Boundaries and Finding the Right Balance

Each Sunday, in a UK broadsheet newspaper, there is a feature written on inter-personal relationships. It’s always very interesting and the commentator writes, in my opinion, very accurately and incisively.

There was a feature a couple of months ago now about “boundaries”. I was immediately interested in this because a regular visitor to Aspergermanagement.com talks about boundaries a lot, (I am trying to inveigle him into writing a case study about the subject so I am hoping he is going to read this!).

According to the Penguin Dictionary of Psychology, the term was developed by a K. Lewin to explain part of his “topological personality theory”. This is where there is a hindrance or impediment to a person moving (metaphorically) from region to region in life space.

As I understand this, these are parameters within which we want ourselves to operate and others to respect. So, we want to get along with people but, at the same time, we don’t want anyone to treat us in anyway detrimentally or to take advantage of us. It is about setting “boundaries” for what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour from both parties perspective.

According to the commentator, boundaries keep us safe while allowing us to connect. When we want our needs (tangible and emotional) to be met, we too often we expect people to be mind-readers and automatically assume they know what we want/need.

The example in the article mentioned is about a sister who is not acting in the way her older sibling wants her to. The former acts in an independent or selfish way – how ever you want to interpret the situation – but does not, according to the elder sister reciprocate to her “olive branches” in any positive way.

The response starts by the commentator acknowledging that the elder sister is unhappy but that “your letter is so full of demands, that I feel exhausted simply by reading it! Goodness knows how you must feel”.

She goes on to say that the elder sister “needs to live in a certain way, but perhaps it is time to stop worrying about the other person’s behaviour and to start being kinder to yourself. You are so tightly fixed on what is right and wrong behaviour that I can also feel the tension crackling off the page!”

The commentator then talks about how resentment, score-keeping and avoidance – followed by confrontations that leave us shaken and upset – are textbook passive-aggression. This occurs when we don’t know how to express our emotional needs, and how we can be even frightened of having them, meaning that we keep ourselves in rigid check.

This then becomes, in our minds, behaving in the “right” way but, actually, it is a way that is impossible to maintain. Consequently, when we see people being careless or thoughtless (as humans tend to be), we feel jealous and resentful.

The person writing in talks about being tolerant and kind yet, as the commentator states, is also brooding and judgemental. The younger sister – according to the commentator – is simply getting on with her life, but in a way that is not conforming to the older sister’s rigid standards.

In other words, the elder sister is making judgements about how others ought to behave, but secretly perhaps – according to the commentator – the younger sister is acting in a way that the elder one would like to also but can’t! Or, “if I can’t, then other people aren’t allowed to either, because if they do my rules might be proved wrong, and if my rules are wrong, where are the boundaries that keep my world safe?”

According to the commentator this is all about emotional safety – and how issues of control often are. The answer is to relax some of the rigid attitudes that you’ve become trapped inside because the person you are really hurting is yourself. So, severing the relationship (as the elder sister suggests in her letter) with her younger sister who she loves because she doesn’t conform with her rigid behavioural requirements is self-defeating.

The commentator asserts that you need to let go! People often misunderstand that simple phrase, believing that they immediately have to abandon whatever it is that has got them so stuck. However, letting go can also mean “letting it be”. “Let others be who they are and be relaxed about things. Others aren’t perfect, but neither are you. Demands, (you must behave in the way I think is right) destroy relationships”.

The commentator advocates exploring the concept of boundaries to get your needs met. Boundaries keep us safe while allowing us to connect. As for getting our needs met, as she mentioned, we too often expect people to be mind-readers. Sometimes a direct and open appeal to those we love is all that is required.

This article really got me thinking! There was so much of this story that – for me – related to the Asperger personality profile and many of my experiences at work and, I feel, some important and valuable insight and lessons that I could draw from it.

The first point relates to: “the parameters within which we want ourselves to operate and others to respect. So, we want to get along with people but, at the same time, we don’t want anyone to treat us in anyway detrimentally or to take advantage of us. It is about setting “boundaries” for what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour”.

In a work context I always want to get along with people; it’s in my nature to try and do so. I also want and need respect from people. As a person with Asperger syndrome however, it is also imperative that I try and ensure that people do not treat me detrimentally or take advantage of me.

The trouble is, is that on two or three occasions as work this is exactly what has happened and, on both occasions, it has had hugely detrimental consequences for me.

In the first instance it was about not setting the right “boundaries” by being assertive in the face of pressure from a colleague whilst, at the same time, not exacerbating the situation or antagonising the person involved. On both accounts, I failed.
As readers of my book Managing with Asperger Syndrome will know, it was about – with hindsight – status and personal ego. The manager (more senior to me and being prepared for directorship) was approaching me initially to “let me know who he was”, i.e. someone important.

He may have been someone important (though I did not due to lack of experience in these areas at the time appreciate that) but I had done nothing deliberately to offend him or warrant criticism which meant, in my eyes, he was being unfair. He had, therefore, no right to speak to me in the way he had. Literally speaking, he didn’t of course: but the reality of the situation was he had (informal) power, status and personal prestige and I had transgressed the [his] boundary or a parameter of corporate political power!

From my perspective, the senior manager had transgressed an important boundary that was keeping me as a person with Asperger syndrome safe: not being [literally] fair and aggressively confronting me which I was ill-equipped to emotionally to defend myself against – because of my lesser inter-personal skills. My “boundaries” were inappropriate: I was insufficiently assertive and excessively reactive and confrontational which exacerbated the situation.

This leads onto the next point: “when we want our needs (tangible and emotional) to be met, we too often we expect people to be mind-readers and automatically assume they know what we want/need”.

Looking back over my career, I feel that this is possibly one of the biggest – albeit unintentional – mistake or misconception that I have made. I have simply paid insufficient attention, or made insufficient allowance, for the fact that other people are unable to appreciate or understand the unique circumstances I find myself in due to my condition. This is especially so given that I have never disclosed.

Conveying ones’ needs to others, I have come to appreciate, is simply essential. This can be tangible facets such as the correct working environment or explicit written instructions as to my responsibilities, though to subliminal requirements such as encouragement and non-critical feedback.

The point about the younger sister not acting in the way her older sibling wants her to also struck a cord with me. This point has caused me great difficulties in a work context and, on one occasion I believe, was directly attributable to me losing my job.

In this case, a manager as acting in what I regarded as not only an unfair and unreasonable way, but one which was grossly hypocritical. Subsequent events I believe proved me right, but this was largely irrelevant to the final outcome: I was dismissed!

Central to the problem was that the other third-party involved was acting immorally and unfairly – or, at least, when subjected to my mode of judgement. I have learnt that in a work context, especially a commercial one, this is not wholly unrealistic but seriously misguided.

My boundaries simply did not and could not apply. This subsequently led to an inner feeling on behalf that reflected the commentator’s assertion that: “your letter is so full of demands, that I feel exhausted simply by reading it! Goodness knows how you must feel”.

I have found that I cannot afford to expect my demands, (“ethics”, fairness, independence etc) of others at work to be automatically fulfilled; yet, I have often previously done so. This has on occasion caused me great emotional frustration and personal anxiety.

I try now not to let my innate “Asperger demands” to apply and/or surface at work and have worked hard personally to condition myself to block out and exclude Asperger-related requirements such as a sense of innate justice; or as the commentator suggests: “perhaps it is time to stop worrying about the other person’s behaviour and to start being kinder to yourself, by not fixing so tightly on what is right and wrong behaviour!”

Not having done so has led to the type of situations that were next described in the article: the development of “resentment, score-keeping and avoidance – followed by confrontations that leave us shaken and upset – which reflect passive-aggression or not knowing how to express our emotional needs, meaning that I have may have become frightened of having them, which has resulted in keeping myself in rigid check”.

Central to this is a lack of assertiveness on my part that has led me to act passively-aggressively in certain situations of where difficulties arise. How has my Asperger led to this?

Firstly, I believe that, when attacked or confronted personally, I have over-reacted (aggressively) which has prevented the required boundary of being assertive yet non-antagonistic from being created.

What I have tried to practice since is remaining calm whilst responding firmly but politely through statement of my case/requirements: “I hear what you say but I am not prepared to be spoken to like that” for example.

Secondly, if someone is acting in a totally unacceptable way, one which is unfathomable from my [Asperger] perspective, I have tended to react in a: “I cannot comprehend this approach/behaviour, so I am simply going to avoid it by not responding and withdrawing.

The problem with this, I have found, is that the problem rarely goes away. Indeed, in a work context it usually returns meaning that it causes me further – often more pronounced – difficulties which fester negatively from an internal mental perspective for considerable periods.

Now, if something is clearly wrong or untoward from my perspective, I force myself to confront it no matter how uncomfortable I feel. I do so immediately: I have learnt to my cost that not doing so prevents an important boundary from an Asperger perspective from being established: an unwillingness to be used or taken advantage of. If people sense they can do so once they will invariably I have found do so again.

The point about being brooding and resentful if people don’t act in a way that I [the elder sister] require, whilst at the same time believing I am acting in a tolerant way, is also, I believe, something I have practised.

What this relates to from having Asperger syndrome is making judgements about other people, possibly unfairly because of the commercial/work situation they find themselves in.

In my book Managing with Asperger Syndrome, this is what I refer to as The Fundamental Attribution Error. Attributing to an unacceptable behaviour or a way of behaving that is down to the person themselves, rather than, the circumstances they have found themselves in. An example would be a senior manager having to make cuts or redundancies due to detrimental business conditions.

This happened in one position in my career. The person involved made necessary cuts which – in the short term at least – saved the company. He did so, however, in a way that transgressed the boundaries of what I regarded as acceptable behaviour as determined by my Asperger. As mentioned previously, many others came round to strongly agreeing with my view.

However, again, that was irrelevant from a practical perspective. His behaviour became, in my mind, all about him behaving in the “right” way, something that he was never going to do. Consequently, I came to view the person involved exceedingly negatively: inconsiderate, thoughtless and hypocritical, meaning that I did, as the commentator predicts, come to feel hugely resentful. It caused enormous disruption to my inner “Asperger world” and, subsequently, anxiety.

What this meant was that I came to assert that if the other person wouldn’t act reasonably or in my way then: “if I can’t, then other people aren’t allowed to either, because if they do my rules might be proved wrong, and if my rules are wrong, where are the boundaries that keep my world safe?”

The manager would not allow me to operate in the way that I required from the perspective of having Asperger syndrome, (solitude, working independently etc); ways that would meet my needs. He, of course, did not understand why and so was never going to accept that!

I think that the commentator has largely got it right when she says that this is all about emotional safety – and how issues of control often are. Control here, is of course, about appertaining the conditions I needed at work as someone with Asperger syndrome

She has also largely got it right I feel when she says that the answer is to “relax some of the rigid attitudes that you’ve become trapped inside because the person you are really hurting is yourself”.

As the commentator says we need to let go and how letting go can also mean “letting it be”. “Let others be who they are and be relaxed about things. Others aren’t perfect, but neither are you. Demands, (you must behave in the way I think is right) destroy relationships”.

I know that this is hard when your position or job is on the line or when there is something that having Asperger means it is very important and can directly affect you negatively. However, I do believe that I have not given other people sufficient space or the benefit of the doubt previously and that I have made demands of other people – particularly those in authority – which have been, to a degree, unreasonable or provocative.

So, how does a person with Asperger syndrome achieve the “boundaries” they require at work? A good starting point is to actually understand boundaries better. I have tried, as the commentator suggests, to explore the concept to investigate how they can contribute to getting my needs met.

Another commentator I read and liaise with regularly has identified three types of boundary that relate to what he describes as “social space, (this can also apply to organisations/corporate politics).

The first are self-set boundaries. These are limits that one learns, through time and experience to set for oneself. For me these are refraining from becoming involved in personal issues at work, being guarded about what I say, (particularly if it relates to someone personally or towards someone in a senior position or authority), and not, under any circumstances allowing someone to victimise me.

I have also set myself a boundary in relation to learning: not taking on something too advanced initially or trying to achieve too much at once in relation to my learning new skills, expertise etc.

The second type of boundary is those set by other individuals. These can be personally based or perceived boundaries that may reflect social/ethical values or environmental context.

A clear example of this for me is the parameters that naturally evolve as a part of the character traits that emanate from a CEO’s personality. One Managing Director I worked for had a particular dislike of abuse of expenses for example

Whilst this was largely correct, it was taken to a higher extreme than with his predecessors and was based on his (perceived) high, moral values. That is subjective of course, and not everyone believed or agreed with them! However, that was a boundary that all senior managers were aware of and respected.

Asperger syndrome comes into effect strongly in this boundary category I believe. I have high ethical and moral values, (based to a large degree on my literal interpretation of events and the way people should act and behave), but, of course, those interpretations are not automatically shared by others.

There are times when I have tried to assert those interpretations at work. However, doing so is unrealistic and, as I have found, can be personally very damaging and costly. Work is work and normal values do not automatically apply; especially in a commercial context.

Now, unless it is detrimental or damaging to me personally, I broadly accept what a figure in authority wants and expects. I may try to – constructively – add to or probe suggestions or directives, but I never try to undermine them.

This point leads directly on to the third kind of boundary – those established by function, social rank and the overall corporate culture/hierarchy. This moves us into the grey are of office politics and the issue of power.

The commentator I allude to above makes some pertinent points in this area in relation to Asperger syndrome. Firstly, employment is not a right, even though ones rights may be protected to a degree by legislation such as the Disability Discrimination Act, (DDA), in the UK.

This becomes even more important for managers to appreciate as they move up the corporate ladder. Here you have to increasingly prove – by merit – that you can tackle and deal with additional responsibilities but that you will also be socially (politically) adept and accepted by peers and subordinates. In other words, you can expect less consideration of, and protection from, simply having Asperger syndrome and revealing/divulging it.

Related to this is what the commentator describes as a “desert”, an area where others, not you, determine your suitability for promotion/elevation. If you do not posses the social/political skills which are increasingly important the higher you go up the corporate hierarchy, you will only get so far and no further.

For me this means adapting my boundaries of acting in certain Asperger ways: dressing corporately whilst comfortably or socialising more regularly in line with corporate expectations and requirements.

According to the second commentator, most people on the AS spectrum have allowed their own boundaries or requirements to dominate meaning they have forgotten those of other parties or the requirements (boundaries) within organisations.

There are a variety of AS related reasons for this of course: anxiety prevention, insufficient “theory-of-the-mind” capability, social uncertainty etc, but all can be limiting and, potentially, damaging. The key is to work on the other side: identifying and understanding the boundaries of others – and organisations – that exist.

All boundaries can be viewed as both limiting and opportunistic. By identifying and setting personal standards in your work space you can establish personal boundaries with others that convey either required distance or approachability.

You should try to be positive, but also need to know where to draw the line. Learn to do things the right way and make accommodations as required from having Asperger syndrome. Set boundaries that are acceptable to you within identified/required corporate parameters.

To help achieve this, I refer back to what the original commentator suggests: be more flexible and “lessen your own stringent personal demands!

Managing with Asperger Syndrome