The concept of boundaries comes up regularly in my work with clients and students, and in my own life as well. A client resents feeling obligated to respond to emails after a certain hour in the evening. A student wants to insure that family activities don't overwhelm her plans for graduation. And I often need to decompress quietly for 20 minutes after getting home before engaging in conversation. At the heart of all of these issues is a boundary, in one form or another.
In regard to this exploration of "work-life balance," what's clear in our discussion is that we have been using the word "balance" when what we really seem to mean is "boundaries." Boundaries keep things in their place. Balance suggests the same amount of two things on either side of a scale. Boundaries keep one of those things from oozing past the edge of its platter and taking over the other side...
Boundaries and integration go together. Maybe it's just the biologist in me, but it seems that good boundaries are what make integration work. Just as functional membranes (letting the right things through and keeping the wrong things out) facilitate the healthy interaction of the cells of our bodies, so do functional personal boundaries facilitate the healthy interaction of the various parts of our lives. Bad boundaries lead to either being overwhelmed or withdrawal. Good boundaries lead to wholeness and synergy.
But it's essential to realize that boundaries don't simply spring into existence fully formed. They emerge, they evolve, they erode--they're dynamic features of our lives that we build up and maintain piece by piece, through countless small steps and interactions. In my work with clients and students over the years and in my own efforts to create boundaries that support fulfillment and effectiveness, I've come to see 4 key steps in this process:
The very first step is identifying the need for a boundary (or a better boundary) in the first place, and this can be a lot harder than it sounds. The very act of identifying the need for a boundary can raise all sorts of anxieties, self-judgments and other complex feelings: What does it say about me that I want a boundary here? What will it cost me? How will it affect the other people involved? But as difficult as this step might be, nothing else can happen until we take it.
Once we've identified the need for a boundary at a conceptual level, we have to truly accept it at a deeper emotional level. We have to acknowledge and deal with all those feelings that are generated by the idea of the boundary; we have to answer the questions above (and any others that arise along similar lines) and come to terms with our responses. More often than not, this involves challenging the mental models and assumptions that cause us to question or resist our desire for a boundary.
Having fully accepted the boundary, we need to take action and establish it effectively by communicating it to others in a manner that will A) maximize the likelihood of winning their support and B) overcome resistance when that support isn't forthcoming. This step probably feels the riskiest--it's certainly the point at which we can derail the process both by holding back and by coming on too strong. Here's where good communication skills are critical (and I've also found Susan Scott's "Mineral Rights" framework extremely helpful.)
Finally, note that all boundaries are subject to erosion over time and must be actively maintained. We don't establish them once; we re-establish them over and over, in ways that adjust to our changing needs and circumstances. This may involve having similar conversations with multiple people--or it may involve having the same conversation several times with one person to insure that it truly sinks in and sticks. The key is recognizing that boundaries aren't static features of a landscape, but dynamic aspects of our relationships, our personal lives and our organizations.
Photo by Ryan McDonald. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.