They say you teach what you most want to learn. Holding boundaries, having voice, saying no, or standing up for myself - is something I’ve had to work at. The weird thing (or maybe not so weird), is that I am a strong woman. I have a voice. Some even say I am intimidating. I know what I want and I go after it. I am an advocate for my beliefs. I don’t shy away from conflict. I often find myself in the position of conflict mediator.
And yet, when I am really honest with myself, I have trouble telling the truth when it might disappoint someone I like and respect. I have trouble saying to an esteemed colleague, “that project sounds great but my plate is too full to take it on right now.” I have had trouble saying to a boss, “It’s important for me to have a regular time I can count on to leave the office” when they habitually work late. Or to a new high stakes client, “in order for me to be successful at this, here is the budget and support I need.” And it has been hard for me in the past to say to my partner, “I want something different than you do.”
That being said, when I feel I’ve been wronged, let me tell you – I do not let you off the hook! I can wage a war of righteousness. I can gather the facts, analyze the emotional content, and ensure the legitimacy of my position. It is almost as though, “standing up for myself” is equated in my mind with “fighting for my worth.” And that is a battle I am determined to win!
As of late, however, I’ve come to realize there is another way. Brene Brown, a licensed clinical social worker and researcher of human well-being, says of her own journey, “Before…I was sweeter – judgmental, resentful, and angry on the inside – but sweeter on the outside. Today, I think I’m genuinely more compassionate, less judgmental and resentful, and way more serious about boundaries.”
When I read that quote, I realized that’s how I want to be as well. I want to be genuinely compassionate (not just when it is easy, but when I really don’t agree with someone or can’t actually empathize with their perspective). I want to be less judgmental and resentful of people. I want to take more responsibility for the way I am treated, even if it means being uncomfortable in the process.
I read about a man who was learning how to find his voice, a successful CEO in his day job, but who had trouble taking a stand for his values with his partner on raising their child. He said that during the first year of standing up for himself in this personal arena, his stomach turned on a regular basis. When I first starting standing up for myself with high stakes consulting clients, I felt the same way. However, my experience has been that while it can be extremely uncomfortable at first; it does get easier, and while not immediate, the ultimate relief I experience is well worth the initial queasiness.
Brene Brown validates the discomfort that comes with holding boundaries when she says, “It’s also important that we lean into the discomfort that comes with straddling compassion and boundaries. When we talk ourselves into disliking someone so we’re more comfortable holding them accountable, that’s where we get into trouble.” The fact is, holding people accountable is uncomfortable. There is no getting around it. Asking for something that makes someone else’s life more complicated is uncomfortable. Sometimes, there just is not a win/win (something for a long time I was convinced was always possible if I just looked hard enough). And even if there is a win/win – it isn’t always my job to find it. It is my job to be honest and transparent about what I want and need, and it is my job to be open to listening to other people’s interests, circumstances and points of view. And I can do this without writing people off, pissing people off, or devastating them. And if they are disappointed, inconvenienced, or even troubled by what I say, they can handle it and so can I.
Being able to handle the consequences has been the hardest part, and the most important.
Before “standing up for myself” in a high stakes situation (which could be personal or professional), I need to evaluate – what are the consequences? What are the consequences of not saying anything and what are the consequences of speaking my truth? I am actually not advocating that we go around “speaking our truth” all the time, to everyone, in every context. I believe we need to be selective about what we say about our needs and desires, and with who we share them. Being selective is not the same as being fearful.
A lot of what I just said I learned from Harriet Lerner, in her book; The Dance of Connection; How to Talk to Someone When You’re Mad, Hurt, Scared, Frustrated, Insulted, Betrayed, or Desperate. She encourages us to clarify our “bottom line” in relationships. This can be related to asking for a raise as much as it can be asking for help around the house. Here’s some of what she says;
“Clarifying a bottom line is perhaps the most difficult challenge of finding voice and being heard. A true bottom line position is not an ultimatum. It is not a threat or a reactive position….It is not an expression of desperation or a last ditch effort to get the [other] to shape up. It is not a mixed message, where our words say one thing (I can’t continue to take this) and then our actions say another (we continue to take it). Instead, a bottom line position evolves from a focus on the self, from a deeply felt awareness – which one cannot fake, pretend, or borrow – of what we need and feel entitled to, and the limits of our tolerance.”
Here’s a real example of my process holding a boundary with a high stakes consulting client, in which I had to first clarify my sense of self. First, I had to ask myself; could I still be successful if this client and I don’t work together? My gut said yes, but really believing it, and acting on that instinct is often hard for me. Because, in addition to my gut instincts, there is a whole host of other internal voices that speak to other truths such as;
This would be great money!
This would lead to other work that you really want!
This person may not call you again!
Are you really in a position to let work go by?
I listen, and then I return to the first simple truth. Can I still see myself as “successful” if this doesn’t work out?
From that place of self knowledge that my success isn’t in the hands of this client to determine, I am capable of walking away. I have the hard conversation. From the self assurance, that I don’t NEED this client in order to be successful or legitimate. And I remember that they are also a professional, and a good person, and have their own needs. If things match up, great! If not, it really is going to be OK for both of us.
Then the conversation happens.
I say what I need. The client pushes back. I get the queasiness in my stomach. The discomfort is there. I breath and calmly state what I need again, fully aware that this could end things, and that we are both going to be ok. The client stops and reconsiders. We reach an agreement that we genuinely both feel good about.
The discomfort doesn’t disappear. But a wave of relief washes over me. It is done. I did it.
It wasn’t that bad. In fact, it was pretty awesome. Over time, that first breath in the moment turns into a shift in my overall energy, freeing me, and allowing more of my best self and best work to come out - something that wouldn’t have been possible had I not been willing to step into the discomfort in the first place.
What boundaries do you have trouble holding?
In what ways does it seem like people take advantage of you, no matter what you do?
How have you leaned into discomfort and made it out the other end?