Here we are again, discussing boundaries.
Does it ever get old? I suppose it will when we finally figure it all out, but we’re not there yet. 2019 for me felt like training for the Life Olympics, as it did for most folks. One of my greatest takeaways is that, at least in mainstream conversations, we’ve been looking at the reasons for having boundaries almost completely one-sided. Here in the United States there’s been a whole lot of waking up, which comes with a whole lot of activating past and current hurts that would have otherwise gone numb or unspoken. With that, we’re yelling. A lot. The collective cry is basically “STOP FUCKING HURTING ME”, and for damn good reason. But this space of existence is unsustainable, and we’re losing balance and perspective.
There is a hyperfocus on the self as victim/survivor, and the requiring of everyone else around you to know how to fall in and not perpetuate harm. On one hand I say, it’s about goddamn time. On the other I question, how is this supposed to work? If everyone is “only me”, then there is no “you” or “us” to sort things out together with. And as much as we all have different demographics that we would really like to always be the “you” that we can blame, unfortunately probably nobody will ever sign up for that role. Everyone, at the end of the day, wants to at least be “me”.
The internet’s how-to’s for living one’s best life have me equally laughing and throwing my head into a wall these days. According to unqualified social media gurus and “witches”, I am pure magic and the world is toxic. I do not need to learn how to coexist with others, because that requires unfair emotional labor from me, and it is a revolutionary and brave act for me to turn my back and take a nap instead. However, if anyone thinks they can even share air with me, they are required to learn how to coexist with me without my assistance. Rules for conflict management: shut everyone out who is challenging. Put the relationships I maintain on unrealistic pedestals.The world needs to understand and make room for my pain and outbursts, but forcing me to do the same in return is toxic and abusive. My darkness is magic. Yours is illness.
I’m sure I’m canceled somewhere just for saying this.
The problem, as I see it, is not just that these influencers and memers are saying these things (go ahead, express yourselves). It’s that our culture is comprised of individuals who consistently fail to critically think for themselves, during a surge of forced individualization as a means of new social survival. Sure, taking nuance into consideration, there are elements of truth to many of these mini life tips. But nuance is a dwindling concept, and chainsaws are being used to butter tiny toasts in the name over overthrowing the patriarchy.
So how is this framework impacting the way we think about having boundaries? It looks something like:
I have boundaries so you can’t hurt me. If you can’t hurt me, then I am safe to love you. Therefore, “selflessly”, I have boundaries for us. You’re welcome.
Okay. I’m not taking that away from us. But what else...
What if we consider for a moment that personal boundaries are important so that others are protected from us? What if boundaries can protect us from ourselves? For me, I am “me”. For someone else, I am “you” or a part of “them”. Therefore, I am as capable of hurting others and being flawed as they are of hurting me and being flawed.
Going back to school as an adult this year has not only challenged my relationship with discipline, but it’s also shined a light on how much I thrive in an environment with just the right level of expectation and accountability. This semester I ended up on the Dean’s List with all A’s, but one B-. Naturally, because I’m me, this wasn’t satisfactory. I had to dig in and understand what went wrong. How was it that in my two hardest classes I managed A’s, but from my two easiest classes, one of them was so dramatically low?
(it’s okay if you’re like “shut up, it’s a B, you’re annoying”. Skip ahead or just hang on and hear me out, there’s a point to this)
I considered what the other three professors did that the fourth did not. The three professors that I received A’s with presented us with a syllabus on the first day, laying out what the expectations were, how we would be graded, when all of our assignments were due, and when to expect tests and quizzes. They had office hours and made themselves available and approachable for conversation. If there was a change in the schedule, we would get an email notification, an in-class note, and a revised syllabus uploaded to the class website. Toward the middle and end of the semester, some lesson plans became a little more flexible, and two out of three of these professors would ask for our participation in co-creating the lesson, while maintaining the general expectations and themes of the class so we didn’t wander off topic, but still allowed space for our classes’ particular needs and interests.
The fourth professor, with whom I didn’t do so hot, had no syllabus, no grading structure, and no official assignments. He would tell us to prepare for exams, and then would randomly shift them around over the course of a few weeks, changing the exam content without notice, so none of us could properly prepare. Any assignments we had would be given to us in the last 2 minutes of class without much explanation. We never received any exams or assignments back, so we were unable to track our progress or learn what he was looking for. He requested that we didn’t contact him because he also teaches at another university and hates receiving emails. His general approach to the class was to absorb what you could in the lecture, and then do four hours of self-directed homework per week. Yet somehow with all of this chaos, in-person he was one of my favorite professors. He was incredibly charismatic, engaging, and very knowledgeable in the subject matter. I would absolutely attend any public lecture he’d give. But in terms of my personal growth and learning, the whole thing was a wash. I have no damn clue where my grade came from at the end of the semester, and I will probably never retake his class.
So what’s the difference between these professors? Boundaries and clarity of vision. I thrived in the environments I was held accountable and given parameters around the work I’m producing, with enough openness that I can still grow and explore.
This became a brilliant opportunity for me to both self-reflect on my own approach to leadership, and the professional and interpersonal relationships I have curated in my adult life. Earlier in 2019 I left a job where the owner “co-created” me into running her shop for her for less than a livable wage. In the fall I moved into an apartment where the landlord expected me to co-create the restoration of a space that was severely damaged by the previous tenants. The level of distress this caused all around was vast and complex. In each of these situations, the person in power lacked serious boundaries, but believed they were being “nice”.
I looked back on my own “niceness” in asking the members of The Scarlet Tongue Project to co-create the work with me. This made me reconsider the use of the term “co-creation”. I had previously fallen in love with this concept, because to me it represented an anarchist ideal of equality in a creative environment. I had seen it work so well in other groups I worked with, where everyone came to the table with their brightest ideas, the whole room vibrating with excitement and inspiration. What I didn’t realize was how many other factors need to be in place for this approach to be effective. I didn’t consider that the leaders I’d seen use this approach successfully were very established, both in their industries and with their teams, so there was an unspoken, understood expectation and theme for everyone going into the project. I didn’t consider how much work these leaders were doing quietly or behind the scenes to make it all come together, because they didn’t make big displays of competence or achievement.
I had to ask myself really hard questions about why my project wasn’t working, why there was plenty of love, but not much cohesion or momentum. Through my fears of being seen, fears of hindering the creative processes of artists I deeply respect, and out of trauma from working previously with emotionally violent support, I did everyone a disservice by rolling over and just being “nice”. I was afraid to say it was “my” project. Making it “our” project felt safer, but safer for whom? Just me? The truth is that I wasn’t nice, because I wasn’t setting myself or my team up properly. My collaborators had to assume that their ideas were hitting the mark since I couldn’t tell them, which always brings an energy of insecurity and lack of trust. I was depleted financially, physically and emotionally because I was afraid to inconvenience anyone by asking for help, which made me less available for the people who needed me. I took a strange martyr position of “well, I got everyone into this mess, it’s my responsibility to take care of everything so they don’t hate me.”
The result? Disjointed performances, low audience turnout, no money, disagreement on direction, and me frequently letting people down. Fights would break out from artists not feeling supported, and for not knowing what questions to ask to advocate for themselves in the first place. My desire to be nice ended up having an impact that was anything but nice for everyone else.
Discipline, clarity of vision, directness, expectation and delegation all sound like (or get treated like) bad words right now. Many of us associate words like this with hierarchies of power and systemic oppression. For that reason, even the best leaders really have their work cut out for them because the folks working for them will push back. But what these concepts have to offer are opportunities to create boundaries for yourself and your relationships, both personal and professional. It is giving others a general outline on how to best love you, how to succeed in ways that are harmonious with the team, how to equip them with the ability to make fully informed decisions and form laser-pointed questions, and how to find safety in understanding where various responsibilities lay. When we default to people-pleasing, it is neither about other people, nor will anyone with an ounce of respect end up feeling pleased. While I understand that this tendency to people-please most often comes from a place of deep wounding, I believe that we need to transition to a space where we are more compassionate, but accepting less excuses (that's also a boundary opportunity). We all have something. Some of us are going to be lifelong bullshit card carriers, and that doesn’t need to be everyone else’s problem. Unconscious coping habits from unhealed/untreated trauma should not be our primary leadership qualities. People signing on to work with you are coming to you because they believe in the vision or product you claim to offer, not because they want to be your caretaker or emotional ship captain.
Consider some additional examples of the long-term impact of how one’s poor boundaries can hurt others:
-Oversharing: can corner the listener and potentially cause triggering that may last hours, days, or weeks.
-Overspending: can take money out of pockets of other people you already are in debt to, can cause other members of the household to be late on bills, rent, etc.
-Overinvestment in other people’s problems: can create codependency which may lead to backlash, isolation, and loss of other important relationships.
-Unsolicited favors and gift-giving: especially if this is coming from a person in power, this can create an environment where the recipient feels non-consensually indebted to you, and may not feel safe advocating for their needs.
-Overbooking: causes poor time management and inability to be present and focus, inconveniencing or harming others who have taken time for you or are relying on your contributions to complete a larger project.
That’s not cute, right? I’ve experienced all of these, and now painfully watch from the sidelines when I watch it happen for others. These are hard habits to break, and when I start feeling guilty for being “less available” these days, I can take comfort in remembering that I’m also not hurting people as much as I used to. That being said, I still have work to do in this department.
With all the self-care advice out there that points the finger at everyone else for causing your problems and misunderstanding you, never forget to hold yourself accountable at least equally as much (aside from the very realness of systemic oppression). One of the greatest gifts you can give your loved ones is good personal boundaries. I feel safest with friends who have the clearest no’s. But boundaries aren’t only about saying no. Having strong boundaries for yourself allows both you and others to confidently say yes, and being in a trusting flow of “yes” is infinitely more liberating than curating a restricted space of “no” to live in. Not having clear boundaries is deceptively a “no” state of being, because you’re denying your human right to show up fully in this life and be present. If you believe that your own life isn’t important enough to be lived, you will subconsciously find yourself sabotaging others, as well. As a leader, your team will feel most supported, able to trust, and free to express themselves if they know where your boundaries are. They will be able to sync energies with you if you can clearly articulate your vision, or at least give some constructive guidance along with the transparent vulnerability that some things may need assistance.
Go ahead and give yourself permission today to speak up, speak clearly, and let the world know what you need to be the coolest mutha$%&#er you can be for yourself and the people you care about.