The Job of Your Life with Karen Schaffer

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Posts Tagged ‘self-confidence’

It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want To…

Posted by Karen on April 20, 2009

Boundary crossing happens in ways big and small almost daily in our lives. Sometimes it’s very obvious (ask any pregnant woman how many times strangers reach for her belly in the later stages without permission) and sometimes it’s very, very subtle.

What’s a boundary cross?

All of us have a personal sense of our boundaries and those boundaries are different for each of us. Some moms-to-be don’t mind having their bellies touched and others feel it’s a great intrusion into their personal space. Some of us don’t mind people asking us lots of personal questions and for other people that’s the worst kind of conversation. Boundaries are the invisible lines between our Self and another person.

Imagine that you are throwing a party. What kind of people do you let into the house? Some people are fine with all kinds of people…the more the merrier. Others would really only let in a few, with the request that the party stay in the kitchen and not expand all over the house. In this scenario, if you’re out in the world interacting with people, some people are going to try to come to your party and they won’t necessarily respect the inner rules you’ve set down.

And really, it’s not their fault. People go where they go; it’s up to us to recognize if we’re feeling comfortable with them there or not, deal with it and find respectful ways of asking them to leave.

Really, boundaries are the fluid, invisible borders of trust between us and others. When someone crosses our boundaries, we cease to feel “safe” emotionally.

You can tell if someone has crossed your boundary if you feel defensive, angry, suppressed, upset – in a word reactive. Someone has come to the party that wasn’t invited, or who brought a big, honking elephant who is now tromping through your garden. It seems an obvious rule-breaker to you, but it turns out they always bring that particular elephant to the party and they don’t know what the big deal you’re making about it is.

And sometimes when it happens, we don’t really know it happened in the moment; it’s only later, when we examine the way we’re feeling that we notice something “off”. “It seemed like such a great time, why do I feel so awful?”  When you dig deeper, you might notice that someone crossed over past the “safe” zone – perhaps they started pulling things out of your hall closet and handing them around – and because you didn’t notice anything wrong at the time (they were being really funny about it after all), you didn’t know it was important to stop them doing it.

Boundary crossing is an inevitable part of life.

I do it, you do it and we’ve all had it done to us, probably last week or just before lunchtime today. It’s when someone comments on how you’re raising your child – maybe even as a joke – but it goes deep in. It’s when people give you advice on your career change and you didn’t ask for it (“You know what you should be is  a [something you would never be for a million dollars]”). It’s when people you care about and depend on question your choices (“Why would you leave that job? It’s a great job!”). It’s when someone at a job interview asks a subtly inappropriate question that puts your morals in question and you feel helpless to defend yourself because you don’t want to risk your chances of losing the job.

I’ll give you an example.

I had this wonderful chiropractor a few years ago – a really lovely woman who wanted to help people – and she was good at it. She had helped people as much as she could as a chiropractor, and was just starting on the path to becoming a coach. That was fine, except that she tried out new methods in her chiropractic office – a bit of a boundary cross, since that wasn’t advertised on the nameplate.

One day I went in for a treatment. I just wanted her to take care of me physically. I had been through several challenging emotional things and I was looking forward to be nurtured.

The first boundary cross was her trying to get me to come to more treatments because once a month wasn’t enough. Not a big one, given since I could concede it was true, but perhaps she could have waited until I was off the table to discuss it with me. This is when I put up an old defense of mine because I wasn’t on benefits at the time – I made it about money. “I’d love to but I can’t afford to right now”.

She’d heard that before from me and she decided to “coach” me on it. While feeling exceedingly vulnerable (I’m lying on a table, while she has her hands on my back) she asked me personal questions about my money goals and suggested abundance advice. At first it was okay, and I answered politely. But as it continued I felt more uncomfortable and by the time I left I was steaming mad.

How dare she try and talk to me about my money issues? What does she know about me and money? Did she know I had already written some of her coaching advice in a book? Did she know that I had a coaching call scheduled with my coach (my actual coach) that afternoon for that very topic? Where did she get off?

Now. Here’s the thing. People go where they go. They say what they say and they do what they do and it’s not their problem that they hit a huge trigger inside of us.

If I dug deep – and I did – I had to admit:

A) She had a point. I did have money issues that needed to be addressed at a deep level. What was really stinging me was how long I’d felt I’d been working on them and the embarrassment of having someone else come along and poke me where I already felt I was behind.

B) I opened the door by saying I didn’t have the money to come regularly, instead of saying “no” or saying nothing in response and later booking the appointment that worked for me.

C) I could have at any time asked her to stop coaching me. A lot of what paralyzed me in the moment was not knowing how to get out of the conversation and still be a “nice person” (ever my struggle!) – and how was she to know that?

Those are all my lessons, which I’m happy to report, I’m learning and growing on – and seeing the resulting change in my behavior and results.

But right in that moment I was stuck. Speechless. A wonky-spined deer in headlights.

And yet, she did some pretty big boundary crossing…going deep into personal territory unasked.

It left me really confused. I couldn’t understand how her good intentions had gone so awry. The whole episode was surprising to me because she had been so good about physical boundaries. In her treatments she always asked if it was okay to use a piece of equipment or to put menthol on me. So I was unprepared for the emotional boundary cross without permission.

I requested a phone call with her about it later, when I had processed my upset and could speak without being angry. It was hard and a little scary to do – I don’t like making people feel bad – but I felt it was important to share what I had felt so that she could take that knowledge forward into other interactions with her clients. She apologized profusely and let me know she was in the process of becoming a coach and it was all new to her. That made sense to me. I shared how I felt without (hopefully!) judging her behavior – just let her know what it felt like and how surprised I was that the session took that turn. It was a good completion and gave me back the power I felt I had given away in the session when I didn’t have the wherewithal to speak up for myself. I hope I left her in a place of power too, learning how to translate her excellent practices as a chiropractor into her new career as a coach.

Boundary crossing is going to happen. It’s how we deal with it that gives us power.

The first step in learning about boundaries is learning to notice when people cross them. I get a lot of clients who share upsets, anger, confusion or even just a sense of heaviness or weariness, and when I start looking for the source, it rests in a boundary cross – something someone has said or done that “went in”. A party goer who tiptoed in and then trashed the place.

Now granted people can’t go around wrapped in psychological cotton wool on the off chance someone’s going to say something insensitive. Remember: people are going to go where they go – they have their opinions and ideas about what’s right and wrong and okay and not okay – and you can’t stop them from doing or saying things that push your buttons emotionally. This happens a lot in career exploration and job search – other people have lots of opinions based on their experiences and you can’t control how they are going to interact with you about your journey.

Reducing the impact means first you need to be aware of the source of the trigger and your reaction to it.

  • Can you get flattened if someone tells you something negative about a job path you’re pursuing?
  • If someone disagrees with what career you want to do or school you want to attend, do you start to question yourself again?
  • How often do you consider the source of the person who questions you, or do you let everyone’s opinions in without checking in?

Observe and Report as Seth Rogen’s new movie title would say.

1) Start with observing who and what’s said that can get under your skin. Often a boundary cross happens because it’s something you feel vulnerable or doubtful about to some degree already. It’s why parenting comments go in so deep – I haven’t met a parent yet that doesn’t question their choices at some point, if not daily, about the way they handle things. Know what comments can “get” you and prepare for them.

2) Next, learn how to process the feelings that come up – preferably not with the person who caused them. It’s not really about them at this point. It’s about you figuring out why this particular boundary cross felt so painful. Sometimes it takes time to figure out what’s at the heart of the exchange for you. If the thing they said or did didn’t have some iota of truth or connection to your personal fears or doubts, it wouldn’t have created such a strong reaction.

3) Best advice ever: don’t try and manage a big boundary cross the same day it happened if you can help it. I just tried recently…it didn’t go well! Often it takes a day or two to process the emotion, figure out what happened, figure out how important it is to say something about it and figure out what to say that is clean and non-judgmental. Only when your communication is simple, direct with no “sticky” words or emotional venting are you fully integrated and ready to speak to someone. Take a day, take a week, take as long as you need to get clear. I promise it will be way more effective that way.

4) Sometimes you even have enough time to figure out you don’t need to speak to the person at all; you can just make a new choice and move on.

Becoming present to boundary work allows you to trust yourself more deeply and build confidence that you can move safely in the world. It’s one of the essential tenets of good career exploration that no one ever talks about. Strong boundaries lead to a strong sense of self, unshaken by the outside world.

People go where they go. And you can handle it.

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