end of its Republic, Ancient Rome was rife with struggle due to political divisions between two conflicting factions. The Optimates, who represented the conservative ruling class, opposed the Populares, who represented the rights of the Plebeians, the commoners.

Through this struggle —that led to Rome’s first civil war— two figures emerged: Marius (157-86 a. C), who led the commoners, and Sulla (138-78 a. C), who represented the ruling class.

Both were highly skilled at war. But more crucially, both displayed the same leadership style.

It’s the style that Medina has dubbed as “Saviour style,” defined by the following traits:

  • It emerges as a consequence of a crisis or an emergency for a population or institution;
  • It witnesses the rise of a “Saviour,” tasked with all the power and the responsibility of addressing everyone’s concerns;
  • The “Saviour” ends up not only “solving the problem” but annihilating it. His focus on the elimination of its causes and consequences has unforeseen side effects. The Saviour becomes he who destroys and goes from being the “hero” to being the “victim.”

Could trying to help make us blind to the potential of those we are trying to help? 

There is wisdom in these words. Because if our focus is on “saving the day” or “helping another” —whether that practically means focusing solely on saving our job or on getting this project completed, this e-mail answered, or that event organized— we might quickly lose focus of the potential of the people around us, whose support we so might need. 

When we are stuck in the belief that the whole world rests on our shoulders, we fail to see them both: the world and our shoulders. On the one hand, we are blind to the world’s potential to deal without us. On the other, we are unable to focus on our own boundaries. We fail to consider whether our shoulders can really handle it all and dismiss our need for a break.

The world on our shoulders — Vigelandsparken, Oslo

A lack of boundaries also comes hand in hand with an issue of role reversal.

Far from being moved by “good intentions”, we may in fact wish to help another out of the subconscious belief that they’re not “capable.”

This is especially true when we’re rendering the other incapable of mastering a competence just because we’re always “doing it for them.”

And that’s how from “saviours,” we may become “victims”: constantly stuck in this helping or caregiving role, which keeps us from focusing on our ambitions and development.

Ultimately, the quest to help another might be a procrastination game. If we never stop to look at what we really want and need, we never have to make an effort to go after it. 

Boundaries, as it turns out, are what we need: to serve the world. 

Sources & Further Readings

Courtney Martin (2016). The reductive seduction of other people’s problems. In: Bright the Mag. [Article] Available at: https://brightthemag.com/the-reductive-seduction-of-other-people-s-problems-3c07b307732d#.8p5f8l6w6

Eddleston, K. A., & Mulki, J. (2017). Toward understanding remote workers’ management of work–family boundaries: The complexity of workplace embeddedness. Group & Organization Management42(3), 346–387. https://doi-org.biblioteca-uoc.idm.oclc.org/10.1177/1059601115619548

Minuchin, Salvador, Nichols, Michael P. (1993). Family Healing: Strategies for Hope and Understanding. Free Press. Kindle Edition. 

Trefalt, Š. (2013). Between you and me: Setting work-nonwork boundaries in the context of workplace relationships. Academy of Management Journal56(6), 1802–1829. https://doi-org.biblioteca-uoc.idm.oclc.org/10.5465/amj.2011.0298

Are you struggling with boundaries, at work, or otherwise? Do you see yourself helping too much? Could your desire to help too much be distracting you from your goals and priorities?

Let me know in the comments, or consider booking a call with me.


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