Managing a sense of well being when work demands are escalating can be difficult at the best of times, especially when family needs escalate simultaneously to work. Some things are outside the bounds of our control such as flight delays, the dreaded mornings when school homework is suddenly due and a superhero costume has vanished, a large workshop is drawing near, the last pair of stockings now has a huge ladder in the most conspicuous of places and the nanny cancels. And some things are within our control and we have just not recognized the fact.
This week I was speaking with a lovely Irish woman in her sixties who miraculously demonstrated this to me in the most touching of ways. She was getting ready to enter the last phase of her working year as a leadership program facilitator, leading large groups at an international business school in London. “I have three big programs to still deliver and I feel a bit daunted about how much energy it will take, especially given the mix of participants from different cultures and orientations”. Then she broke into a big smile and said “but I am excited too because then its Christmas and I shut down for a month of festivity. It takes me a week to prepare and my family come to visit and we play games and retreat from the world”. When I asked her what games she played her Irish mischief radiated as she described over 10 different rituals and games that she played each year with her children and grandchildren and the delicious food she prepared. The joy of Christmas was palpable. There was a clear boundary from mid December that signified family and fun to herand I could clearly hear that in her mind it was a given.
What if a great deal of our stress is a useful warning that we have forgotten to manage our personal sense of boundary? A healthy sense of boundary means knowing when you have been exposed too much to any form of stimulation. Babies close their eyes periodically and turn their heads away when awake to moderate how much visual stimulation they process from their world. When stimulation begins to go into overload they shut out the world for a while and when they are ready to engage once more they open their eyes again. Simple ! This is a great sign that our brain from an early age contains the senses to protect and warn us when we are in danger of overload.
As adults quite often this sense has been dulled and our best sign of the need to withdraw and recalibrate is a pending meltdown. But does it need to be this way? To ascertain how intact your sense of boundary is, ask yourself?
- What are my early warning signs that I have taken on too much?
- What are my more obvious warning signs?
- What are my biggest warning bells that if I don’t step back I will be unable to function at all?
Women can often feel a reluctance to admit that they have taken on too much until it is too late. If there is any perfectionism pattern at play then it may be difficult to ever admit that I have taken on too much and need help. This “push” energy can literally pitch you against yourself and place your performance at the cost of your own needs.
Yet we know a key success factor in any leadership role is sustainable productivity. This helps model boundary setting for all and creates calm and flow in the work environment.
Reclaiming a boundary need not be a major public announcement that I am no longer taking on any stretch projects – we know that some level of demand extends our resilience and strength. Remember the baby – it can be as simple as closing your eyes. Zen Master and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us it can be as simple as a cup of tea not thrown down but savoured that can put us back in touch with the intelligence of our own body’s sense of the need to calibrate.
“Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.” Thich Nhat Hanh
Said cup of tea can also avoid the need to devour a whole snickers bar an hour later! It can also mean asking some questions and truthfully facing their answers:
- How much of a lunch break do I need each day to switch off and have the most productive afternoon?
- Exactly how much sleep do I need each night to function at my best?
- What is the right balance of people contact and desk time in my day?
- What is the number one kind thing I do for myself each day? And do I give myself permission to have a number two and number three?!
Questions like these can be confronting and may put us in touch with some strong patterns of ignoring our own basic sense of boundary with our outside world. Remember – it can be as simple as a cup of tea.
Another dimension to boundaries is knowing when other people are pushing your own sense of personal boundary. It may be a work colleague who has a pattern of undoing your decisions, breaching confidential dialogue, not delivering to promise or simply imposing on your personal sense of space. This person may interfere or cut across how you manage your key relationships around you and even with yourself.
How do you know when a boundary has been crossed? The initial signs can be agitation around this person and a more advanced sign is a breakdown of trust. The earlier you confront this person the less charged it needs to be. Remember each of us has a very different sense of where boundaries lie and no one will understand your sense if you cannot discover it for yourself and communicate it effectively to others.