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Boundaries vs. Being Guarded

Drunk drivers tend to be less hurt in car accidents than the sober people they hit. It's a strange and all-be-it unfair phenomenon. A lot of people describe being inebriated as loosening them up. This isn't just about being less inhibited socially, but less rigid physically.

Whereas sober people, tense their bodies up at the threat of impact. With their muscles contracted, they are more likely to suffer physical injuries.

It's one more twisted way our instincts to preserve ourselves end up hurting us more in the modern world.

I was recently catching up with a friend. The two of us had managed the same person, in different roles over a decade apart. We both struggled working with this person because they were very guarded and self-absorbed. Traits that weren't immediately obvious because of the idealistic way they talked.

In my experience, their guardedness made it hard to connect and build trust. Part of this was an unwillingness to look back at and discuss the past. They often said, "the past is in the past, there's nothing I can do about it, so why focus on it now!"

While it seems like a rational stance, there's of course more complexity. The past shapes who we are in the present. Without dealing with and healing our past hurts and traumas, we are reacting to them in our current circumstances.

In Jerry Colonna's book, Reboot, Leadership and the Art of Growing Up, he asserts leaders must confront their past in order to move beyond it in service of their vision.

One doesn't need to share all their past traumas at work nor practice disclosure in order to grow as a professional and leader. But when problematic patterns emerge over and over again, some intentional self-exploration is warranted. None of us can change the past, but we can take control of the ways the past shapes how we show up in the present moment.

The employee my friend and I had both managed clearly had a pattern of burning bridges and sabotaging their success, yet refused to face that because it required looking into their past. This made it impossible to resolve conflicts and collaborate effectively because they constantly deflected concerns raised rather than accepting responsibility. The situation with this employee reminds me of the distinction between being guarded vs. being boundaried.

When we're being guarded we are hiding our true selves in an attempt to create a sense of safety. I think of being guarded as holding up a shield, trying to deflect any and all pain, hurt or suffering away from ourselves. In holding up a shield like that we avoid the good along with the bad as we categorically keep everything from getting too close.

This may look like someone avoiding the risk of rejection by habitually refusing to be vulnerable or admit error. It also shows up when someone stays entrenched in a position and refuses to consider other points of view. Another way being guarded appears is when someone categorically shuts down or avoids conversations that feel uncomfortable or awkward. This includes tactics of deflection, avoidance, defensiveness, or circular conversations.

Chances are, you've probably encountered someone that's been guarded in your work. This person might be really hard to connect with and difficult to work with collaboratively. If they're too deeply entrenched in a pattern of being guarded like the employee I managed was, there might not be much you can do to get them to break free of the habit. In the end, the desire for such change must come from within.

At the same time, we've all had moments where we've been guarded. And there may be times where such a reaction is appropriate. But as a habitual practice at work, it's unsustainable for both the team and the individual. It can be helpful to bring our attention to the situations and reasons we feel inclined to be guarded.

On the other hand, boundaries look quite different. Boundaries are like a fence we erect for a specific reason. We create boundaries by defining the lines of what we are ready, willing and able to share or do so we stay true to ourselves while being in right relationship with others.

Boundaries are really important to establish in order to maintain psychological safety at work. In addition to individuals establishing and upholding their own boundaries, organizations also need to define the line of what is or is not acceptable behavior at work. Whereas a shield deflects any and all vulnerability, boundaries allow certain kinds of openness while acknowledging that things like oversharing can be burdensome on the well-being of the collective.

The distinction between being guarded vs. being boundaried is indicative of a subtle shift in workplace culture that's occurred over the last few decades. Whereas years ago, it was believed that workers could check their personal lives at the door. Managers and leaders now recognize that their employee's overall well-being impacts their abilities to thrive personally and professionally.

In other words, being guarded used to be the MO for the workplace. This means that for many, shifting gears from being guarded to being boundaried requires self-awareness, knowledge and consistent effort.

Perpetually being guarded is like tensing up when in a car accident. It might feel like the right thing to do in the moment. But it leads to more harm and problems in the long run. And being guarded is not to be confused with having and holding clear boundaries.

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