2019 has been a year of boundaries. Of reconsidering them, setting them, respecting them, pushing them and breaking them. It’s had me reflecting on how individual each of our boundary settings are, and how these boundaries might change over our lifetime as influenced by our experiences. One person’s safety-setting boundary is another’s claustrophobic straightjacket. In this blog, I share my ideas on the boundaries of the professional and the personal and suggest ways to explore your own borders.

It’s Just Business, It’s Not Personal

I made a decision, long ago, that I wanted to live as authentically to myself as I could, as often as possible. This is one of the reasons why I elected to become self-employed initially: I wanted to be Iolanthe as close to 100% of the time as possible. I wanted to work with clients who were naturally attracted to me and my values. Being yourself is one of the best self-sorting mechanisms for life and commerce I can think of. You are visible to those you’ll work well with, and invisible or unappealing to those who are not a good fit.

When I hear the trite riposte ‘Oh, it’s just business … it’s not personal’, two things come to mind. Firstly, I consider this a lazy way out of a difficult discussion about a clash of values or expectations that reduces everything to an economic imperative. Secondly, I think it is false that our business values and personal values are necessarily different or barricaded from one another. For some people – few, I’d posit – this might be the case in earnest. I myself have chosen to have very few boundaries around my personal self and my professional self. In my case, business is personal. I don’t pop on a particular wardrobe or adopt a particular mindset when I’m with my colleagues or clients that is fundamentally different from my mindset when spending with friends and family. It’s all one to me. My enthusiasm and love in both spaces is evident. Likewise, behaviours I find unacceptable would remain so in both spheres.

I know that this ‘open world’ attitude is much harder  to achieve when you’re not self-employed. A girl’s gotta eat, after all. Depending on your profession or place of work, having very defined personal and professional identities may be necessary. Or doing so may simply be a preference or comfort to you personally. That’s OK, too. It’s just not the way I prefer to engage with the world around me.

“No” is a Complete Sentence

To say that I choose to live with few structural boundaries shouldn’t be conflated with having undefined values or lax standards. I’m very opinion-y (as this article attests!) and am happy to have robust conversations. I’m also able to say no when I feel a boundary is being breached. Sometimes saying no can be very hard, particularly if you tend towards the optimistic side of things (like me). Sometimes saying no can be very easy. I’m proud in particular of the times I’ve illustrated my boundaries to my colleagues. I have chosen to reject working with potential clients because of what I considered inappropriate negotiating styles, or a pronounced clash of cultural values. If I need others support me to reinforce my boundaries, I’ll get help there too – whether that’s in the form of lawyers, advocates, mediators or accountants. Point being: what we say ‘no’ to is as important as that we enthusiastically embrace. And we don’t need to do it all by ourselves, either. Humans aren’t by nature isolated animals – we’re designed to work together. If you need help to set boundaries or say no, you’re allowed it.

Physical Boundaries

I was sitting and having a wonderful wide-ranging conversation with a friendly stranger in my office last week, who asked me if I knew about the 5 Love Languages. I nodded enthusiastically and pointed to myself grinning, “Yes! Yes! It’s touch for me!” I love touch. Whether you’re a friend, a client, a colleague or family I’m bringing ya in for a hug. Even the stiffest and most formal of our clients will get big ol’ hug from me. For me, touch is important because it is a way of communicating my humanity, warmth and care. In my opinion, when we touch we connect and see one-another more clearly. I am apt to touch others during conversation to emphasise a point, to share in laughter, to display support … touch serves as a shortcut to greater intimacy and understanding.

Now if you’re also a touch person, you’ll be nodding in furious agreement. But if you’re not, you’ll probably be squirming with discomfort. I use my intuition and general good sense in relation to physical boundaries – if someone does not want contact, this is respected. There are definitely some people I may not want to touch! If I am unsure, I will ask. I’m a particularly tactile person, but some of my good friends are not huggy or touchy at all. They feel their personal space and agency is being infringed upon by others touching them. The bottom line is: they have very different physical boundaries to me, and those are to be respected.

Do you use touch or prefer to refrain from touch in different parts of your life?

Psychological and Social Boundaries

Would you consider yourself a private person, or one who is unconcerned with sharing details from your intimate life with others? Are you content to share your preferences and dislikes, hobbies and plans with others, or do keep those details for your innermost circle?

Leading a small (but very powerful!) business, I choose to disclose much of my life to my colleagues. Challenges and triumphs are all part of life’s terrain, and I want to model openness, strength and vulnerability all at once. Because I myself am all those things simultaneously. This is a highly personal managerial choice, and it is not for everyone. I see this decision as active co-creation of the world as I’d like to see it – and that includes having an attitude of transparency and earnestness. I’m also very plain-speaking with my clients, and have not found this to be problematic for our practice.

Unfortunately, disclosure can sometimes be used as a synthetic tool to coerce information from others. Disclosure – like touch – can bring people closer together, faster. As with any action or tool, disclosure can be applied for good or ill. Take the high road.

Social Media Boundaries

This is one space I have boundaries a-plenty. I prioritise my safety and my reputation in the digital space, with my images and copy closely considered before sharing. When I check-in to a place, I think carefully. When I am tagged in photos (or tag friends), I think carefully about my action. Social media really is forever, and I understand that anything I attribute to myself on the internet should be professionally palatable.

Others have a much more laissez-faire approach to their digital identities, happily posting material I would consider compromising across their social media suites. I think that this will change as better education around the reputational risks of poor online behaviour becomes part of basic safety and self-care.

Have your boundaries changed? Are there places you could afford to be less rigid or more formal?

Images: Breeana Dunbar

Location: Northside Boxing