Boundaries: an introduction

All living systems need boundaries. From human cells all the way up to human systems like organisations or entire countries, everything that’s alive needs boundaries to protect its functional integrity. Applying this understanding to individuals, teams and organisations is key in optimizing their functioning.

Boundary breach

The more our boundaries have been overwhelmed in the past, the more they become dysregulated in the future. This means they start letting in what’s toxic or keep out what’s vital or nourishing. This goes for individuals, teams and even entire organisations. For this blog post, let’s stick with the individual level and look at a few practical examples.

  • An easy example is food. When we can’t sense or establish healthy boundaries related to our body, we may start to overeat to the point where normally healthy food starts to become toxic and create disease.
  • The same goes for information ‘consumption’. Information is vital to our functioning and growth, especially as a social species. Nowadays however, there are nearly infinite amounts of information available with the click of a button or swipe of a finger. Our human capacity for digesting and assimilating all that information simply can’t keep up, resulting in regular overstimulation of our nervous system.
  • Another, maybe familiar example is having difficulty with saying no to others. When you’re being overwhelmed with work and tasks and still keep saying yes to every request from your colleagues, you’re boundaries are not gatekeeping stress correctly. This results in gradually depleting your energy and bodily resources, eventually to the point of exhaustion or even burnout.


How to restore boundaries

Restoring boundaries is fundamental to the integrity of our entire organism. Let’s look at a simple exercise that helps to make a start.

Saying no when needed is one of the hallmarks of healthy boundaries. To become aware of your relationship to this important part of boundary setting, try the following exercise:

  1. Sit down comfortably and turn your attention inward while reading or hearing the word ‘no’ for a few moments
  2. Try that now: no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no…
  3. Notice what your internal experience is right now. What sensations, images, feelings and thoughts do you notice inside? Any sense of contraction, irritation, tension,… ? Or maybe strength, pride, assertiveness,… ?
  4. Then shake that experience off a little bit and move on to doing the same with the word ‘yes’.
  5. Try that now: yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes…
  6. Again, notice your experience inside. Any difference? New sensations, images, feelings and thoughts? Maybe more relaxed, open, receptive, calm,… ?

This exercise can help you discover how you are with giving or receiving a no. A next step can be to practice saying no out loud or with non-verbal gestures like sticking out your hands and experiencing what that’s like in terms of bodily sensations, feelings and thoughts.


Sensory boundaries: dealing with information overload and distractions

Since there is so much money to be made in the attention economy, nobody is going to stop distracting us any time soon. Gloria Mark, professor of informatics, says that it actually takes people an average of 23 minutes to return to their work after being interrupted. Additionally it creates significant extra stress, shortened attention spans and a habit of ‘self-interruption’.

But you can set yourself up for success by creating better digital boundaries and reducing exposure in the first place:

  1. Close, mute or block any tab, website or app that has the potential to take you on an ‘information high’. Examples are Facebook, Twitter, news websites, or any other website with infinite scroll enabled.
  2. Plan blocks of time in your calendar where you batch emails and messages. Hide, silence,block or turn-off your messaging apps and websites during hours where you need to focus.
  3. If you use Slack, start using functions like the ‘do not disturb’ mode and consider reading Slack’s very helpful onboarding articles which can help you manage your Slack communications more successfully.


Next steps

Boundaries are a huge subject and obviously we’ve only just touched on the basics. But beginning the process of restoring healthy boundaries has the potential to positively change many aspects of your life, both at work and in your private life.

28 november 2016

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