In this episode, Bridgette and Irvine explore the importance of setting healthy boundaries. They focus on the art of finding a balance between not being too close and enmeshed with another person while not being too distant from them.
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Irvine: Hello, and welcome to everyone today, this is the Resilient Leadership Podcast where everything we talk about is aimed at helping you lead with a greater sense of calm, clarity, and conviction, even in anxious times. My name is Irvine Nugent, and I am delighted to welcome my co-host Bridgette Theuer. Bridgette, how are you doing today?
Bridgette: I am doing great. It is a beautiful sunny day. Spring has sprung. There’s no reason to complain about anything and I’m very excited about our topic.
Irvine: I am too, because today’s topic is all about setting healthy boundaries. How to know where I end and you begin. And as always we have tried to look at leadership through the lens of being in a system, relationship systems and this is a perfect topic to do that. Healthy boundaries are all about negotiating.
Irvine: Relationship systems. So, we’re really going to dig into this. And as always stick around; we have a wonderful practice at the end of each episode, which really tries to embody what we have been talking about. As we begin, Bridgette, let’s just look at the issue of healthy boundaries and ask the question. Why is it such an important topic?
Bridgette: Oh, there are so many reasons, to your point about looking at resilience through the lens of relationship systems; boundaries are all about establishing healthy relationship systems, where if we have good boundaries in place, it actually facilitates deeper connection, but it also facilitates protection. It’s connection and protection, right?
Bridgette: Protecting our integrity, our ability to sustain ourselves over time. And when we don’t have those boundaries in place, we suffer, and there was this workplace report on boundaries by Udemy and they said that 62% of the managers surveyed felt pressure to put work ahead of meals, of eating, taking lunch, having dinner. That many said more conversations are needed around how do we have workplace boundaries? Because when we don’t, we lose where that line is that you were speaking about earlier. So, it’s so important to our vitality, our sustainability, but to navigating our relationship systems with ease. Boundaries are critical. But let’s get our terms straight, so Irvine, what do we mean by boundaries? What’s a boundary?
Irvine: Yeah. It’s a great question. So, I think the best way to think of a boundary is it’s this conceptual limit between ourselves, you, and another person. So, as I said before, simply put it’s about knowing where I end and you begin, it’s knowing what’s mine, what’s yours. And the reality is that every adult is responsible for establishing their own boundaries.
Irvine: And it means taking responsibility for our own actions and for our emotions, and this is where we get into trouble sometimes with boundaries, not taking responsibility for others’ actions or others’ emotions. Now, this is pretty fluid, it is not an exact science and it’s something that changes from time to time and something we have to negotiate and also renegotiate.
Bridgette: Oh, absolutely.
Irvine: As we move throughout life. So, this is something that we’re constantly involved with and it’s at the core, as you said so wonderfully at the beginning, of having healthy relationships.
Bridgette: Yeah. You know what just pops into my mind as I was listening to you is I remember a long time ago, I was reading an article about boundaries, and the person used this analogy. So, let’s say you own a large piece of property, your home is situated on several acres and there’s a fence going around the edge of your property, and people start trespassing and walking through it and you get really annoyed and irritated until you then realize that you used to have, that fence was shored up everywhere.
But over time you let it just fall and there were whole parts of the fence that people could just walk through, there used to be a no trespassing sign, that had been kicked over. And the person’s point was if you’re not attending to regularly and shoring up your boundaries, then you can count on people trespassing. It’s not a one-and-done conversation, right?
Bridgette: So, we know we need to have boundaries, we know why they’re important, we know what they are. Alright, let’s talk about what’s going on in the brain with this, because we know the brain is involved at an instinctual level.
Bridgette: In boundaries, right?
Irvine: Oh, absolutely. Because boundaries are all about keeping us safe and keeping us connected.
Irvine: And both of those things go right back to our primitive functioning as human beings, so part of it is we have this amazing internal alert system, which lets us know if danger is around and we are constantly scanning the environment up to 200 times a minute. Is there anything out there that is a sign of physical danger, and if there is, of course, we take action, and part of the boundaries is that basically, we shut ourselves off from that danger. However, we actually got here as well through cooperating with each other, so we have these two elements, which are part of humanity, one is we need to keep ourselves safe, but the other one is we also need to cooperate with other humans because when we cooperate, it also helps to our survival.
And so, as the brain developed, it also developed a higher social brain. And part of that was to let us know, when’s it safe? When can we begin to interact? And so, say, for example, when we hear someone’s voice, a soothing voice or a relaxed and smiling face, we notice some calm gestures, that part of the brain then activates just to say, there’s no danger here and you’re able to connect with this person on an emotional level and therefore to feel safe. So, both of those things are still going on in our brains, the need to feel safe and the need to be connected.
Bridgette: Oh, there’s such a balance to be had there, because we have that deep longing to connect with people in our biology, but as you are pointing out, we have instinctive needs to feel safe.
Bridgette: And there’s this push-pull, and so the other thing it kind of reminds me of, and we’ve talked about this a little bit, is this balance that leaders have to strike between closeness and distance, right?
Bridgette: Moving in and moving out.
Bridgette: So, speak a little bit about that for a minute, Irvine.
Irvine: Yeah. How will I describe that? So, every now and again, I’ll find a program that I get a little bit addicted to. And one of those programs I found, it’s a UK program my sister said, oh, you’re going to watch it, and it’s called Escape to The Chateau. And it’s about an English couple who go to France and they find this rundown Chateau, they buy it for about $300,000, and of course, they do everything for its upkeep and to renovate it. And I was just thinking about this topic, it’s kind of like a Chateau which has this beautiful front and it has a moat of water to protect itself and it has a drawbridge and the only way you can get in is by this drawbridge going up and down.
Bridgette: I love it.
Irvine: And as human beings this is this balance that we have, there’s this balance for closeness and distance. And so, at times the drawbridge is down and we may even go out and welcome people in. And at the other extreme, the drawbridge is up, the door is shut and we’re isolated and we’re not connecting with others. And so, this interplay is so important that these questions, when should I open up to other people, when should I be closed to other people? And as we said at the beginning, this is not an exact science, when do we need to separate ourselves or draw close?
And of course, when you add in the whole layer of anxiety, then it even makes it more difficult and we all have our own unique, personal histories; we have histories in the family system that we grew up in and we have stories around kind of our own boundaries and boundaries that were set or boundaries that weren’t set. And so, therefore what we have to do is to really ask ourselves, when we feel anxious, what are some of the behaviors we notice in ourselves? Do we notice ourselves feeling this internal need to draw close? Or do we feel ourselves wanting to separate and step back?
Irvine: And I think everyone has a default and that’s part of the noticing, which becomes incredibly important in this action, because every human being when their anxious are going to go one of two ways.
Bridgette: Yeah. They’re either going to maybe cut off from people.
Bridgette: And that drawbridge comes up and nobody’s coming in.
Bridgette: Or they might go too far the other way, they let the drawbridge down, and a crowd swarms in, right?
Bridgette: And so, I don’t know if we’ve ever used these terms cut-off infusion on any of our episodes, but those are the extremes that we can go to when we’re trying to navigate relationship systems. And when those systems become anxious, sometimes we get so glommed on to other people, we become emotionally enmeshed with them and we can’t lead very well. And then sometimes we go so far the other way we cut off and the boundary is no longer porous. It’s no longer allowing us to connect, it’s a wall, you know?
Bridgette: So, getting these just right is not such an easy thing, is it?
Irvine: No. Bridgette, I’m curious, so those two terms, fusion and cut off, what are some behaviors or what are some things you might notice from those extremes, say in the workplace or even in our family systems that might be indicators that this is where we’ve gone.
Bridgette: Yeah. Well, I think when you think about, let’s say, a family that’s stressed and anxious. And what might start to happen is that telephone tag kind of thing, going on where the mother calls the daughter, the daughter calls the sister, the sister calls, and then this anxious kind of snowballing kind of storytelling thing takes place where everybody starts to be in everybody’s business, right?
Bridgette: And no one’s really thinking. And then there’s somebody in the midst of all that who wants to set a boundary, who wants to say, I don’t think I should be involved in this conversation or I’m not sure we should be having these conversations, and do you have the fortitude to do that, right?
Bridgette: And the same thing happens on teams, where sometimes, I’m thinking of a client I coached just the other day and she had somebody on her team that was so anxious and he kept texting her in the evenings and on the weekends. Even about non-emergency or non-urgent things, and she had to set a boundary there while still staying connected to him and that’s the trick, right?
Irvine: Yeah. I was thinking as well, we were working with a client a few months ago as well, who their tendency would be towards fusion, which would be entangled. And I can remember one of the things they were struggling with was you could just feel the weight of their inability to decide, their inability to make a decision because they became so preoccupied about the impact with the other person. And so, they were so immersed in this group of people, it was a very tough decision that had to be made, but the inability to kind of make the decision now and to put it off and just to kind of really regurgitate how it might impact the other people and to go back and forth and back and forth on that.
And at times in leadership, it means taking a stand and at times it’s this ability to see that we become fused and that at times we just have to create a new boundary there.
Bridgette: Yeah. So, this is reminding me of Friedman’s analogy of cell biology, because as I’m listening to you talk about that client. The client has become so emotionally entangled in the group that using the biology of cells, all healthy cells have a very clear boundary wall and a nucleus in the center, that boundary wall allows the cell to maintain its shape and its sense of self without losing itself in other people.
So, it can join with other people, but it always, that cell always knows what its job is and it has this core organizing principle, and sometimes as leaders, if our boundary walls are too porous, like in this example, we become part of an amalgamated ball of emotional anxiety. Where everybody’s kind of glommed together, but those cell walls are very collapsed.
Bridgette: And so, I think that’s such a useful analogy. How can we operate as healthy cells, as opposed to viruses, which don’t have a core operating principle? Viruses don’t have a nucleus. They don’t really have cell walls, and so they have to glom on to other healthy cells to operate, to sustain themselves, right?
Bridgette: So, it’s a balance of making sure that we are clear about that cell wall and where we begin and end where somebody else begins and ends. But still allow connection, because it’s about connection and protection, it’s about safety and connection.
Irvine: Yeah. And one of the things I’m thinking about, Bridgette, as well, is that’s constantly being renegotiated. I’m going back to some conversations I’ve had in the last couple of weeks working with clients as we emerge from the pandemic. And we’re returning to the office.
Bridgette: That’s right.
Irvine: It’s a renegotiation of boundaries.
Bridgette: It is.
Irvine: And it’s like, well, what does this mean? And what’s expectations and my presence and not, and all of this is, it’s once again, I remember we were having this conversation and I said, maybe this is a renegotiation of boundaries. And all of a sudden here, we found ourselves in behaviors for the last two years being remote and now that’s no longer the case. Now, we’re hybrid and that’s a whole different kettle of fish and we need to talk about that, we need to talk about expectations, we need to talk about our roles and clarity because when there’s no clarity, this is where we run into problems.
Bridgette: Oh, indeed. And when there’s no clarity, that’s when we can count on people trespassing our boundaries or we trespass other people’s boundaries, and then that gets into producing more anxiety in the relationship system, right?
Bridgette: Okay. So, I bet people listening are like, okay, that sounds great, but how do I negotiate these boundaries? How do I establish healthy boundaries? What does that look like? So, what are some tips you have for folks, Irvine?
Irvine: Well, let’s reuse a word that we’ve just said there, clarity.
Irvine: When we have good boundaries, they’re clear to us and clear to other people. So, when we find ourselves being very vague and using mushy language when we’re like, don’t call me too late. Well, what does that mean?
Irvine: For me, I’m in bed by nine, so you ain’t going to get a phone call, but for other people that could be 10 or 11 o’clock, so what is the boundary? I don’t want to be disturbed after eight o’clock. So, is there clarity around the boundary that’s clear, specific, understandable, and expressed?
Irvine: And then are we consistent. Because that’s the other thing, at times people are going to test boundaries and if they find in one testing that we say something and then the other time we don’t, then people say, well, which is it, is this really do they really mean that? So, to have that clarity and then also that consistency is very important. And it’s only when both of those that people really begin to realize, no, oh, they’re being serious, this really does mean a boundary that I need to respect.
Bridgette: Right. I think that’s the hardest thing, by the way, I haven’t even heard your other tips yet, but for me, it’s the consistency because I can get clear, pretty good at that, and then I’ll establish the boundary and sometimes I’ll communicate it. And then that consistency is the piece that’s the most challenging, for me anyway.
Irvine: Yeah. I know, I hear you because, we love to make exceptions. So, it’s kind of.
Bridgette: Especially for ourselves.
Irvine: Absolutely. For ourselves and for our favorite people, you know?
Irvine: Yeah. But this is the problem, and then it becomes blurred.
Bridgette: Yeah. So, may I share a quick example about that consistency?
Irvine: Oh, please. Yeah.
Bridgette: So, I once coached a leader who decided to establish a boundary, because again, when you are frustrated or resentful, that can be a cue that a boundary has been trespassed. So, he was pretty and it had to do with people showing up late to these weekly executive team meetings. Not everybody, but sometimes a couple of people would show up late, he was always prompt and it just was really ticking him off and I said, well, have you ever communicated that, that is a clear expectation and that when it’s violated that’s not okay, that there’s a boundary there.
We’re not going to sit and wait for you and we’re going to start on time and we expect everyone. Okay, he hadn’t communicated it. So, he did, he said, Hey, let’s and he did a good job, for the sake of this and this and this, let’s all make an effort to be on time. In the first couple of meetings, everybody was on time. The fourth one, one person was late, they had a good reason, a good exception. And then the one after that, two people were late and he was right back where he was and he was so angry because he had not. And, by the way, he didn’t do anything to reestablish that boundary, he just let it go.
And pretty soon people were back to where they were before. So, his lack of consistent enforcement of it and his anticipation, as you just said, that you will be tested, wasn’t there.
Irvine: Absolutely. Yeah. Well, following on from that, Bridgette, I think what’s really important there is that when we set boundaries not to take responsibility for how others feel about it. Part of what we’ve talked about in previous episodes, is this over-functioning, which takes on the emotional weight of others, and really good boundary setting is not taking on that emotional weight. Is that this boundary makes sense, it’s clear, it’s consistent and I can’t be responsible if some people don’t like it and that’s difficult because as we said before, we like to make exceptions and we can get into some great word-smithing and deceive ourselves. But at the end of the day, we can’t be responsible for how other people feel about our boundaries.
Bridgette: You know what? I just had an insight in this moment, which is, I hadn’t really thought about, we did a whole episode on burnout and we included over-functioning in that, right?
Bridgette: I hadn’t realized until now that over-functioning is an example of kind of a weak boundary, right?
Bridgette: Either you’re intruding on someone else’s boundary.
Bridgette: And, or they’re intruding on yours or a combination of the two. And it is both an emotional boundary, but sometimes it’s a boundary around, oh, I’ll do that work for you, you know?
Bridgette: Even though it’s yours to do. So, that’s an interesting way for us to look at over-functioning is where’s the weak boundary. Because there’s a weak boundary in there somewhere.
Irvine: Absolutely. And just one other final thing I would say, and we’ve kind of talked about it a little bit, is that boundaries change, they are not forever. And it’s our responsibility to communicate when a boundary’s changed. People are not mind readers. And if we have changed a boundary, then we should let people know. I mentioned, I think we’re going through, in the world of work at the moment, a lot of renegotiation around boundaries, what’s acceptable, what’s not acceptable. And I think it’s good to have these conversations about, you know what, I did say this, but I’ve now changed my mind and I want to let people know what the new boundary is.
Bridgette: Yes. Those are really good. I guess what’s going through my head right now is the need to communicate our boundaries from a place of calm resolve. It’s so much about, you can set a boundary that’s perfectly appropriate, but you do it with so much emotional anxiety people are like, whoa. They can’t even hear the boundary, they’re reacting to all the emotion, you know?
Bridgette: So, the quality of our presence when we communicate a boundary is so critical, the expectation that it will be tested and a willingness to hold fast. All those are really important.
Irvine: Yeah. I love that last one. Bridgette, I think at times, I don’t know, but I know for me, is that we do tend to personalize, I do, I tend to personalize things. So, someone has violated my boundary, I make all these stories about this is the personal thing, et cetera and it’s the expectation, this is normal, this is to be expected and it’s okay, and not to personalize it. And I think by not personalizing it, I think it helps us just be, okay, this was to be expected and I just need to restate with clarity and consistency, what this boundary is.
Bridgette: And it takes a fair amount of courage to do this, I think we have to mention that, right?
Bridgette: Because we’re largely talking about boundaries in the context of our workplace relationships and we would rather, many of us would rather not have to say the boundaries, we’d rather just people understood them magically.
Irvine: Yeah. That would be a lot easier if that was the case, read my mind.
Bridgette: Yeah. And depending on who we’re setting the boundary with, let’s say, you actually need to set a boundary with your boss, with your manager. Because they are Slacking you or texting you or emailing you 24/7 and they’ve gotten into a habit of it. Now, that we could do a whole episode on.
Bridgette: But at any rate, it requires a lot of self-definition on our part, we have to step back from the emotional pressures that we’re feeling and define for ourselves the boundaries that will allow us to both connect powerfully to people and then protect ourselves. And what’s kind of paradoxical is the stronger your boundaries are, the healthier your cell wall is, the more powerfully you can connect with other people because you’re not leaking on them and they’re not leaking into you. That makes sense.
Bridgette: Okay. So, are we ready to share a core practice?
Irvine: Yeah, let’s do that. I want to share two ideas around this and this is kind of leading on for where we’ve been before. So, the first one is self-awareness, which is one of our core practices. And it’s really what are boundaries for you? What is important? At times boundaries are an expression of what is important to us, our values, what we’re willing to fight for, what do we want to preserve? And I think it’s good for us to spend some time really thinking about that. What are my values?
Irvine: What are the boundaries that come from that?
Bridgette: I like that.
Irvine: Yeah. The second practice then is a little pause. We’ve mentioned about taking a pause, but specifically here, every day we’re asked to say yes or no to certain things and that can just be pro forma and we can get into habits. But part of creating healthy boundaries is sometimes saying yes and sometimes saying no. And so, at times, just to take a pause to say, what’s being asked of me here? And is this in violation of a boundary? And do I need to renegotiate before I say yes or no? And I think that’s a wonderful practice, just to stop and to think, what are the consequences of this? Yes, or no?
Bridgette: Yes. Because, as we’ve said before, if we don’t, inevitably it leads to resentment because we will experience breakdowns, right?
Bridgette: And a lot of what we’re talking about is how do we sustain our leadership over time in anxious workplace settings. I love that you started the whole episode with this notion that, hey, we’re returning to the workplace in some form, not everybody, but a lot of us in a hybrid, we have to renegotiate our boundaries. So, it’s a perfect time for people to think about, alright, what are those values you want to preserve? And what are the boundaries that will help you do that while allowing you still to connect with people in the way that you need to? So, love that. Okay. So, Irvine, I think we need to tee up our next episode, don’t we?
Irvine: Yes, absolutely.
Bridgette: Okay. So, the title of the next episode is going to be Navigating Workplace Reactivity. And we’re going to talk about three of the most predictable and common reactive patterns that emerge in every anxious family, every anxious team that can really throw us off course, unless, we will show you how, how to navigate your way through them. So, looking forward to having that conversation with you next time, Irvine.
Irvine: Me too, absolutely.
Bridgette: It has been a delight as always.
Irvine: Always. Thank you so much. I appreciate it.
Bridgette: Take care, folks.Irvine: Bye now