Failing to set boundaries—and as a result not giving yourself enough time to rest, recharge and recover—can increase the risk of mental health problems.
Note: this article was originally published by Law.com as part of its year-long series Minds Over Matters: An Examination of Mental Health in the Legal Profession. It is published here with permission.
By Patrick Krill
I have a large red button on my desk that reads, quite simply, “No!”
Push this said button—which is really more of a toy, inspired by the Staples “That was Easy” button—and you hear one of 10 different “No’s,” all of which make clear that you should really stop asking me for things. The button, a plastic novelty not well aligned with my general aesthetic, is also not well aligned with my general personality, and that’s because when pushed, it clearly and easily sets boundaries.
Given to me five years ago by a colleague who thought I worked way too much, the button spent most of 2019 completely out of sight, buried under a constantly mutating but never shrinking stack of papers. The irony, I suppose, is plain. But now, as I look ahead to 2020, the lesson is also important and worth discussing.
Like many people, I struggle with maintaining good boundaries. Not the physical kind, the boundaries I struggle with are knowing when to say no to more work, when to stop working each day, when to take time off, and when to accept that my best was good enough. In short, they are the prototypical boundary issues of many—if not most—people working in and around the legal profession.
Even though I know better—academically, personally and clinically—the struggle to say no is real. My compass is and always has been oriented toward doing rather than dawdling, achieving rather than aspiring, succeeding rather than settling. As a result, if I am not vigilant, I can sometimes find myself both completely overworked and totally unable to appreciate and enjoy just how much I have already produced. In fact, that’s a lose-lose that takes effort and determination to avoid.
This scenario may sound familiar: There is always more to do. The expectations of your constant availability are unabating and the pace of any given week feels wholly breakneck. You find yourself exhausted, while the recognition and satisfaction of what’s already been accomplished quickly fade from view or fail to even register.
If this does in fact sound like you, you can at least take comfort in knowing that admitting a problem is often the hardest and most important step toward overcoming it. And make no mistake, over the long haul, a lack of boundaries around your work is most definitely a problem.
Yes, your employer may love you for it, but your body, mind, family, friends and joie de vivre will eventually beg to differ. In time, even your employer might come to realize that you’ve been flying too close to the sun, likely when your behavior or appearance start raising risk-management concerns.
I’ve written plenty of articles about the threats to mental health and personal well-being that exist in the legal profession, as well as the widespread nature of addiction and other behavioral health problems. No need to retread that ground here, but suffice it to say, there are occupational hazards aplenty. Failing to adopt and enforce boundaries—and as a result not giving yourself enough time to rest, recharge and recover—does nothing but increase your vulnerability to those hazards.
So, what to do if you want to make some improvements in this regard for 2020? I’ll offer a handful of meaningful suggestions, with the caveat that I know from experience they’re all easier said than done. I also know from experience that they’re all perfectly doable.
First, start by acknowledging you have boundary issues. If you’re still reading this column, chances are you’ve got that covered. Next, try to take that self-awareness to another, more constructive level. Taking a self-inventory is generally never a bad idea, but here it is crucial.
Start by reflecting on where and with whom your boundaries are the most porous, and what it is that’s driving your unwillingness or inability to say no under various circumstances.
Are there specific clients, people in your firm, or other co-workers that you seem to always have a hard time saying no to, even when it causes problems or excessive and unreasonable stress for you? If so, why is that? [Sidebar: If you’re thinking “um, hello, I have a hard time saying no because they’re my boss or an important client,” that’s unfortunately not a good enough answer. Even bosses and important clients need to be told no on occasion, and if they can’t be, maybe they’re not a great boss or client.]
Are you making fear-based decisions, perhaps afraid of what will happen if you dare say no? If so, where is that fear coming from? Is your self-worth overly dependent on your work and achievements? Maybe you have people-pleasing tendencies? How’s your self-esteem? What are your actual values in this life and are your decisions (because they are decisions) to always say yes supporting or undermining those values?
Finding answers to all these questions will not be easy and certainly won’t always be comfortable, but in order to change your boundary-free ways, some greater level of self-insight is required. Understand where you’re coming from, and it will be easier to direct where you are going.
Once you have a better handle on why your boundaries with work are less than ideal, start taking small, steady, measured steps to push back. Slowly begin to challenge your prevailing tendencies to say yes, or to always take on more work. Key words? Small, steady, slowly. Just as our boundaries tend to erode gradually over time, our efforts to reclaim them should also be incremental and consistent.
Why? Because if you are someone who always and reliably says yes to whatever is thrown your way, then you suddenly start always saying no, you will likely engender some serious frustration, disappointment and disapproval. People won’t understand why you’ve abruptly become so seemingly difficult and uncommitted, and your relationships and career will suffer as a result. This is an easy mistake to avoid.
Instead, think of the proverbial frog in a pot, and begin to do the opposite. Lower the flame, slowly over time. Just as the frog doesn’t jump out of the water because it is heating up too slowly for it to recognize its impending demise, those you work for and with will be less resistant to the reclamation of your humanity if you don’t shock them with it all at once. Small boundary here, small boundary there, and before you know it, you’ve perhaps regained a semblance of manageability.
Finally, but equally important, be mindful of your language and communication style when attempting to set and enforce boundaries. First, don’t be Captain Obvious. There is no need to say, “I’m sorry, I can’t get that to you by Monday—I’m setting a boundary.” No likable person talks like that, and you might still want people to like you, even if you are telling them no.
Second, don’t over-explain. Yes, it may be important to offer some general context for your inability to accommodate a request, but keep it simple. The more complex or convoluted your explanation, the more it will seem like you are making a litany of excuses instead of communicating a reasonable boundary.
Third, don’t be annoyingly apologetic. You are working with professionals, they don’t need, want or respect saccharine regret. You didn’t spill hot coffee on them or forget to feed their cat while they were exploring India for three weeks. You are expressing a reasonable limit to your ability or willingness to do something and being overly apologetic about it undercuts the strength of and respect for your position.
As you look ahead to 2020, start thinking and planning now about how you might begin setting better boundaries around your work. If you don’t, the default pace of your life could easily sweep you away for another year, and your own personal “No” button will just get lost in the shuffle along the way.
Patrick Krill is the founder of Krill Strategies, a behavioral health consulting firm focused exclusively on the legal industry. Go to www.prkrill.com for more information. He is also a member of Law.com’s Minds Over Matters advisory board.