My discussion today is about the role of boundaries in our lives and how and why they influence our decision making and communication styles with others. A Google search reveals several definitions for ‘boundary’. In a nutshell a boundary signifies a limit, barrier or frame. A boundary prevents or controls you from exceeding or going beyond a prescribed area or thought. A boundary is a delineation of whether you are in or outside of a given perimeter or consensus. Physical boundaries can curtail free or easy movement between peoples or places. Mental boundaries can curtail open mindedness and sharing and acceptance of ideas. One definition that caught my interest is, “A limit is a point that indicates where two things become different”. This is interesting! Imagine, a boundary can change a cat into a lion!
A boundary can be real or imagined and they can be physical or mental, but the boundary or limit is what delineates what we believe, accept and treasure. The source of our boundaries are not only the physical deterrents like speed limits, age limits, etc., whose non-compliance may attract sanction. Mental boundaries arise from our beliefs, values and traditions and other social interactions. From a biological perspective, boundaries are created by who we are and how we are wired. For example, men and women generally differ in ways of cultural norms/ practices, processing information and maintaining relationships. More specifically I am referring to the way we all learn as a source of our attitudes, decision making and communications with others. If it works for me, I will not entertain anything else. Have you met such a person? Boundaries protect the familiarity of your environment and ability to operate in them with confidence. In other words, boundaries delineate your comfort zone.
From this premise, physical boundaries are easier to deal with. Mental barriers are not. Even though work in psychology has shown that we each have mental barriers created by some of the factors mentioned above, it is not so easy to pick them out in everyday living. These barriers show up in the way we relate to each other, the way we make decisions. What should we understand from people as parents, managers and leaders?
As a coach I must determine this very quickly to help the person find the source of their challenges. Boundaries don’t exist in a vacuum. They are a sum of the biology (gender), social and family experiences (beliefs, values, traditions), and the dominant/ preferred learning style of the person (thinker, practical, reflections or analyser). These represent some of the nine key learning styles. A person can apply more than one learning style. However, most people, most of the times, will use only one dominant style which they will have mastered and are confident to use in all their interactions. This can result in boundary formation that you fail to break. Instead of challenging oneself to learn new styles, most will seek out only those that think and do like them and shut out other perspectives, which may enrich their overall outcomes.
In the workplace, these people manifest as ‘difficult to work with’ or are ‘too set in their ways’ to learn anything new. In a fast changing and evolving work environment, awareness, willingness to learn, and acceptance and understanding are critical attributes to building diversity teams.
Unlike physical barriers that one can see, mental barriers are very difficult to ‘see’. They are exhibited in the various behaviours of people. Unlike the penalties available when physical barriers are broken, there is no penalty for exhibiting mental boundaries except poor performance and missed opportunities to fully participate in new trends. People may wallow in a challenge that is of their creation; like self-doubt or negative self-talk. This can be debilitating to the individual and creates difficulty to thrive.
How to break and overcome mental boundaries
My role as a coach is to help recognise and highlight what is really going on in the orbit of the person. This is a very reflective exercise where one is ‘forced’ to look deep down in themselves and understand what is causing the situation. It is a vulnerable moment of recognition, acceptance and resolve to deal with those attitudes that are limiting their ability to fully embrace their opportunities. The process is simple and friendly; people are generally afraid to look at themselves just in case they see something that they do not like. Well it takes courage to admit that there is a situation that needs to change. There is little we can do about biology but there is much we can do about everything else.
- Understanding that some things need to change.
- Acceptance that only you can make that change.
- Awareness of the impact of your actions on others.
- Willingness to shift from your usual means and conscientiously try something new.
- Be deliberate and consistent until it becomes second nature.
- Solicit and accept feedback.
The author is a performance and Life Coach