A lot of my coaching clients struggle with boundaries.  I suppose it takes one to know one.  Like any good co-dependent, it’s the area I’ve probably had to do the most work on.

I’ve gotten considerably better at managing boundaries over the years, which has resulted in managing expectations with clients more effectively, as I’m much more upfront about what the role of a coach is and isn’t and have worked hard to not take responsibility for my coaching clients’ learning and growth.  It’s improved family relationships and friendships, as I’ve gotten clearer on what healthy relationships look like, and as a result, no longer spend a lot of time obsessing about things or trying to control things that can’t be controlled. 

And then every once in a while, I get triggered.  It’s inevitable; it happens to us all.  And it happened to me the other day when I was asked by a colleague to help them out on something they need to learn to take responsibility for themselves.  Normally I would have let the guilt push me into saying yes. But something interesting happened instead. I got visibly mad, and I found myself stomping around my office and complaining to my husband.  I got mad because I value fairness and accountability and always strive to be the kind of person who takes her fair share of the load.  I got even madder because I’ve noticed a pattern of this individual playing the victim and manipulating others in the spirit of “collaboration” to get them to step in on a moment’s notice and bail them out.  I was mad at her, and I think I was also mad from a cumulative effect of this behavior – over the course of my career I’ve often felt obligated to step in and save the day for others who I have judged (rightly or wrongly) to be stupid, lazy, weak or selfish.  I’ve felt like I had no choice but to help, and inadvertently built up a pool of smoldering resentment, as I erred to compromise myself and my values rather than risk being branded as unhelpful.

Look under the guilt and anger, what’s the underlying need?

Experience has taught me there’s normally something we need to look at within ourselves when we experience such a visceral reaction.  And the interesting thing about anger is there’s normally something sitting under it that’s begging to be healed.  So I looked. And then I looked some more.  And then I realized what this was really about.  It was really about approval. 

  • What if she doesn’t think I’m a team player?
  • What if the project manager (copied on the request) doesn’t think I’m a team player?
  • Maybe I’m just being selfish…I don’t want to be perceived as selfish and self-serving, do I?
  • What if this ruins my reputation in the coaching group.  Coaches are supposed to be altruistic and giving and sharing.  Am I really being coach-like?

We often confuse manipulation with collaboration

And then I remembered a 360 I had done a long time ago, a couple of years after I had moved into leadership development.  My colleagues had provided anonymous feedback.  Their perception of me wasn’t stellar – I was completely focused on task and results, with no room for relationship.   And I prioritized my goals and deliverables above everything else.  It was a blindspot. I was so desperate to do a decent job in my new career I had no idea I had tunnel vision. I beat myself up with the results initially, the good over achiever that I am.  And then set out on a quest to prove that wasn’t who I was.  And so, the pendulum swung to the opposite direction, which is often the case with feedback, because then we unconsciously over correct.  I sat with that realization – because I was on a mission to prove I wasn’t selfish I had impaired my ability to discern a legitimate request for help with one that was manipulation dressed up as collaboration. 

I responded back that I wasn’t in a position to offer help.  And then I sat with the anxiety.  Because trust me, it came.  It was tough.  The kind of tough where you feel the uneasiness in the pit of your stomach and want to crawl out of your skin.  But I kept sitting with it.  I let it wash over me and took deep breath after deep breath. And then it passed. 

And with the clarity of being on the other side of this dilemma, I realized a few things.  I realized that my polite way of pushing back can also be interpreted as a helpful, loving behavior.  She is strong enough to do these things for herself.  And maybe by pushing back it will encourage her to realize that.  I also realized that I am part of the team, I’m entitled to my perspective and to be judicious with how I spend my time, and that doesn’t make me selfish or self centered.  When I got down to the core need that was sitting under the anger, I realized I could give myself the gift of acceptance and validation that I so craved from others. 

Coaching questions for thought:

  • What are the things that trigger you most about setting boundaries with others?
  • If you dig a bit deeper, what’s the unmet need that is sitting under the strong emotion?  Approval, fairness, acceptance, or maybe something else?
  • If you could give yourself that unmet need, what would change?

Shelley Pernot is a career and leadership coach who is passionate about helping her clients develop clarity, confidence, and compassion for self.  She is particularly adept at working with high performing women who are hard on themselves.  Reach out to me here for a free consultation to learn more about the coaching process and how it may benefit you!