Boundaries: Taking Control

Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life

The more I research matters relating to my Asperger Syndrome (AS) the more I find myself coming back to the subject of boundaries.

The reason, I believe, is that they cover a variety of issues which impact upon a person with AS: assertiveness, getting what is required personally and forming relationships with other people. All such issues have affected me as a manager.

Henry Cloud and John Townsend, authors of the book I am reviewing here – “Boundaries: When to Say Yes, When to Say No – to Take Control of Your Life – define boundaries as: “what is, and what is not, me” which, I thought, was an interesting definition.

The book was not recommended to me; indeed I chose it by chance whilst searching for a suitable text about boundaries as I felt I needed to research and understand the subject further. I am pleased that I did find it, because it provides an excellent introduction to the subject; one that is concise and provides the initial information that has enabled me to gain a further base of understanding.

The book, in effect, divides into six chapters of areas.

1. What is a Boundary?

I’ve defined it – see above – but understanding why is also important. As individuals we need to set mental, physical and emotional and spiritual boundaries to help distinguish what is our responsibility and what is not.

As a person with Asperger syndrome, I think this is very important. Recognising my condition and taking responsibility for addressing the issues that come with it, have been essential for me to address many of the problems that I have encountered in a work context. The authors add to their initial definition with the words: “it is where an individual ends and someone else begins and results in a sense of ownership”.

The latter is, I feel, prescient. As a manager with AS, my issues do not end with my condition; there are associated commercial/managerial factors that impact as well, and I have learnt I need to acknowledge and face them. Respecting authority, whilst not allowing myself to be taken advantage of, is a key example. Boundaries protect us from the bad!

Identifying what a boundary is initially is vital. Words such as “no”, distancing oneself from problematic situations, ensuring you have emotional distance to protect yourself personally from other people and [business] consequences, shows other people you serious about boundaries.

Emotional boundaries especially are, I believe, critical for a person/manager with Asperger syndrome. If the inner emotional equilibrium which is so vital for required calm is compromised it can, I have found, cause immense difficulties, some of which have the potential to be long lasting. Considering the boundaries of other people is also important.

Next, according to the authors, having identified the boundaries we need to consider what falls within them and, again, what we are responsible for: feelings, attitudes, beliefs, behaviours, choices, values, thoughts, limits and trust. Again, this factor is, I believe, incredibly important. I can control these facets and have learnt that many of them, which emanate directly from having Asperger syndrome, can have real negative connotations in a work context.

Two examples. Firstly, my innate honesty and sense of “right and wrong” (or beliefs) which is heightened and, so, can contradict commercial reality. In one company I worked for, the manager bullied, belittled and used underhand tactics for personal gain; he also, however, prevented the company from going out of business (in the short term at least) and that, is it not, the most important thing? Secondly, behaviour. There have been times when I have not exuded an outward sense of calm which has eroded my gravitas as a manager.

However, as the book says, ignoring feelings or letting them rule us is not being responsible for them. I have sat back when being damaged both professionally and emotionally, in situations where I had choice and needed to exercise it. Being insufficiently assertive when oppressed is the most obvious example.

The authors then ask some pertinent questions for a professional with AS: whom are you expecting to read your mind or are afraid to communicate your thoughts to? Would it be wise to limit your exposure to certain people? Not exercising a certain gift? With the latter, I certainly wish I had stood up to one manager and, also, communicated the thoughts emanating from my exceptional analytical ability and insight which would have provided the answer to a key corporate issue.

To keep the good in and the bad out we need to identify those boundaries which are important to us: doing so helps identify problematic situations. According to the authors, part of taking responsibility is knowing what our job is and what it isn’t. Maintaining boundaries opens up options. We don’t need to be limited by circumstances or other people – staying in an organisation or role which is unsuitable to us for example – and take control of our energy, resources and experience to do what we want.

I have just voluntarily left a job where I was unhappy. I knew from past experience that it wasn’t for me and that I was gaining little by being there. By withdrawing, I retained control and didn’t experience any emotional disturbance.

In other words, I took, as the book advocates, control of my feelings, beliefs, behaviours, choices, thoughts, values, limits etc – and established some healthy boundaries – and personal outcomes!

2. Understanding Boundaries

Taking control of your boundaries is difficult because of certain problems. I could resonate with many of those listed as a result of my AS.

i) Compliance: saying yes to unacceptable things. This is definitely something that I have needed to address; in particular, simply wanting to be nice and accepted personally;

ii) Avoidants: these people say no to the good and are unable to ask for help for fear of being seen as weak or incapable. I can identify clear times when it would have been advantageous – and managerial – to have sought the benefit of someone’s experience;

iii) Controllers: can’t respect other people’s limits (or boundaries). Only seeing things my way or not accepting values that don’t reflect mine are examples I can see as a result of my AS;

iv) Functional and relational boundaries: distinguishing between the ability to complete a task, project and/or job and the ability to speak the truth to those with whom we have relationships;

v) Non-responsives: these people neglect the emotional needs of others by not responding to the requirements of others. I won’t list the numerous examples where I have failed in this arena – I’ll just keep on trying to address it! (empathy is the key word here);

The book then usefully explores how boundaries develop. Circumstances affect them greatly and their development is an ongoing process. They also develop in distinct phases.

The text then makes what I think is a key point: healthy boundary development requires supportive relationships with other people. Needless to say this is vital in a work context and one which has proved difficult for me, at times, as a manager with Asperger syndrome. You cannot begin to set limits until you have established relationships. If they are lacking, we have nowhere to go in a conflict. If we are unsure if we are accepted, we are forced to choose from sub-standard options: forfeiting the relationship or remaining subservient to another person.

Some of the most serious problems I have faced as a manager with AS have been as a result of this. Now, whoever I meet, I make a conscious effort to establish a relationship with them. If I sense the person is going to be difficult – or transcend my values/boundaries – I make an even bigger one!

3. The Laws of Boundaries

People need to operate in accord with reality, not against it: real food for thought for someone with Asperger syndrome! We reap what we sow and have a responsibility to love others. In other words, reach out to other people.
Reaping what we sow can, of course, have real consequences in a corporate context, especially if we upset someone with power in authority. If we seek to rescue others or allow them to be irresponsible, we become co-dependent. This is also something I have too readily done in the past – to overcome my sense of not being liked or accepted perhaps.

It is important therefore, to set limits on destructive behaviour. For me, as a manager with AS this relates to bullying; it simply must not be tolerated and, if it does appear, I have learnt that the boundary needs to be established – quickly.

Other boundary laws include: power; we have the ability to change. Respect: we need to respect the boundaries of others to earn respect ourselves to ensure we don’ get angry ourselves or withdraw. Motivation: freedom first, serve second. Many people serve first through fear of losing something. However, if we serve out of false motives, we are doomed to failure: this can include attempting to avoid loneliness; being obliged to say yes because that is what “good” people always say to avoid internal guilt or; over-identifying with another person.

All these facets have applied to me as a manager with Asperger but, as the book correctly asserts, if you fear something, you cannot set the boundaries you need.

Other boundary laws include evaluation: we need truth and confrontation from others to grow; proactivity: proactive people have purpose and know what they stand for; activity: trying and learning from failure and; exposure: boundaries also need to made visible to others and communicated to them in relationships.

However, it is the final points in this section that sung loudest for me. We may have many boundary problems because of relational fears: of guilt, not being liked, loss of approval, of receiving anger. These can only be restored in relationships as they are the context of the problems themselves. For me, this means acknowledging my Asperger syndrome, its impact upon me – and on other people. As my favourite, personal mantra goes: “if you want to change others, you need to change yourself”.

4. The Myths about Boundaries

This is another important section. The book cites eight myths.

i) If I set boundaries, I am selfish: in effect, the opposite is the case: boundaries actually increase our ability to care about others;

ii) Boundaries are a sign of disobedience: however, we must establish boundaries because if we can’t say no, we can’t say yes. Saying no in a non-aggressive, confrontational manner is one of the things I find hardest as someone with Asperger. I have learnt the need to do this tactfully in a business context;

iii) If I begin setting boundaries, I will be hurt by others: I have to confess my AS has meant that I have been susceptible this: I like to be liked. However, as the authors say, if people respect our boundaries they are more likely to respect our views, opinions and separateness. Setting boundaries akin to telling the truth about who you really are and this increases respect in any relationship. I found this re-assuring as it is synonymous with my honesty as a person with AS. However, as the text also importantly states: setting boundaries takes courage – and some risk…

iv) If I set boundaries, I will hurt others: if you need to say no, you must irrespective of the reaction of the other person. I have learnt the hard way that this is true in business, even though it is hard for me because of my Asperger. I have also come to accept that there may be terminal consequences;

v) Boundaries mean that I am angry: boundaries themselves don’t cause anger within us, but anger is a sign that boundaries have been violated and indicate a need to face a threat. However, anger can also provide us with the power to confront a problem. This is certainly something that I have found, as is the point that anger can take a long time to dissipate and year’s of “no’s” that are never voiced, listened to or respected;

vi) When others set boundaries, they injure me: if we want others to respect our boundaries then we must respect theirs. I have come to really appreciate this. However, what is harder for me as a manager with Asperger syndrome, is identifying the roots of boundaries in the first place. One example is respecting or deferring to authority even when the latter is being unfair or in the wrong.

I have come across this numerous times, but the suggestion of accepting that boundary by simply not making that person too important is a useful one. If I make up my mind that someone is being unfair or more important than they are, I find that it has a real propensity to agitate me. Doing as the book then suggests: asking what is behind the situation/problem and why can help resolve it.

vii) Boundaries cause feelings of guilt: a real minefield for someone with Asperger. Gratitude and boundaries should not be confused. Feelings of gratitude need not obligate us to not set boundaries with those who have helped or benefited us.

Again, this is a really tough call for me. My mentor, who recruited me and to whom I owed all in a way, would not accept an argument that I felt was sacrosanct. Events subsequently proved me right and a hard lesson that I have learned was a manager with AS is to make the superior manager aware and stand by that viewpoint. If they don’t accept this, then that is their prerogative; they also cannot criticise me if I refer back to them later what I previously stated – or at least my conscience enables me to say so! As Cloud and Townsend say: we are not obligated to anyone if we have received something from them.

viii) Boundaries are permanent and I am afraid of compromising them: your no is always answerable to you. We own our boundaries; they don’t own us and we can renegotiate them to preserve or restore a relationship. Owning our boundaries gives us power.

There are various aspects to this from my perspective. People need to respect me as a person/manager with Asperger (even if they are unaware of my condition): central to this is not allowing myself to be abused or taken advantage of.

I have come to appreciate that I need to make others aware of the unique insight that results from my condition. I cannot sit back, as I have at times in the past, and automatically assume that other people will see things as I do.
I can compromise my own principles and try to meet people half-way to build relationships and avoid/resolve conflict. By respecting the boundaries of others, I can demonstrate empathy.

5. Boundary Conflicts

The development of boundary conflict according to the authors revolves around seven internal conflicts: food/overeating; alcohol abuse, money, sexuality and three others that apply to a work context and having Asperger in particular.

i) time management: dealing with deadlines. Unless the deadline is, for me, urgent I am not a “go ahead” but a “last minute” person. In other words, I do not manage my time well. If I do leave things until the last minute however, they then tend to assume greater importance and a propensity to generate anxiety. Doing things early whilst not under pressure is something that I have tried hard to implement into my personal work practices, ( an earlier article on Urgency Addition provides some useful insight in this area:;

ii) task completion: a similar problem applies. My lower concentration threshold means that I am not a natural “starter-finisher”;

ii) “tongue”: my strong values, emotions have led me in the past to be too outgoing in the use of words or their selection. Retaining counsel has been beneficial in this area.

According to the authors, we need to deal with the root of these problems by taking responsibility for them ourselves. Taking advantage of assistance from others can assist as can experiencing pain via the consequences of our actions; both enable us to grow. We mustn’t withdraw from that pain or relationships or our own accountability when facing problematic situations. Central to this as a manager with Asperger has also been the need to not allow myself to automatically assume blame or feel guilt.

The book then lists some useful tips to resolving boundary conflicts:

i) Identify the symptoms: what are you doing which means you cannot say no to yourself? Not assuming guilt is one for me. Others include giving colleagues the benefit of the doubt, empathising before blaming, respecting their values and controlling my own reactions;

ii) Identify the root causes of the symptoms: examples cited here include fearing your relationships, hunger for unmet acceptance, rebelling against an environment and covering up emotional hurt;

iii) Identify the boundary conflict: identify weak or non-existent boundaries, i.e. task completion;

iv) Identify what you need to do: work with other people for example;

v) “Just do it”: very useful advice for someone with Asperger syndrome. I often find simply making a start the hardest thing of all. Another issue is trying too hard to get it perfect, as opposed to, what is “good enough”;
vi) what accountability and consequences do you need to build into your programme?

As the authors say, learning to develop mature boundaries within ourselves is not easy. Many obstacles can hinder our progress and, if Asperger syndrome is added to the mix, then it may be harder. But by listening to others and working with them, accepting failure and the consequences to learn, we can build stronger internal boundaries.
The next point made is something that I have also increasingly come to appreciate and how it applies at work: that though you may not consciously manipulate a compliant friend, you may unintentionally take them for granted by thinking that they may not mind be asked for a favour.

Because I will almost certainly help others, I felt that others will not mind me asking them. Most I have found don’t – once! However, if you stretch their goodwill, I have found that they will resent it. They will not, however, say so and I have discovered that their view may be made against me strongly later. This point particularly applies to networking. I’m job hunting and it is best, I have found, to only ask for assistance once. As the book says, the danger is that people tend to stifle their resentment if we ask them to be responsible for our needs, but it will reflect back on us later.

Another pertinent point is that we must help others in the workplace, not “enable” them. In others words, give them the power to act, not assist them in a way simply to make us feel better. I wonder if I have been guilty of this – albeit unintentionally – as a means of mitigating my sense of lesser acceptance with others.
Again, the advice in this area is clear: be honest with yourself and communicate your boundary needs.

6. Boundary Successes

The book closes by identifying six measurements that determine the growth and development of mature boundaries.

i) Resentment: this is our early warning signal. Anger alerts us to boundary violations. If, as a result of my AS I feel I am being taken advantage of or suppressed, I act upon it by establishing a boundary – fast;

ii) Be drawn to boundary lovers: when we have relationships where we can set limits we can say no and afford gratitude to others;

iii) Join the family: or at work, substitute team. If you share boundaries then you won’t work in a vacuum. For me, this means recognising the downsides of my AS and ensuring that I contain them to respect others;

iv) Appreciate our treasures: for me this is the unique insight that my Asperger mindset can bring to business issues via my enhanced analytical capability and subsequent insight. I have not, however, in the past fully exploited this sufficiently to my own benefit by insufficiently communicating that insight to others. Developing boundaries means valuing our thoughts, feelings and attitudes and protecting them to protect ourselves;

v) Practice “baby steps”: in other words, take it slowly. This, I believe, is really sound advice for someone with Asperger syndrome. I have surprised myself at the progress I have made in certain areas, but have also realised that achieving it has taken time and effort before the results become apparent. Take small steps initially and persist. The results will, I have found, come if you do;

vi) Rejoice in guilty feelings: a boundary injured person will have great difficulty setting limits. However, it is a sign of growth if an incorrect authority is defied. Central to achieving this is not being too hard on oneself.
As Cloud and Townsend conclude, there are times when we need to face extremely complicated and even frightening relationships and situations. This is certainly true from m experience of business and, in particular, from having Asperger syndrome in a more senior role. Difficult, even aggressive, managers; intimidation or being in a position that I have been unable to justify or defend are examples that spring to mind.

Establishing boundaries by setting limits with people and in significant circumstances is, however, the answer. Take it slowly and do not try to do too much before being able to deliver; respect the boundaries of others.
One suggestion however rung loudest for me as a person with Asperger: when we are too concerned about others we work against our own self-centredness and find accord with their values. These may well not concur with mine.

When we can ask for something without a feeling of conflict or resentment, there is no motivation to say yes through a sense of guilt: in other words, if I accept who I am as a person with Asperger syndrome, and that I am not lesser in anyway as a consequence, I am more at ease with myself. If so, I can work much more effectively from a managerial perspective. We do not have to say yes when we mean no simply out of a need to be compliant.

I thought that “Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No” was a more than useful book. I have found the subject of boundaries to be an increasingly relevant, as well as important, concept as a management tool for someone with Asperger syndrome and will be making a concerted effort to learn more.

As the book presciently concludes, boundaries enable us to feel protected and develop. Mature boundaries mean direction in life and choices based not on fear of other people’s reactions, but what is important personally.
This is highly advantageous in a work context and involves learning about those things you are personally responsible for. Setting and maintaining clear boundaries is hard work and can be risky, but the benefits are potentially huge.

If you assume responsibility for your life, you can avoid problems by confronting the “boundary busters” in life. Food for thought indeed!

Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life, Henry Cloud and John Townsend, Zondervan, ISBN: 13: 978-0-310-27808-5

Managing with Asperger Syndrome