Now more than ever, I am seeing—both in my personal life and my role as an executive coach—the challenge of setting boundaries, and the risks of failing to do so. Without the physical separation of home and office, the lines and short spaces in time that define and differentiate focus and roles have all but disappeared. The result for many is frenzy, exhaustion and internal messaging compelling us to work. The belief system that we are almighty and irreplaceable—as necessary as CPR is to a stopped heart—seeps into our psyche. I know. I lived with that work–life orientation.
Years ago, sitting on a soft leather couch in a newly acquired second home, exhausted yet full of self-satisfaction that my career success afforded such luxuries, my mother offered a wise comment. “They will just keep piling on the responsibility and work until you tell them to stop or fall over. Suck everything out of you, and always ask for more.” She didn’t know the power and prestige I had, the money I made.
In those days I was blessed with longer chains on the work handcuffs. It was such a long time ago; email traffic was minimal. My beeper was only used to access overseas financial markets. My cell phone, which the bank insisted I carry, didn’t work in the underground path system of the downtown core. Inaccessibility was a luxury provided by the limitations of technology. The world gave me boundaries. Or, so I thought.
My fragile ego required constant nurturing and affirmations. It came through career success which morphed into an importance greater than being a mother, wife, friend, daughter, sister. I watched it happen to my brother. I scorned and criticized him—and failed to see it in me. I drank the damned Kool-Aid. I became a slave to my indispensability. I missed dinners with my family because there was a senseless war in the Middle East—a fight about oil. I missed seeing my children in the mornings. It was essential that I be at my desk before 7 am to track the overseas markets. The perks and recognition of travel took me to countries around the world. Ever balancing courage with loneliness: I mustn’t say “no.”
Today, I see friends and clients who are as scarce to their families and themselves as I was traveling 5,000 miles away from home. At what point does our sense of responsibility, loyalty and professionalism evolve into an unsustainable and abusive pattern? Is there an opportunity to be vulnerable? To ask for help? Will they listen? Do they care? Or is that what stress leave is for?
How much are we enablers if we don’t speak up? If we aren’t truthful? If we don’t say “no.” If we participate as slaves to our fears?
I’m pleading for acts of courage. Taking a risk. Creating boundaries to protect all those things you hope will be included in your epitaph.
The remote office mandate of the pandemic has put us in the middle of our homes and families—simultaneously demanding more from us. Testing the limits of our capacity, while telling us that it’s necessary due to these challenging times. The commute and gym visits have evaporated into more time for emails and zoom meetings. We’re so lucky to have jobs.
Empowerment is found in the healthy blend of work and time for self, loved ones and community. Corporate mission statements praise these values, few allow them. Maybe it’s a grassroots effort. Individual adherence to values. A recalibration in your brain . . . how important is it anyway?
At least, this is my experience.