In our Reframing Series, we examine commonplaces that, upon closer look, reveal a toxic belief or harmful behavior. In this newsletter, we’re taking on boundaries. There’s lots of talk about boundaries as part of self-care, in managing relationships, and sometimes in clearing away people and obligations that don’t suit us. We think boundaries are crucial for all relationships and are due for a reframing.
Cancel Culture Only Looks Like Boundaries
Let’s start with what boundaries are not. The biggest boundary misnomer today is canceling—when you expel someone from their social connections, in response to behavior or beliefs you don’t approve of.
What makes canceling so alluring is that it looks like having boundaries. It looks like you have established a firm, uncrossable line. Cancellation looks and can even feel righteous—taking a hard stance and refusing to compromise.
In reality, cancel culture is about refusing (or being unable) to have any boundaries at all because you are refusing to be in relationship with someone anymore—why would you need boundaries with no relationship?
Truly setting boundaries can be uncomfortable. It can make people angry, disappointed, or resentful, and no one loves being on the receiving end of negative emotions. Often, because we don’t know how to hold discomfort or move through it, we cancel to avoid it altogether. But let’s be clear: turning away and refusing to engage is not the same as holding boundaries.
You don’t have to look hard to see how cancel culture is a tool of white supremacy culture. It’s used to maintain the status quo and avoid accountability. Look at the way public figures respond to being called out by decrying cancel culture. A recent example is former NY governor Andrew Cuomo, attempting to equate accountability with being victimized.
Creating a “Calling In” Culture
Loretta Ross created a university course and is writing a book on one antidote to cancellation, which she says is a direct result of our toxic call-out culture. Call-out culture is based in public shaming, and Ross wants to bring us to healthy conflict and confrontation, rather than moral outrage and ostracizing.
What Ross offers is “calling-in culture” where we confront each other personally, privately, and compassionately. We engage in dialogue, listening, and empathy. But disagreement, says Ross, isn’t something we know how to do well. Too often, disagreeing with someone gets perceived as “verbal violence.” Because we can’t handle the discomfort of disagreement, we end up “overstating harm” from others. Then, we can descend into cancellation, where an offender is presumed guilty, often without evidence, are unforgivable, make others guilty by association, and are essentialized by a single statement or action.
“Calling-in is simply a call-out done with love. Some corrections can be made privately. Others will necessarily be public but done with respect. It is not tone policing, protecting white fragility or covering up abuse. It helps avoid the weaponization of suffering that prevents constructive healing . . . Calling-in engages in debates with words and actions of healing and restoration, and without the self-indulgence of drama.
Boundaries Hold Us Together
Our work is human work, which at its very core is about connection. Boundaries, the way we typically think about them, aren’t about connection at all. They are designed to separate, exclude, isolate. So, we must begin by reframing the very definition of boundaries. Not a line that demarcates inside/outside. Not a wall that keeps you in and others out. Not a border or a barrier.
In human work, boundaries are spaces for relationships.
A boundary is, very simply, what you need to be your best self. Others can respect or meet your need. They can also deny or override your need. Either way, a boundary acknowledges that a relationship exists.
Examples of boundaries:
- I need to start team meetings after 8:30 a.m. so I can drop off my child at school.
- I need you to limit your email requests to one per day.
- I need my position to be fully remote.
- I need my compensation package to include healthcare.
- I need the entire team to arrive early for client presentations.
- I need you to stop interrupting me when I speak.
- I need to work with a leadership team that has emotional agility.
When you’re in relationship, boundaries are not either/or conditions of being together. A relationship is all about continually negotiating boundaries with honesty, vulnerability, curiosity, and empathy. Over the course of a relationship, we should be able to say to each other, Yes, I will hold your boundary. Can you make an exception for an extenuating circumstance? Things have changed and I need something different now. The established boundary isn’t working for me anymore; can we redefine it together?
Boundaries Create Options
Setting boundaries elicits people’s feelings, good and bad, just like all our choices. And people’s negative reactions to our boundaries can make us second-guess ourselves. They may balk at or refuse to honor your boundaries. It may feel unsafe to hold certain boundaries at work because of blowback. Our team members have worked in positions where setting a boundary resulted in losing an opportunity, being denied a promotion, or other more subtle forms of punishment, like exclusion. Boundaries are not easy to establish or hold. But is someone else’s comfort worth the price of putting your needs last?
We’d like to reframe the idea of the consequences of boundaries. What if, instead, we looked at boundaries as giving us options?
Here’s an example. Setting a boundary around your time at work may make your supervisors angry and retaliatory. The choices, then, become whether you transfer departments, whether you make a report to HR, whether you stay at this organization. Beneath all the choices is the singular and most real choice: How will I be in relationship with this person now?
None of them may be easy or pleasant, but they are your choices to make, and they become clear when you set a boundary. When people react to your boundary and show you what you’re dealing with.
Setting Boundaries Around Our Feelings
Part of the hard work of reframing boundaries is separating boundaries from the emotions they elicit—both in other people and of ourselves.
You may feel guilt or regret about setting a boundary. That doesn’t mean the boundary is wrong.
Your colleague may feel angry or disappointed about your boundary. That doesn’t make the boundary wrong.
Our emotions are not always the true story. Or the only story. Or the whole story. Our emotions do not always (often not) indicate the value of a boundary.
As we say, our work is human work. We know it’s also hard and uncomfortable work. But giving ourselves the opportunity to show up fully, stay connected and in relationship, and be our best selves is why we do this at all. Our boundaries are not a signal for you to move away. Just the opposite–our boundaries are a way to welcome us both.
If you or your organization is ready to dig into boundaries as part of the foundation of equity and inclusion, contact a member of our team any time.