Manage Negativity by Establishing Healthy Boundaries

Charlotte is a nurse leader who is concerned about the attitudes of the leaders and managers who report to her. She readily admits that they have weathered significant organizational changes in the last year, and she praises them for their efforts to absorb the transitions while continuing to provide excellent patient care.

Her concern has to do with the team’s poor morale. Here are some examples:

  1. They blame others for their circumstances, even though the organization has provided resources and assistance to help them through the significant transitions that have occurred.
  2. Some are dissatisfied with their jobs, but they are not initiating constructive conversations with those who can hear them out and help them adjust the job or change positions.
  3. A number of them are overly focused on what other people think and (apparently) feel about them.
  4. They speak like victims. They say things like “I was thrown into this role” even though their role changes occurred more than a year ago.
  5. When they hear their peers complain in side conversations, they join in and inadvertently amplify their problems. They do this in spite of Charlotte’s encouragement to publicly speak up and voice their concerns so they can be addressed.

The focus of this column is not on what Charlotte can do differently. My interest is in what her team members can do differently to help themselves and the organization, regardless of what senior leadership does or does not do.

What each of these leaders can do is pay close attention to his or her own boundaries. We sometimes think that healthy boundaries mean we appropriately differentiate between ourselves and other people, but healthy boundaries are also about how we treat ourselves. No matter how evolved our organizations are, it will always be up to us to pay attention to and support our own emotional health and well-being.

As leaders, none of us can afford to wait for someone else to take care of us and then blame them when they don’t. This may seem obvious, but when leaders perpetually engage in victimlike conversation and behaviors, they are giving away their professional and personal power. In effect, they are turning over their emotional health on the job to others. This is a mistake.

When we are professionals, other people are not and cannot be in charge of our self-respect and sense of well-being.

But what do the concepts of self-respect and well-being really mean when it comes to establishing boundaries that keep us well and whole at work? Here are some tips:

  1. Think about what self-respect and selfkindness mean for you. Many of us use the word “respect” when it comes to other people, but we are not always clear about the behaviors involved. In what ways do we demonstrate respect and kindness for others? Are those the same ways in which we demonstrate kindness and respect for ourselves? What are some specific examples of times in which you have been kind to yourself at work? How do you feel about yourself when you respect yourself in those ways?
  2. Practicing healthy boundaries means that we remember and own our part in our problems and challenges. This isn’t always easy. But it’s empowering when we realize that we may have some slice of responsibility, however small, for an outcome that isn’t to our liking. Identifying our part takes us out of blaming others (and disempowering ourselves) and puts us in a position to do something about what’s not working for us.
  3. Doing something about what is not working for us often means speaking up. This contrasts with arguing our points to our friends or recycling our complaints and bad feelings inside our own reads. When we neglect to say anything to those who can and should be aware of our concerns, we are not taking care of ourselves. Speaking up effectively means knowing our wants and our needs, and being able to articulate a rationale that’s appropriate for our organizational environment. It also means attending to the emotions that accompany what isn’t working for us. Speaking up effectively may require “rehearsals,” and if that’s true for you, you’re in good company. Many excellent leaders practice their words with trusted others in private before saying them “for real” when the stakes are high. Knowing how to name, honor, and express our feelings clearly and unemotionally is part of managing our boundaries and empowering ourselves.
  4. There are times when we are, in fact, “blameless” for circumstances that affect us greatly. Those are the situations in which we have no control. In those cases, what is our responsibility for moving forward in a way that is healthy for us and for those around us? How can we honor our emotions, upset as we may be, without having them upend our effectiveness as leaders and caregivers? What does self-respect look like in that case? Each of us has our own answers to these questions. What are yours?
  5. Self-awareness and reflection can help us strengthen our boundaries. Being cognizant of how much we focus on the opinions, actions, and feelings of other people gives us a clue as to whether we are overly focused on everybody else. Pulling some of that attention away from them and putting it onto ourselves permits us to know and value our own viewpoints as much as those of others. Doing this can help restore our well-being and selfrespect. In the end, Charlotte supported her team as they learned about, practiced, and eventually took on more ways of exhibiting healthy boundaries toward each other, the organization, and most importantly, themselves. They realized that allowing their own power to “leak” by blaming others, the institution, and the past was hurting themselves more than anyone else. Most important, they realized that they–and only they–were responsible for their own happiness on the job.

* This article was originally published in Nurse Leader

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