Keep your well being - keep your boundaries

It’s sometimes funny how everyday experiences can spark off thoughts about deeper things. I recently had an experience with neighbours about an unclear boundary between our adjoining properties that was causing confusion with access, maintenance responsibilities etc. There was no clear dividing line! We resolved this amicably by agreeing where the boundary should be and then erecting a simple fence. It was now clear and obvious. There is an interesting parallel with this situation and with experiences in work and life generally. How often do you feel others are not respecting your boundaries and trespassing on your territory?

Perhaps the simplest example of trespass is when people stand too close to us, they are literally ‘invading our space’ and we all seem to have our own unique area of space that works for us. Another example, common at work, concerns interruptions. How often do you find people interrupting when you are working on something requiring your concentration? As a consequence you may lose track or make mistakes and often have to start back at the beginning which can waste your time and energy. Interrupting is a kind of trespass although often we have not made our boundary very clear to others. Too often we expect others to respect our boundaries in the hope they are obvious, we draw them vaguely in a kind of invisible ink and trust the rest to telepathy! The ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign that you can choose to put on your hotel room door is a good example of a boundary made clear! When we don’t set clear boundaries and moan or get angry when people trespass we can end up acting like a ‘victim’. “It’s not fair” “Poor me” “Why me”? “Why doesn’t so and so understand me and know what I want”? You can take control by making your boundaries clear, think of this like the example at the beginning where a fence is erected to make the line crystal clear for others to see and respect. This is not about shutting others out because effective boundaries also have clear gateways, in other words they spell out what is OK as well as what isn’t. For example with interruptions at work you may choose to set a boundary that requests no interruptions between certain times then adopt an ‘open’ door policy outside of those times. Having clear boundaries is an essential capability of self-leadership, it demonstrates how we make choices and is an important ingredient to being in control of our lives and work. A leader who has clear boundaries is also presenting a model for others in how they could choose to run their lives!

Ironically it can often be those closest to us who trespass most significantly. Friends or family who phone too frequently or at bad times, or who ‘out stay’ their welcome, make unwanted comments, visit unexpectedly, expect too much, coerce us to do things only they want to do, or just never shut up! - just give me some peace and quiet. Because these people are close to us we may not make our boundaries clear, usually because we are concerned about offending or upsetting or maintaining approval. The justification, explained as ‘I don’t want to hurt their feelings’, may often neglect our own needs and feelings! When someone trespasses and we haven’t been direct and honest enough to set a clear boundary then our concerns may ‘leak out’ in other ways. For example our tone of voice or body language may suggest something is wrong but leaves the other person feeling confused because we haven’t explicitly said what is wrong. We then wonder why people don’t read the signs and pick up on our displeasure and continue to keep on trespassing. We may say “They should know better”, but why should they know if we haven’t explicitly told them? How much better might it be if you simply set a clear boundary that is true to yourself and avoided the internal grief that can go with not being honest. For example with inconvenient phone calls you could choose to spell out the frequency and times when you do want to be phoned or even turn this round to don’t call me I will call you!

While interruptions at work and unwanted phone calls can be annoying and time consuming other kinds of trespass may effect us more deeply. I have noticed that one of the worst kinds of trespass often relates to being given unwanted feedback or advice. Here are some work based examples although this could be just as relevant outside of work - have you ever experienced anything similar?

A colleague or manager says to you “Let me give you some feedback” (presupposition that they are going to give this to you whether you want it or not). The person concerned then continues to give you feedback that surprises you, seems personal, is not at the right time and from your perspective unwanted – it goes straight to the heart and leaves you feeling low.

Another example relate to advice. “Let me give you some advice” (again the presupposition is that they are going to give this anyway) followed by “What you should do is …..” or “If I was you I would …..” or “You really should/must do ……” Other peoples advice can of course be useful but equally at times can be like wearing someone else’s clothes!

Unwanted feedback or advice can be very intrusive trespass. If you don’t want it then you have both the right and the choice to politely erect your fence, including gateways as appropriate. For example you could say “No thanks, I don’t want feedback/advice right now, I will let you know if and when I want it”. If the person wanting to give you feedback or advice is both skilful and aware they would ask your permission before even starting, this makes it easier for you as the potential receiver to set your boundary if you want to and to know it will be respected. As you now start to think more about trespass there may be many other examples coming to mind such as, betraying trust, prying questions, certain behaviours that may conflict with values or beliefs, noise, actions towards others and so on. Here is a story that I think captures the concept of trespass and boundaries perfectly, it comes from someone who I was coaching last year who is happy to share this information.

Sharon (pseudonym) is co-director of a successful IT company. She felt very in control at work, was outstanding in her role and highly respected by colleagues and customers. Outside of work however it was a somewhat different story and a part of her life she was less satisfied with. As the story unravelled she realised that the way people spoke to her at work was quite different to the way her partner spoke to her at home. At work the language used by colleagues was polite, positive and most importantly respectful. While at home in spite of being in a happy and loving relationship there was something about the way her partner spoke to her particularly in front of others that for Sharon was disrespectful and made her feel less valued. The words were being said in fun and there wasn’t any negative intention on behalf of her partner but for Sharon it was trespass! For example her partner would say things to her in front of others like “You’ve forgotten to put the corkscrew in the bag again, you know you are a real scatter brain” or “Sorry we’re late everyone but Sharon took the wrong turning, sometimes my wife can’t find her way to her own home”. They are only words said in fun but for Sharon it hurt, and mostly because it couldn’t be further from the truth. At work she was regarded as a clear thinker who could find solutions to tricky problems, she never forgot things and her track record was so impeccable that others would often go to her for help to think more clearly. As Sharon thought about this more during one of her coaching appointments she began to realise that her boundary being trespassed here was not about being told she had forgotten the corkscrew or being told she had taken a wrong turning, she really didn’t mind these words being said and could see the funny side. The trespass was in the ‘throw ‘ away remarks that were often added to the words about her mistakes – words like ‘scatter brain’, can’t find her way etc. It was these throw away remarks she found disrespectful. Once she realised this she was able to set a very clear boundary to her partner about what was OK to say in public (and in private) and what wasn’t, like most men he had no idea his humour was back firing! He was both embarrassed and apologetic and only too pleased to respect Sharon’s boundary in the future - now he knew where it was!

It is also important to draw attention to self-trespass. This is where we intrude on our own boundaries, for example when we behave or think in a way that is in conflict with our values – we are somehow dishonouring the things we really care about and not living our lives in a way that is being true to ourselves. Being true to yourself and living your life in a way that best honours your values is a real key to happiness and fulfilment.

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