In the last article, I talked about the four ways to set boundaries and the role of anger in that process. As promised, today I’m going to talk about why so many of us have problems setting them and how to overcome it. If you struggle with setting healthy boundaries for yourself, this is a great place to start improving that, so keep reading.
In my last article, I mentioned that most of us were never taught how to create boundaries when we were younger. Now on the surface, that seems like an easy enough problem to fix, right? I mean if you didn’t learn how to do tie your shoes when you were little, you can learn how to do it now. We learn new things all the time and just do them, so why is this different? Unfortunately, setting boundaries isn’t just about knowledge. It’s about you’re the stories you have about the world, your place in it, and your abilities. In a nutshell, it’s about your beliefs. Now you may not have learned how to set healthy boundaries when you were young, but you absolutely learned stories related to setting boundaries, including ones about your value and worth. Those stories and the emotions they produce are what fuel your beliefs about boundaries, including whether or not you are “allowed” to set them.
Let’s pick something seemingly more benign to wrap your mind around this. Let’s talk about drawing or painting. Unlike boundaries, most of us started out drawing and painting as a kid. You may not have been taught how other than the guidance of your preschool or elementary teachers, but you did it. At some point, most of you stopped. Why? Well, many folks stop if they don’t think they’re good at it. Now if you still draw or paint, just bear with me, but for the rest of you, why did you stop? Did you compare your work to that of seemingly more talented peers? Did your teacher make a comment that art just wasn’t your strong suit? Maybe it wasn’t anything dramatic, but rather you just didn’t feel like it was for you. No matter the cause, you stopped doing art including learning better techniques that might have improved your abilities considerably.
Now you might argue that art really isn’t for everyone, so no big deal. That in itself is a story. If you talk to art therapists, art is very much for everyone. Now different folks might enjoy different types of art, but the process and benefits can benefit everyone. Same thing for boundaries. Boundaries are beneficial and quite frankly, necessary for your well-being. But whether it’s art or boundaries, if you have stories that you don’t have the right talents or abilities – aka “that’s for other people, not me”, you’re not going to do either one.
Last week, Alicia and I did a session at SACSA on developing the practice of self-care. As usual, we focused on energy. The analogy we used is a fire hose. The nozzle of that hose is how you direct your energy, but the hose itself contains the energy – your energy. Back to our discussion in last article, think about the hose as being the container that houses your best self. The hose represents your boundaries. If you want to make sure your energy is aligned with your values and focused on your goals, your hose needs to be strong and intact, and pointed in the right direction. That allows your energy – aka your best self – to be directed exactly where you want. So, in this analogy, you want to make sure that 100% of your water is going exactly where you want it to go.
But most of us are leaking water – but really energy – all over the place. Our hoses have been pierced and syphoned off to fuel other people’s values and goals. We often don’t realize this has happened and just wonder why we’re not getting where we want to go. When that happens, most of us blame ourselves, our abilities, and our circumstances instead of looking at whether we’re setting up the boundaries we need to protect our energy and get where we want to go. Now we may still need to increase our knowledge and skills to get there, but without enough energy flow we aren’t going to have the bandwidth to do those things.
So why don’t we set boundaries – I mean besides the fact that we’re not super familiar with how to do it? Well in order to set healthy boundaries, you need to believe that you and your needs and wants are important. That means what you need and what you want are AS important or worthy as those of other people. I’m going to just let you sit with that for a minute, so you can answer that question for yourself. To put it even more succinctly, do you believe that you are as important as other people?
Now there are some of you who immediately said, “No, it’s been pounded into me that other people are more important than I am. Sigh.” While that’s not ideal, at least you’re aware of it. However, there are other folks, and I’ll count myself in this group, who will think about it and say, “Hmm, I mean I see your point, but I do believe my needs and wants are as important as other peoples.” Here’s the tricky thing for this group, consciously you may think, “Yep, I’m just important as everyone else.” BUT if you and I look at where our energy is actually going, we see that subconsciously we’re not doing that much better than the folks who know they’re always putting others first. And since we think we’re okay, we also don’t pay attention when boundaries are broken or when they need to be put into place. I know that was and I still sometimes true for me. I want you to take a minute – pause this if you need to – and really think about do you know what you need and want? There are plenty of folks who can’t even answer that because I mean, why would you need to know that if other people are more important. The second thing I want you to think about is how are you protecting yourself so you make sure you get what you need and want?
No matter which group you’re in, you have stories that shape your self-worth and your belief about whether or not you deserve to get what we need and want, especially when other people are involved. That means that even though you may know boundaries are important, you’re not going to set any because well, boundaries aren’t for you. Just like with art, if you don’t feel like art is for you, then even though someone shows you how to better draw or paint, you’re not going to do it. It’s these stories that get in your way and keep you from being your best self. And if you’re still caught up on this idea of best self vs serving others. Who would you want serving you? Someone who’s exhausted and has used most of their energy on all sorts of random things? Or someone who is at their best?
Really, when you think about it, this whole idea of other people first doesn’t really make much sense from a global perspective. I mean if the rule is other people should always come first, then in terms of everyone else in the world your needs and wants should come before theirs, right? And every time you try to put someone else before you, you’d actually be thwarting their attempt to put you first. This only works if you’ve judged yourself less worthy than others. Why might you have done this? The good news is it’s not because there’s something intrinsically wrong with you. It’s because you got the message from other people when you were a child. Maybe you can easily identify that person, especially if your parent happens to believe the same thing about themselves. Or maybe you’re not sure, but either way when you believe on the subconscious level that you’re not worthy, you’re not going to be great at setting boundaries and you may not even try to do it.
So, what can you do to combat these beliefs? We’ve talked about upgrading your stories in other articles, but essentially you need a new story that better aligns with setting healthy boundaries. Remember, even if your conscious brain is all, “Duh, obviously you’re just as important as other people.” It still needs to get into your subconscious brain for it to impact your daily life. As true as your stories may feel about your worth, that doesn’t mean they ARE true. We all have something in our brain called the reticular activating system (RAS) that helps you filter the enormous amount of information in your world. When you were a child, you heard messages that either directly or indirectly told you that other people were more important than you were. So, your RAS started looking for more data and examples of that being true, and since its job is to screen out things that aren’t relevant that’s the ONLY thing it was looking for. Since it was just looking for evidence that what you were told was true, that’s exactly what it discovered - “Yes, other people’s needs and wants ARE more important than mine. I’m here to serve others.” In order for you to change that narrative, you need to upgrade it to something like, “My needs and wants are just as important as other people’s. In fact, if my own needs and wants aren’t being fulfilled, I’m less able to support others.”
But just creating a new story isn’t enough. You have to challenge the old story’s credibility and fuel the new story to make it stick. How do you do that? One great tool, is the CBT Thought Record. It comes from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. If you Google it, you’ll find loads of templates. The CBT Thought Record focuses on challenging automatic negative thoughts of all kinds. But if you’re trying to set new boundaries, the automatic negative thoughts would be the voices in your head that try to talk you out of setting those boundaries. In other words, the stories that you’ve been told that are holding you back.
The CBT Thought Record walks you through breaking down those stories in a way that helps you look at them more critically. For example, we’ve already talked about how your RAS is just going to look for instances that prove the story you already have. To counteract this, the thought record challenges you to look for evidence that DISPROVES that story. For example, have you ever encountered students or staff members who don’t seem to value themselves or see their own potential? Maybe they always put everyone else first and no matter what you say or do, you just can’t seem to convince them that they need to take care of themselves and put just as much energy into what they need? If that’s true for you, do you think other people might feel the same way about you? The “evidence” here is that sometimes people don’t see their own value, even though they are, in fact, valuable.
Another important component to creating a new story that actually gets to your subconscious are your emotions. Your stories are fueled by your emotions. When you think about serving others or not putting yourself first, those were driven into your subconscious mind through emotions. Maybe your mom made you feel bad for being “selfish.” If this message was based in your religion, or I should say the religion you grew up in, then there might have been some sense of happiness or connectedness at idea of feeling closer to the deity at the center of that religion when you put others first. Whatever it was, emotions fueled the story and the RAS gave you enough “evidence” made it stick. So, to get your upgraded story to stick, you need to attach an emotion that is just as powerful, if not more so. In the CBT Thought Record, there are prompts to reflect on how the original situation and thought made you feel, and how this new, upgraded story WOULD make you feel. You have to feel those feelings for the story to have power with your subconscious.
The challenge is to be consistent here. Whenever the voices show up that try to talk you out of setting or reinforcing a boundary show up, you need to challenge it and think about how you’ll feel when you do set healthy boundaries. Your subconscious brain is set in its ways, so it may seem like these old stories are winning. But you just need to keep at it, even if it doesn’t always result in a boundary being set or reinforced. The first step is changing your identity to someone who IS worthy of setting healthy boundaries. Boundary setting behaviors will naturally flow from there.
To sum up, boundaries are important because it protects our most valuable resource – our energy – from being pilfered and diverted away from our own needs and wants. We need to preserve this energy, because without it, we can’t be our best selves. And there are so many people and problems that need us to be at our best to truly help them. To start this process, you need to make sure your beliefs – aka stories – about your worth and place in the world are congruent with being able to set healthy boundaries. If you have stories that prevent you from setting and holding boundaries, you need to upgrade them. You upgrade stories by challenging the old ones and fueling the new ones with your emotions. You need to be consistent to uproot the stories that aren’t serving you, but you can absolutely do this if you commit to it. Once you’ve internalized these new stories, you can more easily tackle the how of setting boundaries that we discussed in our last article.
If you’ve found this article helpful, we have several opportunities this winter to help you grow as a person and as a supervisor...
First, we have two workshops for small teams coming up. One is December 19th and one is January 9th. We scheduled them when the students were gone, so you and your team could take a breath and invest in yourselves for a change. These half day workshops are perfect for folks with smaller teams, who don’t always have the budget larger teams get. You and your team will learn how you can use the CliftonStrengths framework to impacts you individually and as a team. To give the workshop a more private feel, you’ll get your own breakout room for discussions and team building exercises. We’ve priced this at an affordable $125 per person. Get more info about our Winter Small Team Workshops here https://strengthsu.kartra.com/page/smallteam
The next thing we’ve got on deck are two, one-day boot camps on January 11 & 12. We love the Institute, but an eight-week commitment is sometimes just too much. So, we’ve condensed a few key points of the institute into these one-day boot camps. We’ll cover Energy Management on January 11th and Performance Management on January 12th. You can do one or both days. If you do decide to do both, you’ll get a discount on your second day. Get info about our Winter Boot Camps here https://strengthsu.kartra.com/page/bootcamps
We are also registering for the Spring Supervisor Strengths Institute, so if you do want to make that commitment to yourself and your team, join us on our next 8-week adventure with our spring cohort. Get more info about the 2023 Spring Institute here https://strengthsu.kartra.com/page/SP23Institute
We’d love to see you take what you’ve been learning in the podcast and expand it. If you have any questions, just shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And until next time, stay strong.