Be kind, but have boundaries

After yesterday’s post, Amy asked another question that I’m ill-equipped to answer, but I’m going to try anyway:

Ok, tough question: a thing I struggle with, (maybe as a woman or maybe just my family of origin), is me behaving in a kind manner often means being seen as inherently weak or (shudder) useable to others. Any insights into how a woman might reconcile or boundary that in a patriarchy?

Amy van der Hiel

I think a lot of people mistake kindness for weakness, and I’ve never understood it. Being kind is work. Being kind when you’re in a bad mood, unwell, or struggling is even more work. So, to anyone who equates kindness with weakness or gullibility, you’re just wrong and I’d love it if you’d stop.

I’ve seen “do no harm, but take no shit” around the internet, and I think “do no harm” is too low a bar, but I definitely agree with the sentiment. We all need to set boundaries, protect our inner peace and make sure we’re kind to ourselves.

I think this can be hard at work – we want to be available to our coworkers and be helpful, but that’s a trap. If we want to be present when we’re working, we need to set some boundaries and make sure we’re taking care of ourselves and our families.

As for how to set them as a woman, as not a woman, this is what I’ve observed: people will try to take advantage of them because they see it as weakness, but if you’re firm with them then hopefully they’ll stop. Hugs are a good example. I no longer just assume people are fine with hugs. I don’t even offer to someone I’ve not hugged before, because I know it’s one of those “openings” men take advantage of. I think setting a boundary that you don’t hug coworkers you don’t already have a close relationship where there won’t be misunderstandings is one a lot of my female coworkers have had – and yeah, it can be awkward, but I think the momentary awkwardness is better than any unintentional (or intentional) misunderstandings later.

Being kind to myself involves the following:

  • No arguing with strangers on the internet. It’s draining and not worth it to me. I just don’t engage, which means I definitely share less than I used to on social media.
  • Turn off all notifications outside of working hours except those that are related to a real emergency (PagerDuty, for example).
  • Don’t try to do more than one thing at a time. Multitasking is a myth and I can’t do my best work if I’m juggling too many things.
  • Treat no as a kindness. Saying yes to something I don’t have time for isn’t kind – because I’ll either not get it done, or I’ll half-ass it. If it’s really important, then something else will have to not happen.
  • Admitting when I’m not well, and taking time to recover. This one’s really hard, because I work from home so the bar to call in sick feels higher than it should be.

I think enumerating your boundaries, needs and wants is helpful. Once you know what they are, you can communicate them to your family, friends, manager and peers. I love having the “exchange of needs” conversation with my manager. It helps set expectations for both of us, and makes working together a lot easier – because we both know what to expect, and have easy ways to measure if we’re asking for something that’s beyond those expectations.

I think a lot of us grew up thinking that taking time for ourselves was selfish, and it just isn’t. We can’t be effective for others if we’re not kind to ourselves – and part of that kindness is balancing the giving with recovery and personal growth.

I hope this helps. Healthy boundaries create healthy relationships.