Mind Your Boundaries, Part 2

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I feel like we talk about boundaries quite a bit. Not just because I teach them, but because it seems we are talking about them incessantly as a culture and because I frequently see someone screaming about their boundaries being violated on social media. I will say I think social media has eroded our sense of boundaries for one very simple reason: It allows us to say things we would never say personally with minimal consequences. This was not the purpose social media was created for, but we can add it to the list of things we have misused (or at the very least cheapened.)

Part 1 of this series dealt with common boundary challenges and communication skills. This blog post will deal more with practical application and why I think we have room for improvement regarding boundary applications. Let’s jump back to social media. Why are things so contentious on social media? Is it the times we live in? Partially. But social media was a sea of useless conflict a long time prior to 2020. How come? One problem is many of us like to be right far too much. Quite often we argue about scenarios that have multiple solutions, but there is always someone who believes in the “one true way.” We are invested in conflict for conflicts sake. We could find better ways to use our time. I have known more than one person who ruined their day before 9am due to arguing on social media over their coffee and corn flakes.

We must remember people are allowed to disagree with us. If we all kept that particular boundary in mind, we could save ourselves a considerable amount of grief. Remember, boundaries are barriers we use to keep others at an appropriate physical and emotional distance. If we keep in mind it is perfectly acceptable to agree to disagree, we might find we have fewer conflicts to navigate on the Myfacetwitterbook spaces.

How many of us are currently capable of discussing issues with others in an open manner where ideas are genuinely compared or exchanged? My observation is social media has become incredibly polarizing. There is only one correct point of view and any disagreement is viewed as an aggressive assault. The ability to exchange ideas in a civilized manner also involves boundaries. It helps if we know why we think what we think. That way we can discuss and explain why we believe it is so. I don’t believe many of us question our beliefs often enough and when these beliefs are challenged in any way, reactions tend to be reflexively defensive with no thought as to why someone may see it differently than we do. We don’t spend much time on the boundaries necessary to discuss differing opinions any more.

Because of this tendency, we tend to only “friend” those on social media who think the same as we do. Exchanges quickly become “us vs. them.” Conflict, rather than debate or compare and contrast seems to be our current default. If this is how we are currently arranging ourselves socially, how do new ideas and new information get through? How do we reach beyond our own echo chambers? How many of us think we need to? Disagreements do not have to be viewed as deadly threats.

On that same note, boundaries also exist so we can have civil disagreements in order to compromise and resolve issues. I have often told couples in session they need to establish ground rules (boundaries) regarding how to argue. These rules need to be set up well in advance of any contentious discussions so all parties know where the lines are and both parties have agreed upon them. Most couples learn over time which lines should never be crossed and what the likely consequences are if those boundaries are not respected.

Why would we want to stray beyond those boundaries, especially with a significant other? We want to “win.” Winning becomes more important than resolution. Winning becomes more important than a genuine exchange of knowledge and ideas both parties could benefit from. What is the grand prize for winning in this way? Typically it results in more conflict. The conflict may spread to other areas, escalate more intensely, and the cycle repeats itself until neither party is observing or even remembering the originally agreed upon boundaries. I feel sometimes it is important to be right, but not every single time, particularly when there is more than one answer or solution. Boundaries keep us civil and civility keeps us talking. I also want to add I need to focus on this daily, in multiple areas of my life.

Reestablishing boundaries after someone did not respect them tends to be anxiety provoking for most. This requires bringing specific attention to how someone did not respect the established boundaries the two (or more) of you agreed upon. This will entail a confrontation of some kind. This does not have to be an inflammatory situation, but it does need to be direct. Were the boundaries in question violated deliberately or accidentally? Was it the heat of the moment or calculated to cause upset? Let’s remember, particularly within personal relationships, if we don’t step on someone’s boundaries we wont have to apologize for it later.

Do you have a clear picture of where too far is for you? Where is the line that if crossed, will cause you to walk away from someone for good? This is not necessarily about your significant other, it could also be a friend, acquaintance, or coworker. Everyone has a point of no return where things cannot be fixed if that one line is crossed. Knowing where that line is means you are clear on what is acceptable and what is not. Honoring that line means your self-esteem and self-awareness is intact and fully functioning.

Other people in our lives have boundaries as well and their boundaries will likely overlap with ours. I think we need to remember others have the same right to their boundaries and beliefs as we have for ours. In other words my boundaries do not supersede or cancel yours and vice versa. The Golden Rule is always a good measuring stick if we are in a position where we are unsure. As I said in Part 1 of boundaries, if you are unsure, ask. If you think it needs to be said, say it. Clear and open communication encourages good boundaries and that pertains to face to face exchanges with friends and family as well as our sparring partners on social media. With a slight change in approach, our sparring partners become our new teachers. Now go practice!

Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself

I came to coaching after a fifteen year career as a therapist working with convicted sex offenders, troubled juveniles, and people experiencing every manner of crisis imaginable. While I greatly enjoyed the intensity of working with the clients in my care, I realized after a few years I would not be able to do that kind of work forever. I worked with convicted sex offenders for eleven of those fifteen years and this became especially grueling, largely due to the details of the offenses I had to discuss with my clients. There were also many legal requirements to the work, including court appearances, that added to the weight of this career choice. I switched positions to work in a newly created crisis clinic that came about after the Aurora theater shooting. Initially I found this rewarding as well, but due to program changes and a growing disillusionment with bureaucracy and callousness within the mental health system, I decided to close the door on being a therapist.

I remembered the thing that excited me most was being the help for others I had needed at various times in my life.

This forced me to examine what I liked about being a therapist and why I began that work in first place. I recalled my initial interest in being a therapist was I was able to help people develop insight into themselves and thus lessen their suffering. Having had my own struggles with finding direction and mental health, I remembered how valuable this gift could be to others. I remembered the thing that excited me most was being the help for others I had needed at various times in my life. I had several friends and acquaintances who had made the change from therapist to coaching. All of them had expressed they found coaching more rewarding due to there being less structure and the fact they could pick their clients more selectively. The idea of creating my own coaching practice gained momentum rapidly.

Helping others succeed has always been exceedingly appealing to me. Obviously personal success feels fantastic, but sharing this feeling by helping others achieve their respective successes is what life is made of for me. This is what drives me. I firmly believe success is contagious. Satisfaction with one’s life is also contagious and I feel this is something we should share with each other. In more than one job interview I mentioned I want to help others realize that life doesn’t have to be continuous uphill struggle. When we realize limits are self-imposed, blowing through them becomes a thrilling way to live a life. Any part of life we are dissatisfied with can be modified and improved. I would not say the sky is the limit; rather I would say that is another limit we can exceed!

I don’t believe anyone’s reach exceeds their grasp. If we can reach it, we can grasp it. We might need to make adjustments and face some uncomfortable truths in order to get there, but if we want to reach our respective goals, we can and we will. Do it. Don’t wait. Make your necessary course corrections and drive on!

Mind Your Boundaries, Part 1

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What is a boundary? What are they and why do we have them? A common answer is “a physical barrier.” Very true. Now what purpose do they serve? The question is the same and so is the answer. They keep people outside a comfortable and appropriate space from you. Whether in front of your house or at the lunch table at work a boundary is a line that cannot be crossed without permission, if ever. Some people hold their boundaries in very close to themselves, some much less so.

Some people I know are routinely approached by total strangers while in line to pay for their groceries. These strangers would dump their life stories at the feet of another stranger without so much as a “hello, my name is…” When I was still working in community mental health, there would typically be 2-3 people who would raise their hands and say “Yep, that’s me.” They would also be unsure why this was happening and they were not always comfortable with these interactions. Something about their energy indicated they were not going to slam the door as soon as a stranger opened up to them. It was also common for many of these individuals to share they had difficulties with boundaries within their intimate relationships. Approaching total strangers with your life story could be, at the very least, unwanted and at worst triggering and traumatic depending on the content of the life story.

These group members tended to benefit most from the group because they were able to realize their boundaries needed to be worked on, according to what they were comfortable with. Some people are comfortable with strangers laying their life stories on them in random public places, but many are not. Where I have noticed people struggling is when boundaries are inconsistent or porous. Boundaries must be consistent otherwise they are merely suggestions or guidelines, both of which imply that adhering to them is optional rather than mandatory. Solid boundaries are necessary for healthy self-esteem and personal agency.

A common line of thought in mental health circles is “we teach people how to treat us.”

How boundaries are communicated to others is also important. If boundaries are enforced too vigorously the situation could potentially result in some sort of aggression. Delivery is a key component, which brings me to communication styles. We have three main styles of communication: aggressive, passive, and assertive. There is a fourth style of communication that I will address later in part two, simply because it usually comes up in discussion.

It is my observation that most of us learn aggressive communication first. This is unfortunate. It comes at us from school, work, and many different types of media. It also comes at us within the home when we are very young. Simple examples of aggressive communication are yelling, name calling, and include body language, such as banging on tables or slamming doors. This is viewed as a win/lose situation because the aggressive communicator gets their needs met by stepping on the needs of whomever they are addressing. Passive communicators do not get their needs met because they lay down and do not advocate for themselves. An example of this is agreeing to something you feel is unfair or unreasonable, because you want to avoid confrontation. This is viewed as a lose/win because the passive communicator does not assert themselves.

Assertive communicators get their needs met without taking away from the needs of others.

Our third communication style is assertive communication. Assertive communication gets it’s own paragraph because I feel its most important. Assertive communicators get their needs met without taking away from the needs of others. I view this as win/win because everyone involved gets their needs met without taking from the needs of the other. This is tricky because we don’t teach this very well as a culture. If we are lucky enough to come from families who teach this early, we find the people we go to school with do not know how to communicate in this way, and much of the teaching from home goes by the wayside. A lot of us learn assertive communication later in life. A great many of us do not learn to communicate assertively until we are well into high school, or even later when we begin our first jobs and have to work closely with others. Assertive communication reflects The Golden Rule, i.e. treat others the way you would like to be treated.

Healthy boundaries lend themselves to assertive communication. If you don’t enjoy someone talking down to you, you won’t talk to others that way. Assertive communication and healthy boundaries work together in that one builds off of the other. They feed each other in a positive way. A common line of thought in mental health circles is “we teach people how to treat us.” I believe this is true and no matter how assertive we are in our daily lives, occasions will arise wherein we will need to clearly define (or redefine) our boundaries to someone in a given situation. The ability to do this clearly without escalating into conflict is crucial.

This is done by clearly stating the issue and the boundary in question. For example, your room mate is eating your food (a lot of us have been there.) State clearly what the issue is. “You are eating my food.” Next, state a remedy: “I expect you to replace the food you ate within the next 24 hours.” Lastly, state what consequences will follow if your boundaries are not honored. “If my food is not replaced within 24 hours, I will put a chain and padlock on the refrigerator.” (This is an extreme example, but please continue to follow along.) The essential component here is that the consequences MUST follow consistently, exactly as described. If they are not, the boundaries are not boundaries and thus ineffective. This is the most difficult part of maintaining boundaries with most people. Sometimes boundaries are violated accidentally and it is an honest mistake. Sometimes they are violated deliberately and that is when enforcement becomes crucial. Unfortunately, we cannot count on everyone around us to observe common courtesy.

Healthy boundaries lend themselves to assertive communication.

Boundaries vary from location to location and are frequently situational. The boundaries we observe in the grocery store are different from the boundaries we observe in an elevator. We rely on our environment to dictate our boundaries. For example, the expected social boundaries in Japan differ from those in the United States. When unsure about what boundaries are appropriate for the setting you are in, observe what others around you are doing. This is sometimes known as “reading the room.” Another option is to simply ask. “Do you mind if I do this…?” This can go a long way in getting along with those around you.

Please keep in mind these are standard pre-Covid 19 boundaries. Dealing with a pandemic has forced us to modify our boundaries on global basis. This is another example of the environment dictating the boundaries. Remember, boundaries are a combination of clear communication and expected social norms. Boundaries are not suggestions or guidelines. If you feel your boundaries need improvement, an easy solution is to mimic the boundaries of someone you know and admire. You might like the way they handle themselves and emulating them is a great place to start. You could also practice improving your boundaries by scripting. Physically write out the scenario, as described above. Include the problem, the proposed solution, and the consequences if not followed. Best of luck in your practice!

Does Confidence = Toxicity?

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Perhaps it’s the influence of social media or a misunderstanding on my part, but it seems that confidence has become a frequently maligned character trait.  While certain character traits are intended to be non-threatening, assertiveness, for example, a sense of confidence seems to be viewed with disdain by many. At some point, a healthy sense of confidence became synonymous with arrogance. I am also of the belief that hiding your gifts under a bucket because they make others uncomfortable is neither fair nor healthy. When did confidence become a bad word?

Hiding your gifts under a bucket because they make others uncomfortable is neither fair nor healthy. When did confidence become a bad word?

Confidence is frequently viewed as threatening and aggressive, and sometimes it can be. I think we often assume someone may use their confidence against us as if it can be weaponized. It is common to feel threatened by someone who does a given activity better than you, but this does not mean you are being targeted. I think a large number of people feel threatened by a strong sense of confidence due to their personal insecurities.  They dislike in others what they feel is a deficit within themselves. Rather than saying “I wish I had that” or even better “teach me how to do that” we fall back on jealousy because we do not want to face our perceived short-comings.

Has anyone ever felt jealous of someone due to their abilities or accomplishments?  All of us have at one point or another.  As I became a more mature adult, however, I realized if I felt this way towards someone it was because I had a problem, not them.  I came to the conclusion many years ago if I was experiencing something as toxic as jealousy it meant I was feeling insecure about me. The good news is I am the only person I have total control over, so I can address my jealousy so it no longer influences me. I do not have control over anyone else so feeling negatively about their abilities doesn’t make sense to me anymore.  Have I experienced this from others? Absolutely. It usually left me scratching my head.  

Confidence resulting in overbearing arrogance and bullying is not true confidence, rather it is aggression.  My quick and dirty definition of aggression is getting your needs met by taking from the needs of someone else.  Our culture of winners and losers created this.  A key concept here is that other people do not have to lose in order for us to win. I am not speaking about athletic contests which are deliberately set up with a winner and “not winner” due to an agreed-upon set of rules. I am speaking of day to day life where we all have to navigate a series of challenges, some expected, some not. As a coach, I feel if I can help someone with their level of confidence, I have helped them develop a life skill that can help them across all domains. I am not helping my clients with this so they can step on others. I am helping my clients so they can develop themselves and thrive.

Confidence is inherently healthy and it promotes other healthy behaviors. 

Confidence does not have to be arrogant or self-aggrandizing.  A given individual may wield it in that manner, but I do not think that is its purpose.  True confidence and assertiveness should work together like a hand in a glove.  It is almost as if our culture views confidence as something in short supply, often resulting in judgment and criticism, such as “who does he/she think he/she is?”, or “You must think you’re so great.”  Taken to its most extreme, this may look like “nothing makes me angrier than someone who feels good about themselves.” Absurd, no? Confidence does not have to equal toxicity unless you apply it through that filter.  There is nothing inherently wrong with genuinely knowing you are good at something, particularly if it is something that required time and dedication to accomplish. A famous entertainer from the 1980’s once said “If you try to stick your head above the crowd, someone will throw a rock at it.” Are we so connected to our perceived limitations that self-betterment is viewed as threatening?

Many people mistakenly view confidence as something that makes them better than others.  Again, this is not what confidence is about.  If my sense of self is sufficient and I feel I can learn what I need to learn to be competent or even excel at a chosen task… What is wrong with that? We are attached to our insecurities to such a degree that the accomplishments of others are frequently viewed as threatening. Is success a limited commodity only a precious few can attain? Is it only available while supplies last? The implication is we must get up early, stand in line and hope we get some before it runs out. There is not a national scarcity of confidence and there is plenty for everyone. 

In the U.S. there seems to be a cultural penalty for having confidence, or even a healthy self-image.  We experience too many mixed messages implying we don’t quite measure up (advertising for example) but changing that so we do measure up can often come with a penalty. It’s almost like we just can’t win.  What is our cultural obsession with a) not feeling good about ourselves; and b) being angry with and attacking those who do? My personal observation is social media has made this worse. It’s easier to be shitty to each other now without the consequence or pressure of face to face interactions. That is likely a topic for another time…

Confidence is inherently healthy and it promotes other healthy behaviors. Learning new tasks is a common example of this.  If I can learn one thing in a given field, I can likely learn another and another until proficiency and then later excellence is achieved.  Can I learn all things expertly? No, probably not. But if I can learn things I enjoy doing and get myself paid in the process, I am likely in a good place.  We have this cultural fixation on the strong, independent, rugged individual who marches to the beat of their own drum. We also dismiss them and sometimes target them outright and attack them until they “arrive.” After they arrive, they are still subject to cruel scrutiny by their peers or the media.  Celebrity culture, anyone? This is why the aforementioned entertainer spent so much time dodging rocks.

I think if we can adapt a supportive attitude toward each other rather than viewing the accomplishments of others as threatening, we will be more likely to view confidence building as a natural progression rather than an attempt to unsettle the rest of the collective. If we can view this as a natural progression we all go through, helping each other excel becomes a natural part of life rather than needless animosity. Let’s be good to each other.