Healthy Workplace Boundaries

My move from Dubai to Baltimore was a new chapter in my story, with a beginning I equate to the opening scene of The Devil Wears Prada. I walked through the aisles of stores and markets the way Anne Hathaway rushed across the busy and endlessly discoverable streets of New York City to start her new job. I was unaware of whether there were eyes peering at me, a wide-eyed hijabi Syrian-American girl stocking up on items to make her living space a new home. I reminded myself that whatever people’s reactions to me may be, I was the protagonist of my story. Just like the song “Suddenly I See” by KT Tunstall played in the background of Anne Hathaway’s strut, I affirmed to myself the lyrics “this is what I want to be.

Like any other story, then, I knew I was to experience the essential components of a plot structure, with its opening scenes, character and setting development, rising action, conflict(s) and resolution(s). So why did I start getting impatient when the opening scene of my transition turned into the tension of many rising and falling actions, with the feeling that these fluctuations meant I was just not doing well enough?

I began my experience with the goal of holistically integrating into my environment — academically, socially and personally. I rigorously worked on keeping up to date with lectures, did some supplementary readings and thoughtfully completed assignments. Simultaneously, I played soccer on weekend mornings to meet people in the city, attended cultural and religious community-based group events, and routinely took time off to attend to personal interests and hobbies. I held integration to a high value — equal to classwork — but felt disappointed when the results of my first class did not truly reflect the same output that I was accustomed to.

I heard a voice that challenged the woman inside of me who wanted to prioritize other domains of her life in addition to academics. It was an amalgamate voice, echoing the words heard from others and that vocalized the actions of my peers.

You are a graduate student.

Was I living up to the responsibilities required of a Ph.D. student? Was my attention to integration along with academics taking away from my academic and research experience? How much was I really “trying my best”?

I set out to answer this question by falling into a common pattern: allotting all my time to academics and research. I had winter to thank for the weekends I now started to spend in. I went out less and had decreased opportunities to deepen existing relationships, leaving me to focus primarily on academics, chores and easier-to-maintain yet still valuable relationships.

There was just one slight problem with this method.

It was neither sustainable nor did it give me my desired results. I was not achieving any higher academic grades, and remained at the brushing border of the class average. Except this time, I was more frustrated, and the clawing clutches of insecurity grew tight.

I was not meeting all my needs from academics — a single area of my life that started to gain a disproportionate control over my time. I started to think how plausible it was to meet all my needs from one area of my life. I did precisely what I tried hard not to do when I first started my academic year. I had set the goal of practicing good workplace boundaries, inspired by my summer read Boundaries: How to Draw the Line in Your Head, Heart and Home by Jennie Miller and Victoria Lambert.

In the chapter on boundaries in the workplace, I had learned something that I sought to apply to my graduate life: Many people who might feel unfulfilled in other areas of their life will try to meet their needs from one part of it, such as work. I thought about how this applied to me now, in which I started to derive my self-value based on how I was performing in class. By neglecting other parts of my life, I placed a high burden on myself by expecting academic performance to contribute to my self-esteem and confidence.

I was not practicing healthy workplace boundaries.

You might ask yourself, then, why would practicing boundaries in the workplace matter?

In my case, it mattered because my perceived shortcoming of not performing better than I wanted to began to demotivate me. It required me to question how I may meet my own needs to build resilience. As we progress further along into our career, where we may expect to accumulate both experiences of success and perceived failures, resilience only becomes more important in controlling the long-term effort and outcome of our work.

I invite you to consider, then, what aspects of your life contribute to your resilience and confidence, however trivial you or others might think them to be. If playing soccer on a weekend morning or attending different social events gives you the kick you feel you need to get out of your head a little bit and approach your work with renewed vigor and enthusiasm, then think about how that is serving you. Some might like us to believe the Ph.D. journey is all about academics and research, but isn’t it so much more than that in a larger scheme of our film-like stories?


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