22 February 2009

Hard Vs. Soft Boundaries

As is my wont, I've jumped into this boundaries discussion with show first, rather than tell. I.e., I've been letting boundaries explain themselves from context.

Let's backtrack a bit.

A truly outstanding book on boundaries is titled just that - "Boundaries", by two Christian psychologists, Drs. Cloud and Townsend. Yes, it's been around awhile, but human psychology has been around as long as humankind. I also find that Dr. Lerner's books "The Dance of Anger" and "The Dance of Deception" both provide good information on boundaries... as does Melody Beattie in her Codependency books.

I'm headed back to my files and calculator in a matter of minutes to continue working on my income tax, so I won't insert hotlinks; but all of these books can be easily located via Google or Amazon.

The easiest boundary to understand is one's own skin. I think "Boundaries" uses this as an example; it's not original with me. It keeps you in, and the world out. It's water-resistant and shock-resistant, to a point. And you'll notice that it's got a splendid perimeter alarm system - touch, temperature, wet/dry, and discomfort register very promptly.

We also have culturally determined preferred interpersonal distances, and culturally determined [for the most part] behavioral boundaries - for instance, regarding eye contact - whether it happens at all, and if so, for how long; speech [them's no words to use in front of ladies!]; and other behaviors [again I forget who first said this, but it's very true and a good example: in cultures where it is polite to belch after meals, it is generally not polite for male guests to chat up the womenfolk; and vice versa; but in cultures where one is expected to make polite chitchat with one's hosts and hostesses both, one is not expected to belch resoundingly to demonstrate appreciation of the cooking. (I think this example may come from Suzette Haden Elgin)].

Cultural boundaries are psychological, but societally so. It's the individual psychological boundary, which may or may not be reinforced by actions or words, that I'm principally concerned with at the moment.

Hard boundaries are exactly what they sound like. Basically, they are shields, walls, etc., put in place psychologically and, when necessary, physically, to ward off intrusion of various kinds.

"No Contact", advocated by several bloggers [Anna Valerious and Susan Elliott among them], is the ultimate hard boundary for keeping abusers at bay. It can require considerable energy to maintain, both psychologically and physically; Anna V., in her blog, describes having physically relocated to leave her primary abuser behind; Susan E. talks at length about the psychological efforts required to remain out of touch in situations where an abuser persists in attempted contact. Gavin de Becker, by the way [The Gift of Fear], is also a good source of information on this level of self-defense, since stalkers are abusers, and nearly always intend harm.

Hard boundaries tend to be permanent edifices, so it's pretty important to be sure before setting them.

Soft boundaries are something else. They're permeable, negotiable, flexible. For example: I generally start my workday by going through my email inbox; I've done this for years, and people know about when to expect an answer from me. But at the moment, I'm assisting in training several new hires. Because they come in early, and I come in later, I've modified my routine. I now start my day with them; after an hour of coaching and guidance, I start on my email.

I've notified people about this, because it definitely puts me off my stride in terms of getting things done first thing in the morning, and I've made sure they understand that it's temporary, but will last for awhile, because it's being done for a worthy and important cause.

There are at least three soft boundaries there.
One is my shifting of my schedule.
One is my investment of time in my new colleagues.
One is my notification of other colleagues regarding the 'lag time' they're going to see in my email response patterns, and the reason for it.

All of these things are, within reason, negotiable. But there are also limits on the extent to which they can be negotiated - if, for instance, I were to receive a verbally abusive e-mail from someone in the outfit, demanding that I make them my first priority regardless of any other obligations, I would impose a hard boundary with that person immediately: I would forward the email to their supervisor, and schedule a discussion of it.

There are also two hard boundaries here: can you spot them?

One is that I'm not willing to shift my work schedule to match our newbies'. I come in when I come in; and I make myself available immediately for an hour. I'm not going to come in two hours earlier because the rookies like to start at 7, when I've arrived for years at 9. We have many other people who start at 7, 7:30, 8, and 8:30, and we're 'team-training'; it's not only perfectly reasonable for me to preserve my schedule, it's important for me to establish that I have that right as Senior Staff.

The other is that I'm available for that hour, and after that, it's email answering time. So if I come in and the rookies are hanging out chatting for 45 minutes, and they ignore my invitation to stop in for the morning session, they get the remaining 15 minutes and that's it. This is important because one of these rookies is Mick, and Mick, as I described previously, Takes Advantage. He's quite capable of expecting me to train him at his convenience any time during the workday. We fix that one by not letting it start.

I also have similar boundaries during the workday. if I'm writing a crucial report and someone comes into my office, I'll hold up one hand and say, "I need to finish this [sentence, paragraph]; please wait and I'll be right with you." Once I've reached the end of my sentence or paragraph, I keep my word. I withdraw my attention from the task and give it to the person, completely. If I'm not working on something complex, I can usually stop immediately; but I reserve the right not to be completely derailed when working on something complicated and difficult. This is a soft, negotiable boundary, but it has a backbone.

It's interesting that many people won't wait even 30 seconds for assistance. If they leave, I do not follow them [a hard boundary; I'm not here to provide instantaneous gratification, but to do my job, including providing reasonable assistance to colleagues as one adult to another]. They'll come back, or, if they're categorically unable to accept a 30-second wait, they'll find someone else and derail that other person's train of thought instead. The irony here is that usually by the time they find an alternate, I could already have answered their question; but that's an observation I tend to keep to myself.

I also set a very hard boundary that favors people over technology: when someone is in my office, and my phone rings, the person in the room gets priority over the person on the phone. The only time this is not true is when I'm expecting a crucial call, and in that case I always let my visitor know that we may be interrupted, and why. [This is 'a hard boundary' nowadays; 20 years ago, the term for it was 'manners'.] This, to me, is fair and just; if someone has waited for me to finish my paragraph, the very least I can do is give them my undivided attention.

Of course there are even softer boundaries, such as deciding with co-workers when and where to go out for lunch on payday. But even here - again think Mick - one must be prepared to firm things up.

The bottom line? Soft boundaries are flexible and negotiable, within reason, but they depend on the participation of two reasonable people. They may need to be hardened when this isn't the case, so it's important to set them in such a way as to make that possible.


Anonymous CZBZ said...

"Soft boundaries are flexible and negotiable, within reason, but they depend on the participation of two reasonable people."

This is crucial information, Stormchild. Many people start out with reasonable boundaries but the goal of the abuser is to erode those boundaries. In fact, a hard boundary becomes a 'challenge' to an abuser. How far can the abuser push someone to betray his-or-her own values and principles?

Values and principles are boundaries even if we haven't thought of them in those terms.

I can attest how exhausting it is to constantly reinforce boundaries/limits. How firm my boundary-line has to be is another way to gauge mutual respect if someone persists in seeing how far they can push my boundaries before I relent.

Sometimes, we relent just because we're tired and worn-out. This happens to parents all the time and we usually regret giving the kid an inch.

I can be extremely 'flexible'---very willing to drop whatever I'm doing to attend to a family member's needs. But as you've written, this only works with 'reasonable people'.

Adolescent nephews can be most unreasonable at times. ha!

Nice series of posts...thank you.


24 February, 2009 21:08  
Blogger Stormchild said...

Thanks CZ

And thanks for a well timed comment...

I had to replace a soft boundary with a hard one today. Mick is off my training roster now; he committed two unpardonable crimes within the same workday;

[1] he maligned his friend Jon to me, behind Jon's back; everything Mick said about Jon was a complete fabrication, and when I spoke up on Jon's behalf, Mick was extremely aggressive in dismissing my responses as 'uninformed' and 'mistaken'.

[2] he requested my advice on a task, then proceeded to disagree with everything I told him, interrupt me constantly, disparage my level of experience, etc. I finally told him that since I clearly could not assist him to his satisfaction, he would have to consult the SOPs and figure the issue out for himself, whereupon he ran to our Department Head and claimed that I had totally refused to help him - or even to talk to him when he requested my help.

Our DH was puzzled by this report because, bless him, he'd walked past Mick's office not fifteen minutes previously and seen me in there with my ears laid back, striving mightily to finish a sentence. Rather than call Mick a liar, he emailed me and asked me to stop by his [Mick-free] office and asked WTH was going on.

I told him, and I also made it clear that none of the other various-vintage-rookies I'm currently tag-training, 'training-wheeling' or 'grandmothering' has behaved like Mick in any way at any time.

Mick has now been assigned to one of the Associate Heads for 'special training'. He thinks it's a concession to his unique level of talents and abilities, but I suspect it's something else entirely.

We shall see what the future holds.

VERY soon after this, I found myself getting love-bombed by all the other various-vintage rookies at random intervals and in different ways. Nothing inappropriate, just a sudden spontaneous flood of thanks and emails saying how glad they are that I'm around to help them and 'I'm going for coffee, can I bring you any?'.

Turns out Mick was pulling similar stunts on them, and had managed to get on their collective last nerve, and they were all afraid to ask me for advice about it.

I said nothing to any of them about either the Mick Episode or the Dept. Head Denouement. The grapevine is alive and well, apparently, or else there was a steady stream of people passing Mick's office while I was in there having my sentences truncated.

Life in the fast lane.

24 February, 2009 21:49  

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