This year I have been working with boundaries, partly as research and partly as self-care. In this work, I have found asking myself where I stand in relation to five key boundaries are important in improving my mindfulness as I go about my life and work. This is not a listicle. These five are not definitive. There is no significance to these five other than they are the first five that I am working on.
Boundaries are just concepts – abstract, intangible & changeable. They are like lines in the sand or on a map, always crossable & transgressable. As humans we make boundaries all the time – norms, taboos, place making, markers of transition and so on – help, prohibitions, guidance and other social structures. We can also confuse these boundaries with more solid, more normative and unchangeable structures.
Most of these boundaries are aids to our memory, choices and decision making. Some are of significance because they mark lines where liminal states occur and where transformation happens. I have started looking into these boundaries because they are an artefact of human and organisational culture. They also have a significant shape on our personal decisions, emotions and actions. This post looks mostly at five key boundaries from a personal perspective.
My Five Boundaries
Choice and Obligation: This boundary is whether or not I have a choice in that moment. We talk a lot about choices but we live lives of choice and obligation. You can’t escape obligations to others if you live in society and some of the most important parts of life are bound up in obligations, not choices. The boundary is rarely fixed. Obligations stretch, change over time and are created by our ongoing actions. We can choose to ignore our obligations, but it is a choice with consequences. I am trying to be more aware of where I stand at this boundary and how my actions move the line.
Self and Others: This boundary seems obvious, but can easily be distorted. Am I working for myself or others? Are my needs being met here? Is this really me? Do I really want this or am I doing so to please others? It’s easy to get sucked in as a cog in a larger narcissistic experience and to have little sense of self. Our society and organisations are full of narcissists and narcissistic practices that don’t allow for the space where my self lives. Narcissistic thinking doesn’t recognise an other. Others are all extensions of the narcissist. A narcissist assumes others act on their direction and know what they know. Without space for an other in their thinking, it falls on me to create space for my self and to defend my self. Is an Instagram post really by, of or for me? We also need to recognise that the Other can be threatening, strange and inexplicable. Mindfulness can help me sort through these demands and ensure my needs are being met.
Work and Non-work: We live in an age where work can follow me anywhere and when a portfolio career can bleed the boundaries by creating multiple overlapping and expanding domains of work. There is a need to check out, to stop work and spend time on non-work. Expanding the domain of the non-work is an important and includes inbetweening non-work into the work domain. A subversive act can be as simple as taking a poetry book to work to read in the park at lunch. Walk through an office holding a poetry book and you are sending a signal.
Public and Private: I share a lot publicly because I am passionate about working out loud. However, I am very conscious of what sits behind the public boundary as the private. Of late, surveillance capitalism, the rise of engagement addiction, and a greater awareness of the lurking audience has seen me be more deliberate in this boundary and in moving more behind the private curtain. Unpublished posts rise in number and deleted drafts are now more common. I have always been mindful of what I share and had specific rules to follow. Now I am cautious in my choice of disclosures as well, while retaining a bias to the benefits of openness.
Comfort and Discomfort: Am I in the comfort zone? Am I taking enough risks to learn, to grow and to challenge myself? I have a huge capacity for risk and I have developed capabilities to manage discomfort. The danger is that I can be creating discomfort simply to practice these skills. The query I now ask is how to I feel? Do I need more or less comfort in this moment and task? Discomfort without control is not a positive experience. A comfortable moment is often the perfect tonic in a cycle of chaos. I don’t have to feel guilty to choose comfort or discomfort. They aren’t normative. They are just emotions and usually outcomes of other experiences.
Plato quoted Socrates as saying ‘an unexamined life is not worth living.’ I wouldn’t take it quite that far. Managing our lives and taking care of our selves in the process requires us to be more mindful of the boundaries we encounter as we go about our lives and work. These are the boundaries which are significant to me today and a little insight into why. What are yours? I expect that they will be different as everyone is grappling with different situations, challenges, obligations and choices as to where to draw the lines.
The test of mindfulness in these boundaries is not that every decision or action in our life is fully plotted and mapped. As noted above, all of these boundaries can be adjusted and we should make those adjustments freely when required and deliberately after due consideration. The test is whether we reflect on the nature and guidance of these boundaries when we need to do so.