MYOB: Mind Your Own Boundaries

I grew up learning this lesson:

If someone is in need, don’t ask if you can help – just do it.

Try this approach in your job search or your career transition. Give back more than you get.

Not that you will keep score, but it’s an attitude that might just make you a happier person. Giving back tends to bring its rewards quietly and when you least expect it. Months later doors might be opened that you never knew existed.

People tend to mirror the way they are treated. If you show an interest in sharing information and helping others to achieve their goals, it is likely that those people will want to support your goals in return.

Do we know this already? Of course we do.

But for some crazy reason, we all need reminders about simple things.

The key to all of this is to be an active participant. Look for opportunities to help others and connect people with each other. Look for the chance to cooperate with colleagues or coworkers. Look for the chance to help colleagues that are seeking employment or mentor a young person. Seek out these opportunities.

The truth of the matter is that if you support others, you will seldom experience a shortage of having that favor returned.

One caution: Understand and honor your own boundaries.

What the heck are boundaries anyway? It’s a tricky concept to define. The online dictionary definition from About.com is

The emotional and physical space that we place between others and ourselves. Setting proper boundaries is important to our mental health. When appropriate boundaries are not set, we run the risk of becoming either too detached from or too dependent upon others.

We must always consider both our own boundaries and the boundaries of others in order to establish positive relationships. This is not an easy task, since each person’s definition of an appropriate boundary may differ.

When researching information for this post, I came across a wild story about boundaries. You may already be familiar with it. It was a surprise to me.

Have you heard of Penelope Trunk?

She runs a social networking site for managing careers called The Brazen Careerist, and writes a terrific blog with half a million visitors a month. Yes – half a million…(I highly recommend her blog)

In late 2009, Penelope updated her Twitter feed about having a miscarriage during a business meeting. It read like this:

I’m in a board meeting. Having a miscarriage. Thank goodness, because there’s a fucked-up three-week hoop-jump to have an abortion in Wisconsin.

As you can imagine, this tweet caused an uproar. You may have read the article in the the Guardian. It is a fascinating read if you have a few minutes.

In the article, Penelope states that she was shocked that her statement created such an uproar.

Really? Shocked? I was surprised to hear that. Penelope is in no uncertain terms a very sophisticated and intelligent business woman. Why would she be shocked?

It seems to me this is an issue about boundaries. There is no true right or wrong, and I am not making any judgments. But we all need to be accountable for our public statements and consider how others will react to them. Penelope didn’t seem concerned. Would you be?

Some boundary basics:

  1. It is crucial to always respect boundaries – both your own and others’. Honoring boundaries is a major component of trust. And without that, you have nothing.
  2. If you feel fatigued when you are interacting with someone, it’s time to reassess whether boundaries need to be clarified. (It’s very easy to convince yourself to ignore this – don’t do it)
  3. If someone becomes so dependent upon you that it begins to feel uncomfortable, it means that they are overstepping your boundaries. Likewise, be careful not to overstep the boundaries of others. Pay attention to cues that your behavior or your language may be making another uncomfortable. It doesn’t matter why.

An example: A colleague, Jason (not his real name) asked me to introduce him to one of my LinkedIn contacts (Joe).  Jason was trying to expand and build his consulting practice. I offered to connect him with two other business contacts, but I told him it wasn’t a good time for me to approach Joe because he had just done me another favor and I knew this was a chaotic time in his company.

Unfortunately, Jason wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. He wrote me at least 3 emails within 1 week, rationalizing why I should introduce him to Joe ASAP.  Jason showed complete disregard for my reasoning.

Needless to say, I was taken aback by Jason’s lack of respect for my clearly stated boundaries. Jason overstepped them. Another surprise was when Jason contacted me again a few months later and repeated the same request.

Can you guess how likely I am to help out Jason next time around?

Has someone you tried to help overstepped his/her boundaries? Have you overstepped yours?

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5 Responses

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Terry Del Percio and Terry Del Percio, Dorlee M. Dorlee M said: Mind Your Own Boundaries @WorkIntegrity http://bit.ly/d5jbtW > give back more than you get…in #jobsearch or #careertransition […]

  2. I really enjoyed this post. Minding our own boundaries is a very important topic and I suspect that it is one that is especially difficult for us women because we tend to be socialized to please and take care of others, often at the expense of our own needs.

    Good for you on not letting Jason overstep your boundaries! You serve as an excellent role model 🙂 In addition, by protecting your boundary, you ensured your relationship with Joe.

    • Hi Dorlee, Thanks for your comments.

      I do think that sometimes it is more difficult for women to manage boundaries for exactly the reason you mention.

      It’s also always fascinating to me to notice how different people, regardless of gender, make choices about boundaries.

      Sometimes when others overstep boundaries it can be just annoying…or it can cause rejection and immediately distancing.

      In a job search, employers often reject candidates because of their lack of sensitivity to boundaries.

      I’d like to write a book on that some day.

      Do you have a story of someone overstepping their boundaries with you and causing you to put up a wall?

      I can think of a couple of simple examples of when my physical boundaries have been imposed upon:

      1. When a client walks into my office without respecting that I am already engaged in a private conversation with another person.
      2. A student enters my office and walks behind me to look over my shoulder to read my calendar.

      And there are plenty of examples of when clients allow others to impose on their boundaries too.

      I think it’s very closely connected to emotional intelligence.

      • I really enjoyed this posting as well, Terry…

        I have been in a situation (recently) where someone overstepped with me, and I did immediately put some distance between us. We work together on a project, but after receiving 3-4 calls per day from her about every task, I began to feel like I was being hunted. She seemed to be overwhelmed with everything, and the neediness at first moved me to feel sorry for and help her but then made me impatient with her. I had to get some distance or risk snapping at her and adding more stress to the mix.

        Fortunately, this person is not co-located with me, so part of the solution was not being quite as prompt with my responses. Another was giving her instructions on how to solve her own problems rather than just giving the solution (seems obvious in retrospect but..).

  3. Hi Laura, Thanks for sharing a great example of boundary overstepping. I think that many people will be able to relate to the situation you described.

    What you described also ties back to the problem that Dorlee mentioned above…where we sometimes “feel sorry for” the person and we want to help. Unfortunately this can often make the situation worse.

    It sounds like you handles it very well by re-establishing some boundaries in a way that she could understand. One must also be careful that these situations don’t come back around to bite…for example, sometimes the “needy” person who oversteps their boundaries gets angry and goes to the boss to complain that you are not being a “team player”. Then the complexity thickens.

    At some point early in the process…it’s good to discuss this (without emotion) with your boss so he/she knows what is going on). It’s a judgment call because one doesn’t want to be seen as a “complainer” while helping out a “new employee”. Tricky.

    Thank you very much for contributing to the conversation. Your thoughts are good springboards…I really appreciate it.

    Terry

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