Without knowing your values, you can’t respect your boundaries
I’m on a ferry right now heading off to the first of what will be twelve intensive weekends spent in Seattle, attending more training related to coaching. Victoria has just experienced a terrible week of weather, and while the rain seems to have settled a little bit, it’s dark and gloomy outside. The lights are a little dimmer on the ferry, and the air is peaceful and quiet. Most of the people beside me are working on their laptops. One person is watching the latest Louis CK special and is not laughing out loud – clearly he’s crazy.
With this set playing from Nick Lewis, I’m feeling productive, so let’s get started.
I guess that’s got to be the first question. What does it even mean when someone starts talking about values? The term is being thrown around a fair bit these days, and I suspect that is often especially true when the economy is in a recession. This strikes me as reasonable, since money represents one of the easiest ways to get distracted from what is really important to you.
Values are what genuinely matter to us. They’re the things that, when we remove all distractions and look deep within ourselves, motivate our decisions. Values are the reasons eating vegan is important to some people, but a waste of money to other people.
When you find yourself arguing with someone and both of you walk away convinced that you’re right and the other person is an idiot, it’s likely a case of the two of you holding different values. It’s not that they’re ignorant because they don’t recognize the suffering that animals suffer, nor that you’re an idiot because you spend more money than you need to on things that aren’t that important. One person simply holds money in high value (economics is a strong motivator for them) while the other person holds equality of animals and people in high value (justice is probably a strong motivator for them).
We generally feel our values at a very visceral level, and often act without being aware of them or how they are affecting our choices. It might just be second-nature to you that you recycle certain things, but the extent to which you recycle is likely a function of your values.
Likewise, almost everyone does some kind of financial budgeting in their lives, but the degree to which they do so, as well as the emphasis they place on various things in their budget, is often a reflection of their values. People that put a high amount of money away for investing probably hold economics and security in high regard.
Great question, me! But first, what do I mean by boundaries?
Boundaries are our ability to set and maintain strong … boundaries. Boundaries come into play constantly in our lives. Here are just a few examples:
- Your boss comes in to your office and says “Hey, I’m going to need you to stay later tonight than you would normally have”, but provides no reason. Whether you accept or reject this request is a function of how strong a boundary you put around your own time.
- A friend shows up on your doorstep and says “Hey, I’m bored and thought I’d stop by for dinner”. Whether or not you feel compelled to oblige them (notwithstanding whether or not you actually want to) is a function of your boundaries.
- One of your divorced parents says “I’m going to need you to let your other parent know that they’re not welcome here any more”. How you decide to act (notwithstanding whether or not that parent is justified in their statement) is a function of the boundaries you have set with your parents.
Boundaries are terribly important. For one, they make it easier to turn down unwanted requests when they come our way. Being mentally aware of what you are and are not willing to do goes a long way toward actually acting on it. For another, the more times you act on a given boundary, the stronger you become in maintaining it. Routine builds foundation.
Boundaries even help us with little things we would never imagine, like the socialization that happens around Christmas time. If you have strong boundaries around what you will pay for a Christmas gift, you are better able to resist the social norming and marketing that imposes on us a duty to spend ever increasing amounts of money on gifts. (“But they got me something really expensive last year, I should spend more this year!”)
So how do these two concepts interact? Very closely, actually.
First and foremost, it’s all fine and good to make a statement like “From now on, I will not let myself be taken advantage of in this way”. But if you don’t understand why that is important to you, it becomes easier and easier to bargain and compromise with yourself the next time you’re put in that situation.
It may sound odd for me to suggest that we would bargain and compromise with ourselves in order to alter our boundaries at the very moment when we should be most committed to them. However, it’s actually quite simple. Boundaries come into play when you are facing pressure to act a certain way. That pressure can come in many forms, but is most commonly social pressure. Pressure from the person standing on your doorstep making a request of you, pressure from your relatives at Christmas-time and pressure from your boss asking you to stay later.
When we feel this pressure, the weaker and less affirmed our boundaries are, the easier it is for us to give in to the perceived social pressure and make compromises and bargains. When your boss asks you to stay later and your boundary was only “I will not stay later more this month”, your train of reasoning will likely look something like:
“Well, he does have a point, there is a lot of work that needs to get done, and I can always go for a romantic dinner with my husband another night”.
Because the boundary itself does not have any inherent meaning to us, we are put in a position where we are more willing to acquiesce to the pressure and than find a way to rationalize it against the context of the boundary. When we are faced with this kind of pressure, and our boundaries are simply words that we have stated only internally, we have nothing to focus on but the request being made.
Now, contrast that with a boundary that is backed and understood in the context of our values. Understanding why a boundary is important to us makes it that much more real, and it instills the boundary at a more visceral level. When we are faced with the same question, instead of being left in the position where we bargain with ourselves to reason why it’s okay to stay, we are now in a position where the question becomes:
“Am I willing to compromise my values of family and romance in order to stay later tonight?”
Do you see how much more powerful that question is?
Get to know yourself
Understanding who you are and what is most important to you is an integral factor in establishing firm boundaries and maintaining what is most important to you. There is no end to the pressures exerted on us in our daily lives, and they come from every angle, most often unintentionally and covertly. Due to how out of tune many of us are with our own values, we often don’t even realize that they have been trod upon. All that we note is our unhappiness after the interaction.
Take note of the times when you find yourself making statements that are couched in the language of boundaries, and try to ask yourself why it is important to you. Rather than focusing on what you do not want to have happen in the future, shift your focus to what you would like to have happen, and how that is important to you. Move the conversation away from boundaries and into the context of your values.
Finally, the summary:
- Values are an incredibly important aspect of who we are. They guide and direct many of our actions, most of the time subconsciously;
- Boundaries allow us to resist social and other forms of pressure. Having strong boundaries goes a long way toward protecting yourself and your time, and allows you to act in ways that are more authentic to who you are; and
- Boundaries that are not connected to our values are easier to compromise and bargain away. The strength of and commitment that you have toward your boundaries is a direct function of how tied they are to your values.
A quick update on me
Just a quick update on myself too – I started writing this article on my way to the start of what will be a year of education in ontological coaching (coaching based on the concept of who someone is in their purest form). I cannot emphasize how transformative I feel this year will be.
While everyone brings a different set of self-defences to the table, I was shocked to be given the awareness that mine is an inability to show people my own vulnerability.
While this is incredibly meaningful to me, the impact of reading these words for you will likely be minimal. I guess that’s how it has to remain for now (maybe it’s okay that I can’t always articulate an idea…?). More to come as the coming year presses on. Stay tuned and thanks for reading.