3 observations on professional success and boundaries

  1. Revenue never compensates for the heart sink client

  2. Martyrdom doesn’t make you a good person, it makes you knackered

  3. Helping is for friends, not professionals


I recently had a bizarre experience where a ‘potential’ client was bad-mouthing me on a post I’d made under my professional page, and then in the next breath, sent me a private DM asking for help.

Now here we face a variety of dilemmas: financial, identity, and moral – but the real question you need to ask yourself is ‘what are my limits?’

Many early-stage professionals will face this problem – what to do about the ‘difficult client/colleague?’ and everyone’s answer will be a bit different. The older we get the more defined we normally become.

So, for what it’s worth here’s my observations from over the years.

1 Revenue never compensates for the heart sink client

We are generally dealing with people at their most strung out. At times they may even seem a bit crazy because they are so scared, but this is not the same as someone who is rude or disrespectful or just plain arrogant. Refer to them as you wish – Narcissist, Entitled, or just a complete nightmare.

Now in the example above, what you have is someone who was hiding behind their keyboard attacking someone they didn’t know – unwittingly, they then asked the same person for help – oopsie for them, lucky for me.

Because this is who I would have got as a client – someone who has two very distinct faces – uber polite in the personal message and a total troll when there seemed to be no consequences.  

Over the years, I have taught many clients, when you observe a person treat someone badly, it won’t be long till they are treating you the same, so yeah, avoid them like the plague.

My response to this request for help? A hard ‘no’.

2 Martyrdom doesn’t make you a good person, it makes you knackered

If your automatic response to that last sentence was – Oh My God but they asked for help, what if they XYZ – beware.

There is a centrally important tenet that must be established for any type of change interaction to work – mutual respect.

Now I suspect many of you have fixated on respect in this phrase, you’ve skipped mutual and immediately started thinking, moral high-ground thoughts, such as, ‘Oh of course I respect the person‘. Was this you? Yeah, well there’s your problem. You are skipping the important word ‘mutual‘. If respect isn’t flowing both ways, you can whistle for they likely success of your endeavours.

Many people are attracted to front-facing client work with a deep, heartfelt desire to ‘help’. That’s great. It’s definitely a hell of a lot better than starting out with a desire to fleece people of their cash or become a mini dictator, however, it brings its own dangers.

And the danger is, that you try and become so empathetic, so understanding, so altruistic, that basically your client is taking the p*ss out of you.

Without a clear recognition that some behaviours you do not need to tolerate, you are going to be sucked dry and spend your life whining to yourself, ‘but I’m a good person, why does this happen to me?’ (answer: cause you let it).

3 Helping is for friends, not professionals

Now some of you may even have gone a step further and made a snap moral judgement about my response – that I am a baaaad person. Maybe you were ‘shocked’ that I could do such a thing. ‘Offended’ that I wasn’t more empathetic. 

To you I say ‘meh‘.

Take it as a warning, your response is evidence you have an aberrant moral programme operating and if left unchecked is going to have you run into the ground.

I have observed this type of response repeatedly in clients who are struggling in both their personal and professional lives.

Let’s have an example. Imagine this, I’m working with Jane, a lovely but totally harassed, stretched-thin mum, who is running the house, managing the kids, and doing some important job in the city. She’s divorcing an ex, who quite frankly seems to have struggled to tie his own shoelaces without having a full-blown tantrum.

So, over time we work out that, you know maybe there is an issue about expectations and limitations. Yeah, maybe there’s a confusion over role and relational identity (for wife, read mother) and that maybe, just maybe the initial unconscious contract was a bit dubious from the outset.

Anyway, as this starts to sink in, Jane starts to turn the conversation to, let’s call him Peter, her line manager, and lo and behold, turns out Jane is doing twice the work, for less kudos, and yep, Peter well he’s a bit of a man-child as well.


I think not.

With a bit of digging it becomes clear that Jane was so determined to prove herself at the beginning of her new job and to be seen as likeable, that she said ‘yes’ to everything asked of her. She is a perfectionist, people-pleasing, high-achiever par excellence. She is also losing the will to live as a result of her untenable self-flagellation. This is the type of woman who is on a guilt trip if she sits on her arse on the couch for 30 minutes without doing something ‘productive‘ like learning Japanese because she wants to be welcoming to the new neighbour from Yokohama. (If you are thinking, ‘but surely that’s normal‘, please call me now).

I suggest role play, practising saying ‘No’.

Poor Jane, she’s almost hyperventilating. She stammers that she couldn’t possibly do that because that wouldn’t be helpful/good/right/enlightened/forgiving/ compassionate/emotionally intelligent/whatever she’s been reading from the body-soul section of the bookshop which helps her ignore the reality that daily she is being taken advantage of.

And there it is folks, the core confusion between being helpful and being professional. The key factor that makes all the difference for achieving professional success.

Professionals have boundaries. Professionals respect themselves. Professionals have an expectation about how they will be treated. They say ‘no’ and wow, they don’t even break into a sweat. Why? Because they know that they have limitations, and they work within them – they are not having some huge moral crisis every time they have to consider their own needs. Being able to make judgement calls about what is reasonable and what isn’t, what is fair and what isn’t, underpins everything they do. Professional success is founded on this.

Helping is quite honestly not helpful, especially for the person who is being unconsciously whipped to be ‘helpful’ – it’s the doorway for those who would take advantage to walk right in and have you chasing your tail – and worst of it all, if it keeps happening to you, there’s no-one to blame but yourself.

To sum up. If you don’t know what your limits are, you are going to suffer. Straight up suffer. Having boundaries is what drives every successful professional (and personal) relationship – it projects self-respect, self-confidence, and quite frankly, repels those who would waste your time and steal your energy.

So, if you suspect your boundaries could do with a bit of firming up, get in touch and let’s get out the cement and start building those vital walls together.