How poorly defined personal boundaries affect professional communication

Remember that time when someone asked you for a favor, and you agreed despite that heavy feeling, which hinted that it’s too much for you right now? Or another time, when you did your part of the group project, and then his part, and most of her part, because something else came up for them? Well, yes, you finished on time, and even produced a good enough quality product, but it took so much of you! 

What’s in common between these two stories and many others like these? I would argue that the root cause of these outcomes are the poorly defined personal boundaries. It is a very common occurrence for the ‘good’ or ‘nice girls’ who are conditioned to put the interests of others before their own and who are not willing to stand up for themselves. 

When you don’t know what is acceptable and what is not about how people interact with you, you cannot clearly communicate it to others. As a result, you find yourself in the tangled and skewed professional relationships, where you give up too much of your own interests\space to please others, or pull too much upon yourself to feel like superhero and expecting to be praised as such.

Here are some features of professional communications which I observed that can be explained by poorly defined personal boundaries.

  • Difficulty in forming equal partnerships. Equal partners negotiate and agree on responsibility, find the outcome most desirable for both (or more) of them and address any disagreements before they turn into problems. Neither of these are possible when a person doesn’t really know what he\she wants or is not willing to address the disagreements out of fear of conflict. When you don’t clearly see where the zone of your interests, responsibility or values are, it is easier for you to understand hierarchy. In vertical systems, person higher dictates, and persons lower in the hierarchy execute without the need to challenge the decision or even interact. Related to executing without the need to question authority (but with opportunity to prove your excellent execution skills), is its flip side – being singlehandedly in charge. Taking responsibility for the whole project (be it your work or a compilation of someone else’s parts) is familiar, especially if you can always jump in and complete someone else’s work.  Closely related to pulling everyone’s responsibility for the project upon yourself is another feature:
  • Difficulty delegating.When you perceive the whole project as your responsibility, and the team members as the fillers in your system, when you know how to do it and are certain that you can do it better than anyone else. Unless, of course, you have a proven and trusted executor who you can rely on. The drive to always perform to the outside standard leaves little room for breaking the rules and for celebrating experience in the projects-that-went-wrong. This pressure and the desire to look good and not “break up relationships” makes the lead person take too much upon oneself, often sacrificing own time, health and well-being.
  • Not pursuing “win-win” solutions.A partnership where two people are in a mutual win-win scenario will have a “good girl” consult her true self, stand her ground and define and defend her boundaries. Win-win requires knowing what the win is for me to negotiate and achieve it. It is not attained by pure luck and someone offering you a good deal, but you considering the situation and figuring out what you want, considering what the other party wants, and outing this together to get the best deal for all involved. 

So what to do? How do you create healthy boundaries? You start with realizing, building up and strengthening your self-worth. The certainty that you are “good enough” despite the opinions and feelings of others. Understanding that both you and the others are entitled to your\their own feelings, thoughts, opinions, and beliefs, and that you are only responsible for maintaining your own well-being. This helps establish healthier boundaries. Leaving other adults in your environment take care of their own interests, and not assuming responsibility for their feelings and reactions is the key to building your career in the manner most beneficial to you. 

When you are aware of what’s acceptable and can communicate it to your colleagues, you are free to choose how to interact with them – as an equal member of the team working on the win-win solution, or a leader willing and able to trust, delegate, learn and celebrate the collective experience.

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