Insights for High Stress Professions
Who benefits from your lack of boundaries?
We can set firm, flexible, and healthy boundaries. We can set no boundaries. We can also set porous boundaries. This is when we try to set a limit but don't hold or enforce it consistently. Think of any time you’ve tried to impose a new rule for kids to follow. If you don’t stay consistent in enforcing that rule, they learn it’s not really a rule.
“Who benefits from your lack of boundaries” is a tricky question. At first, it seems like the answer is EVERYONE ELSE. Everyone in your life is benefitting from you not holding healthy boundaries. Your employer, your team members, your families. But when you dig deeper, it’s really not clear.
On the surface, you may feel you’re benefiting by not having to “do the hard thing,” but then you’re suffering from burnout and exhaustion and resentment. This is harder and lasts longer.
You may feel your workplace is benefitting because you’re doing the work of many people, but then you’re burning out which lowers productivity and negatively affects the bottom line.
You may feel your families are benefitting because you’re taking care of so much and they don’t have to, but they’re missing out on an actual connection with you. You’re exhausted and resentful, and your needs aren’t getting met, but you keep trying to pour from an empty cup. You’re shielding them from the consequences of their own behaviors (or lack thereof) and you’re teaching them they’re supposed to do ALL THE THINGS when they grow up.
The unspoken messages of poor boundaries
Boundaries (and lack of boundaries) send key messages to the people around us. It’s always been true that we teach people how to treat us. Treating others the way we want to be treated doesn’t necessarily teach them how to treat us. It teaches them what to expect from us. This is because of the unspoken messages our boundaries (and lack of) send.
When you make a choice or take an action, there are unspoken messages or signals you’re trying to send the people around you. However, there are unspoken messages or signals attached to those choices and behaviors that are also sent that we would never intend to send.
Here are some examples:
Off the Clock Emails
Let’s say I’m checking my email after hours, and when I see an email come through at 11 pm, I respond to it right away.
In doing this, I’m trying to say “I’m committed and I’m on top of things.” I think we can mostly be on board with this unspoken message.
In doing this, I’m also saying “ my needs and my family aren’t important,” and “I’ll be available at all hours to succeed.” If I’m a manager I may also be saying “you need to be available at all hours to succeed.”
Don’t Worry, I've Got It
Let’s say you’re picking up the slack for someone else (this could be at work or home). It can be as simple as giving someone reminders for their work, and as complex as doing entire tasks or projects for them. It’s one thing if this happens on the rare occasion of a perfect storm, but it’s something else when it becomes habitual.
In doing this, I’m trying to say “I’m a team player,” or “The task just needs to get done.” Again, I think we can mostly be on board with these unspoken messages. When we do this consistently, we are also saying “you don’t have to be responsible for your work because I’ll be responsible for you.” Oof.
In work, we’re taking on project manager responsibilities by tracking where others are and ensuring they get their pieces done, or just doing it ourselves. A common example at home is a teenager not cleaning their room. Eventually it may get bad enough, and you get so frustrated that you just do it yourself. The unspoken message here is that they don’t actually need to clean their room, they just need to out wait you. Eventually you’ll get so annoyed you will do it yourself.
Maintain an Even Strain
Another behavior we often see is avoiding conflict to keep the peace. Many of us grew up in environments where effectively navigating conflict wasn’t modeled for us and it makes many people extremely uncomfortable.
As a result, many of us learned to avoid conflict by downplaying our concerns and abandoning our requests to “keep the peace.” In doing this, we are trying to say “I care about you/the group.”
In doing this, I’m also saying “my needs don’t matter.” If I’m abandoning my concerns to keep the peace, then my concerns must not be that important. I’m also saying “you can push me around.” If you know I hate conflict, you just have to make me uncomfortable enough, and I’ll back down.
Where do we go from here?
Setting boundaries isn’t selfish. It’s making intentional choices about how you spend your limited physical, mental, and emotional resources.
We can’t control how others perceive us, and it’s not our responsibility to. When we are more consistent in setting and holding healthy boundaries, we can take more ownership over the unspoken messages we send others in our behaviors. This helps you teach others to treat you in a way that honors your ability to meet your own needs.
Cole, T. (2021). Boundary Boss: The Essential Guide to Talk True, Be Seen, and (Finally) Live Free. Sounds True.
Eatough, E. (January 4, 2022). The invisible workload that drags women down. BetterUp.
Rodsky, E. (2019). Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much to Do (and More Life to Live). Penguin Random House.
Learn more about boundaries by reading the rest of my series on boundaries!
Firm Foundations: Exploring Various Types of Personal Boundaries
Respecting Your Space: The Art of Boundary Communication
From Guilt to Grace: Navigating the weight of guilt in boundary setting.
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