Some time back, a dear friend had been messaging me quite a bit, asking for some help on how to deal with a number of difficult professional and personal situations. I started to notice resentment creeping in. The unbidden judgement popped into my head: “If you want coaching, hire me – stop using our friendship as a source for free coaching.”
If you’re wincing, you’re on to something. I wince too at acknowledging that judgement. Talk about harsh!
Fortunately, I now have the skills (and support) to notice resentment for what it is and get curious about it. After giving myself a lot of self-compassion, and doing some processing with my empathy buddy, I was able to formulate and lob a gentle question to her, free of judgement or accusation, expressing genuine concern for her situation and asking her what she thought she really needed from me. And then what followed was a beautiful back and forth, that helped to deepen our understanding and friendship. And the last tendrils of resentment on my side dissolved.
Another example from this week. I have been working with someone I know from way back to re-purpose some items of value I inherited from my mom. We first started on the project over a year ago – and months have gone by with no communication or follow-up from her. We finally got to the point last week of finalizing the designs and for a down-payment. For a few reasons, I didn’t respond right away. And then I got “barraged” with emails and messages. I felt pressurized and my resentment meter went from 0 to 100 in 1 second. “What the hell is she playing at?” my internal voice of self-righteousness erupted. “We go for months with silence and no movement on her part, and now that it’s time to pay up, if I don’t respond instantaneously I get a deluge of messages. This is totally B.S.” (Let’s be clear here: she sent me all of 3 or 4 follow-up messages within 2 days – so not exactly a “barrage.” See how quickly resentment blows things out of all proportion!)
Mustering my courage, I drafted an email back to say I was feeling uncomfortable and confused, and that I needed to step back a bit to get some perspective. Which in turn generated a genuine apology and some clarity around assumptions we were each making about timing and urgency.
So what has this to do with boundaries?
A few things.
For one, I’ve come to learn that, for me, there is a huge relationship between resentment and boundaries. Quite simply, that resentment is THE warning sign to me that some kind of boundary has been crossed.
Secondly, I’ve come to learn that if I don’t address it, either with myself or with the other person or both, the resentment will fester and stew and negatively impact the relationship.
And finally, that addressing it takes a whole heap of courage. And skill. Because if I just blurt it out, the boundary I am trying to set will almost always come out as a judgement and sound like I’m putting a wall up. And that leads to the other person getting defensive. And then things just spiral downward from there.
The boundaries I know about and can voice upfront – those are the easy ones to work with. It’s the boundaries I don’t know about, the one’s that creep up on me, visible only when resentment raises it head, that are the hard ones. I call these my “stealth boundaries.” And precisely because they really are just a form of unvoiced expectations, they are “resentments waiting to happen” in the words of Anne Lamott.
Knowing this has helped me a lot with how to work through my stealth boundaries when they do show up. Instead of judging myself or the other person for the fact that I am now feeling resentment, the situation rather just becomes an opportunity to clarify what is and isn’t ok with me – kindly and gently (that’s the hard part!). And then not to fear whatever their response might be – but just to be open to it, and take it for what it is – theirs, not mine. When I’ve done the work on my side to be clear, kind, compassionate and generous, then more often than not the response back helps to open things up and develop greater clarity and connection between us.
This approach comes from Brené’ Brown’s chapter “Sewer Rates and Scofflaws” in Rising Strong. Generosity in this case is “what is the most generous assumption you can make about this person’s intentions”. In practice, and as Brown details at some length in the chapter, it is working from the belief that “people are doing the best that they can.” That is a hard belief for many of us to adopt – but has been transformative for me. But that is a whole other post!
But being generous in assumption of intent without boundaries is equally as dangerous to our work performance, well-being and relationships. Because in this scenario we are (however unwittingly) giving people carte blanche to walk all over us. If we’re not secure enough in our own self-worth, or if our need to be liked or “people please” is greater than our desire to practice our integrity, then we don’t say “no” to behavior that is disrespectful or unprofessional. And while we bitterly resent how we are then treated – why on earth should we expect the other person to treat us with more respect than we are treating ourselves?
So yes, how we set boundaries matters. A lot. I’ve had many an experience in the past where trying to set a boundary has backfired on me miserably. The other person (often my husband, or my boss) would push back hard, calling me unreasonable, inflexible, difficult, or selfish. Boundaries without compassion or generosity feel like walls – and back then I didn’t have much of either compassion or generosity, I just had heaps of resentment and judgement.
Now every time a stealth boundary creeps on me I lean into what I’ve learned from Brené Brown: the most compassionate people have the clearest boundaries. And that gives me the courage to work it through with the other person. Whenever I'm about to do that I recite a little mantra in my head: “Boundaries without generosity feel like walls. Generosity without boundaries is being a doormat. Be clear. Be kind. I am worth this.”
“When we combine the courage to make clear what works for us, and what doesn’t, with the compassion to assume people are doing their best, our lives change,” says Brené Brown.
In this week’s toolkit, there is practice on getting clear on our boundaries – and how to turn them from “walls”, to something more like a “guidance system.” Have a look!
And one final thought. I do want to be clear that, with some people, setting boundaries is going to be like waving a red flag to a bull. For the more self-absorbed, self-aggrandizing, power-hungry people in our lives, narcissists if you will, any boundary, no matter how skillfully set, is going to be met with resistance, and quite possibly fury and rage. This NOT about you. This is about them. If you have expressed a boundary clearly and kindly, you have given the other person the benefit of the doubt, and made a clear distinction between their behaviour and them as a person, and they still react negatively – you have done the best you can. Whether this is happening in the workplace or in your personal life, you may need to make a hard decision as to whether continuing to work or be in relationship with this person is possible or good for you. You may hope and want them to change -– but that is not in your control. Your power is in choosing what you are going to do: file a complaint, look for reassignment or another job, minimize your contact with the colleague or family member, or exit the relationship. None of these choices will be easy. All of them take courage, because you are saying to yourself and to others “I am worthy of being treated with respect.” And if this is what you need to do – please get some support from someone you know and trust and respect, and who has only your best interests at heart. Because this is hard enough to do with support – but harder still to do alone.
Sue Mann - Coach
Reflections on how we reclaim and sustain our worthiness in the face of falls and challenges.