In last week’s post, Don’t Take Anything Personally I talked about not taking others words and actions personally. Like many helpful concepts, it is easier said than done, especially if someone is yelling at you. During therapy in my forties I learned about an incredible tool called “boundaries” that made this so much easier. Boundaries are an aspect of emotional intelligence, something I was totally clueless about most of my life. I was able to get an engineering degree, so I had plenty of intellectual intelligence, but found that to be 100% useless when it came to relationships and feelings, which I found shocking. With emotional intelligence, however; it is possible to properly process emotions instead of letting them get the better of you.
I think the concept of boundaries is pretty simple – don’t let others project their feelings on to me, and don’t project my feelings onto others. In other words, if someone gets angry with me, I should not feel hurt or angry. Or, if I am angry with someone, I should not yell at them. Most of my life I did the exact opposite of this and in addition to having terrible relationships with lots of people in my life, I frequently got fired for having a “bad attitude” and noticed there was no shortage of people on the planet willing to play this game with me.
So boundaries seem like a cool concept, but an impossible task. Fortunately, one of my therapists had a technique to make this easier. It’s real simple; just pretend I live in a jar. The jar is my boundary. It goes with me everywhere and I try not to let others inside my jar. For example, say one of my customers has called me up yelling at me because their order was wrong. I just let all of that stuff hit the outside of my jar. Instead of taking their words and anger within, I try to remember those are their feelings and not mine. This means I try not to take this into my heart and let it trigger me. Maybe I or my company had an influence on their circumstances, but that is the past and their reaction to it is based on their perspective and circumstances.
Now before you assume I am just ignoring them, let me continue. I forgot to mention the jar is transparent. If I can keep this stuff outside my jar, I can objectively look at the data without getting caught up and reacting to their feelings. So if the customer is mad, I note it, but leave that outside the jar. I acknowledge it and let the customer know I understand they are mad and gather data about what is going on. I try to remain objective as I look at this data outside the jar and try to determine how I might be able to help. Taking the data in is constructive. Taking the anger in and allowing it to trigger feelings of defectiveness, or returning it will only make things worse for both of us.
That is one way the jar can work, so now I will talk about the other direction. Let’s say I forgot all about this boundary stuff and have a horrible argument with my wife. I end up leaving for work later than normal and now I am in bad traffic which is making me even angrier. Shortly after arriving, I then learn an employee made a mistake that cost the company money. I have plenty of pent up anger and frustration already because I can’t fix my wife or the traffic, so then I decide to let that employee have it in an attempt to fix him! In the early years of my business that is exactly what I would have done. An employee who already feels terrible and is mentally beating himself up would have felt even worse due to me projecting my anger on top of an already bad situation.
Instead, let’s pretend I remember my jar. I am already angry due to circumstances that have nothing to do with my employee. I may also have anger about their mistake, but that is my anger. It is based on my perspective of my business, the employee, the finances, and how I choose to react to all of this. He may have influenced what caused my emotional reaction, but the feelings are mine and I need to keep them inside my jar. If I am having trouble keeping them contained in the jar I need to avoid the employee until I can cool down.
Once I feel like I can keep my feelings inside my jar, I can communicate objectively with the employee. This communication might include the consequences of his action and suggestions for preventing it from happening again. I might even share information about my feelings inside my jar, but not the feelings themselves. For example, I might calmly say I am disappointed with his actions, but not that I disappointed in him. In short, I have a chance of helping the employee learn and grow instead creating long term animosity between us.
Not everyone has the emotional intelligence to efficiently use boundaries, but the cool thing is that since it “takes two to tango”, if only one of the two has boundaries it can help prevent things from spiraling out of control. In this post I happened to use a business example, but of course there are plenty of family and marital ones. For me, getting therapy helped me raise my emotional intelligence and learn tools like this so I could become a better person, manager, and leader.
Photo by Mark Elliott Rogers