One of the best things about coaching is the variety of issues that my clients encounter in both their work and home lives. The more I coach – and the longer I live – the more I understand that over 90% of the problems we encounter involve setting and communicating boundaries. This week, I had a reminder of what happens when people don’t understand each other’s boundaries.
I provide career coaching for a couple of very small businesses. Their employees have access to me for input on their career trajectory, any struggles they’re facing, and strategies for strategically deploying their best skills at work. The employees work remotely, which provides fodder for many of our discussions. These companies are startups in every sense of the word. The companies run lean and the people who work for them are passionate about their work – many working for pennies on the dollar of their true work value. But that’s okay, because they love their work and believe in the mission and potential of the companies.
Until. Until that moment when there’s a misunderstanding about what’s paid work and what’s free work. It always happens. Sooner or later someone realizes their unstated boundaries have been breached. 85% of the time the breach is inadvertent. 100% of the time it’s excruciatingly painful to navigate.
Boundaries protect you from you!
When we don’t realize that we need to take the time to think about our boundaries ahead of time we eventually crack! We find ourselves feeling like victims, taken advantage of by someone who just doesn’t understand our value or our time, and we lash out as we try to grab back control of our time, energy, money, self-esteem.
When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated. – Brené Brown
When we invest the time in thinking about our boundaries, we learn how to talk about them. We begin to realize that sharing our boundaries with the people we work with or live with is critical to our well-being. Why? Because our boundaries communicate where we begin and end. They show others how we want to be treated. They are the choices we make to protect our treasure.
There’s a quote from the poem Mending Wall by Robert Frost, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Obviously, it’s referring to the importance of boundaries. I like it because it reminds me that I need to be contained. I need to protect myself from: doing too much, trying to save everyone, worrying about things outside of my control, the illusion that I’m in charge. My boundaries help me stay grounded and strong.
Here’s another favorite line (I had forgotten how much I love this poem), “’Something there is that doesn’t love a wall/ that wants it down.’” Seems contradictory, doesn’t it? When I first read this poem I thought the two lines were contradictory. They’re not.
Tend your boundaries.
I’ll bet you know why they’re not. Boundaries, like fences, tend to tumble down if we don’t tend to them. We get involved in our lives, in the hurly burly of work and children and friends and holidays and all of the sudden we realize that we’re done. We’re tapped out. We have no patience and no energy to invest in either our work or our families.
What happened? We forgot our boundaries. Here’s how it happens for me. I start out with good intentions. The number one way I honor my boundaries is managing my time through my calendar (ha!). I have a couple of strategies for reminding of my time boundaries. One is to put a post-it note reminding me of my boundaries right on my calendar. Lately it’s been that I don’t work on weekends (double ha!).
When I look at that bright green post-it note and pay attention to it, I am more mindful of what I schedule during the work week. I work on creating a balance of work done during the day (admin, marketing, clients, networking) and the work done at night (clients, groups, networking). This mindfulness and awareness of my boundaries makes it easier to get my work done during the week.
On the other hand, when I ignore that boundary, I find myself packing my schedule withextraneous activities that keep me from doing the work I must complete before the weekend. I’ll find myself doing what I’m doing right this very minute: writing my blogpost for the week at 10:30 on Friday night, chanting “I will finish this tonight because I’m not working this weekend!”
Boundaries are about inviting people into your space on your terms.
So this week I received a distress call from one of the companies I’ve been working with. There was a major disconnect in expectations between two people. I decided to invest a lot of time working with both sides in mitigating the problem. And it did take hours and hours of my time.
Here’s the thing. I knew when I got the call that it was going to take hours of time and I decided that I would spend that time coaching both parties. Oh, and I do this work gratis. It’s my investment in the company. When we were several hours into sorting out the situation, one of the parties starts apologizing for taking up so much of my time.
The apology provided a perfect venue for me to demonstrate my boundaries on the spot. I responded that there was no need to apologize because I had a firm understanding of my boundaries in this situation. And, since I was working within my boundaries, the appropriate sentiment was to thank me instead of apologizing. I explained that an apology implied an imposition, while thanks implied an understanding of the value of our work together.
Boundaries = Respect
My boundary wasn’t even around time. The boundary that I created for myself was around both parties making progress in understanding what led to the implosion. I also wanted to help them create a strategy for avoiding a similar situation in the future. Acquiring that understanding was critical because both parties have the utmost respect for each other and I felt it was important to maintain that respect. Now they understand that by stating their boundaries and honoring them, they are showing each other even more respect.
In the end, boundaries are about respect. Creating and enforcing our boundaries show that we respect ourselves. Honoring other people’s boundaries show that we respect them. When we honor our boundaries, they will never let us down.