No Boundaries, No Peace

A friend recently asked me how in the world I coped while I was in my pretend-I’m-a-lawyer phase. (OK, so I was licensed and employed and all, but I always felt like I was pretending.) I hadn’t thought about that in a while, but the short answer is: not very well at all.

Mostly, I was a raging bitch. Well, much more frequently than I am now, say. I was angry a lot. I complained constantly. I obsessed over poor treatment I received from bosses, co-workers, and rude strangers. I needed to be right and would go on and on and on about why I was. Also, I was afraid of myself, of my true desires and wants, because they didn’t fit in with the picture of a successful professional woman I carried around in my head.

stop keep out sign

Your mindset will be better if you keep the assholes out of your work life.

I mention all of this because I spent holidays with family, and suddenly this person I used to be—the angry uber-bitch—came storming back. And yanno, now I’m a coach and all and I’m supposed to be better at coping with life’s trials and tribulations. And none of the advice I was giving myself was working in the slightest.

Then it hit me: too many of my boundaries were being stomped, crossed, and spray-painted in fluorescent green with a big “ha ha!”

If I were dealing with this part of the family regularly, I’d have to make an issue of several things. But for an annual visit, the cost of enforcing boundaries is pretty high—lots of family hostility—for a small return, three days of less irritation to me. So I chose to find some better ways to cope, even if they’re not ideal. Let’s just say that reading is still a socially acceptable way to ignore really annoying people who think it’s perfectly acceptable to comment on your weight numerous times a day.

The more important lesson here, though, is I was reminded just how hard it is to maintain any kind of positive frame of mind when boundaries get ignored and violated all the freaking time. And that has some important implications for job happiness, especially in law firms.

At law firms of any size, boundaries get ignored repeatedly and egregiously. That’s what happens with the huge power imbalances that exist in most law firms. Since most lawyers are Thinking types, that means that feelings are about last on the list of things that Thinking types worry about when it comes to getting work done. Plus, Thinking types often find it difficult to value qualities that are amorphous, like dignity, integrity, and diversity.

So how do you cope when that’s the environment you’re in, and it pulverizes your better self? The short answer is, get out of it. Unless it’s a small environment that you want to take on the challenge of changing, you’ll waste too much of your mental and emotional energy just deflecting all the boundary violations, let alone have anything left over to get changes made.

Leaving is usually a bit harder to do than simply saying you’re going to. So it’s the medium-term goal, most likely.

In the short term, think about how you can recognize when someone is starting to cross a boundary. I find that many people who have worked in law firms for a while, particularly those who went straight from college to law school, don’t actually know what isn’t acceptable workplace behavior. They know what they don’t like, but they think that somehow it’s part of the package of workplace norms.

For example

  • It’s not OK for anyone to call anyone else names, like dummy, idiot, etc. It’s especially stupid to do so in an email to third parties that can get forwarded—yet allegedly smart lawyers actually do this.
  • It’s not OK to make fun of someone’s medical issues (particularly when the toxic workplace is probably causing many of them) and imply they’re lazy, not sick. Oh, and if the one making fun is a supervisor—hello, and welcome to FMLA hell.
  • It’s not OK to question someone’s loyalty to the firm when they protest about not seeing their family for 2 weeks straight, and they aren’t traveling. No one signed a loyalty oath anyway, and in this day and age, it’s a rarity that people stay at firms for more than a few years. Get over yourself.
  • It’s not OK to blame a colleague or associate for not anticipating your every need and thought about a project. If you haven’t spelled it out, in some fair amount of detail, well too damn bad, it’s your fault. Throwing a temper tantrum does not change that fact, even though it might prove a big distraction and draw attention away from your lack of planning skills.

So, any of these familiar? What are some memorable boundary violations you’ve witnessed at your office? And better yet, what steps can you take to enforce some boundaries even while you’re looking for a better long-term environment?

Jennifer Alvey is  recovering lawyer who coaches attorneys on achieving peace, love and understanding in their work lives. She offers free, sample coaching sessions to see if coaching can help you find some peace in your life and work. Contact her at to set yours up today.

One thought on “No Boundaries, No Peace

  1. Your examples really hit home for me, as three of the of the four are examples of boundaries I repeatedly allowed my boss to violate. I was actually told that men should define themselves by one thing only: their careers. As for my goal to someday have a family, my boss advised me that “men don’t need that s—” and that family should not be important to me. No wonder I was so depressed…and physically ill. Thanks for this post. It reassures me that I wasn’t the problem.

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