Recently, I did something fairly typical: I set a boundary on my time in what I perceived to be a polite, yet also clear and direct manner.
However, I received an atypical response: The person I set a boundary with (who was a stranger whom I had just met once before) told me that I was a warm person but had come across as cold…
The logical side of me thought, “This is ridiculous! Someone I don’t even know doesn’t have a right to give me unsolicited feedback on my behavior. Also, I’ve set these sorts of boundaries before in the same manner and not received this response so this impression of me being ‘cold’ has more to do with the other person’s reality than with me.”
However, the emotional side of me understood the truth of these thoughts and yet still had the question: Can it be appropriate and congruent for a warm person to act in what some might perceive as a cold manner in certain situations?
The answer I came to was decidedly: Yes!
For the good of all of my fellow natural people pleasers who have to work really hard to set boundaries and do what’s right even when they know they are making other people unhappy, I thought it would be helpful to share how I came to this conclusion….
The Bouncer and The Bartender
In certain settings such as a bar, different individuals play different roles. At the doorway is the bouncer. His job is to make sure no one and nothing that shouldn’t be on the premises gets inside. Gruff, tough, insistent on rules, and disinterested in making people happy, the bouncer sees success as creating a barrier between the outside and anything that would disturb what’s happening inside.
Within the establishment, the bartender’s primary concern is making the people inside happy. He keeps his eye out for people looking for drinks. He makes jokes and laughs. He wants people to have a good time and does what he can to make that possible.
Both roles are appropriate, right, and good, and with both doing their job, the evening can run as smoothly as possible. So that’s why a stranger outside of my personal and professional circle will need to talk to the bouncer. The bouncer is OK with the stranger not being happy because keeping the wrong people out is essential for safety. Those who have earned the privilege to be within my circle, will speak to the bartender who absolutely wants to know how to serve them best and welcomes their feedback. As one of my close friends wrote to me regarding my interaction with her this week, “you are so thoughtful and sweet… and can be with me in a place of compassion and gentleness.” So I am and should be both the bouncer and the bartender out of respect and love for myself and others.
The “Nice” Parent
Here’s another analogy to help illustrate this seeming paradox. Let’s say a child has a really nice mom. One of those ladies who remember every child’s name at the playground, who visits sick neighbors, passes out homemade cookies, and simply acts in a thoughtful manner in general.
Now imagine that while this “nice mom” and her child are playing at the park one day, some strangers come up and look like they’re going to snatch her child. Is the appropriate response to offer the intruders a cookie because they must be hungry? Absolutely not!! The correct strategy is to take hold of her child and get out of the situation as quickly as possible. If she needs to scream at the people too, that’s not only OK, it’s right and good. To not protect her child’s safety would make her an irresponsible parent even though the adjective to describe her behavior in the moment would not be “nice.”
As adults, we have the responsibility to define what’s appropriate and to defend those boundaries against people who try to violate them. Most of the time screaming at people won’t be necessary – or effective – to make that happen, but stepping out of learned helplessness is critical to have a sense of control and peace in your life. As one of my time coaching clients put it to go from being “in the trunk” to sitting in the driver’s seat.
To do this you need to get comfortable with the discomfort of being both warm and cold, flexible and structured so that you can protect the priorities that are most important to you.
Instead of judging whether you made the right decision based on people’s reaction to your time investment. You should measure it by this question: Is this authentically aligned with what’s important to me? Or as another one of my time coaching clients put it: Does this contribute to my greatest and highest good?
Most people reflect a skewed sense of reality–like carnival mirrors in a fun house. To be free to make time investment choices that are right for you, you need to choose not to let them distort your view.
About Real Life E®
Elizabeth Grace Saunders is the founder and CEO of Real Life E® a time coaching and training company that empowers individuals who feel guilty, overwhelmed and frustrated to feel peaceful, confident and accomplished through an exclusive Schedule Makeover™ process. She is an expert on achieving more success with less stress. Real Life E® also increases employee productivity, satisfaction and work/life balance through custom training programs.
McGraw Hill published her first book The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment: How to Achieve More Success with Less Stress. Elizabeth contributes to blogs like Lifehacker, Harvard Business Review, Forbes, and the 99U blog on productivity for creative professionals. She was selected as one of the Top 25 Amazing Women of the Year by Stiletto Woman.