How to Set Boundaries: 14 Proven Practices

Many people struggle with setting and enforcing boundaries. It requires knowing their preferences and breaking points. It means being willing to assert their desires and needs. This is hard for many people, either due to their upbringing or personality—or both.

There are many advantages that come with getting good at this. For example, it can help us protect our emotional wellbeing, grow as a person, develop greater self-respect and confidence, protect our time and energy, avoid burnout, earn respect from others, and prevent unnecessary relationship conflicts.

When we set boundaries, we’re helping others interact more effectively with us. Sometimes we’re setting lines for ourselves that we resolve not to cross. We’re getting clear on what we’ll accept or tolerate.

Boundaries help us function effectively. They allow us to enjoy our life and work while also giving us a sense of control over our lives.

When we don’t set and enforce boundaries properly and consistently, we’re more prone to anxiety, frustration, and resentment. We get overcommitted, perhaps falling into overwork, workaholism, exhaustion, or burnout.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

How to Get Better at Setting Boundaries: 14 Proven Practices

Thankfully, there are many things we can do to get better at this. Here are 14 proven practices for setting and enforcing boundaries:

1. Recognize that setting and maintaining boundaries can benefit our lives greatly, including our work and our leadership. Given all the benefits, it’s well worth the effort. Also, it gets easier over time.

2. Realize that setting and enforcing boundaries is not just good for us but for everyone involved. Why? Because it creates clarity and generates mutual respect.

3. Avoid falling into the trap of overestimating the resistance that will come from setting boundaries. Our brains are good at generating fear and anticipating worst-case scenarios. Often, the reality is not nearly as bad as we fear when we get into worrying mode.

4. Stay focused on the higher purpose of setting boundaries instead of the down-side of the temporary awkwardness. When we set boundaries, it’s usually for a good and important reason such as protecting our wellbeing or reserving our time for our top priorities. In this light, it’s well worth a little temporary pain or awkwardness.

5. Evaluate our current boundaries to identify areas that need improvement. In particular, look for situations that often result in discomfort or resentment.

6. Take an inventory of boundary crossings that have happened. Thinking about these instances, focus especially on the people, the situations, and how they make us feel.

7. Determine new boundaries that we want to set and recommit to or update old boundaries. Our core values and current goals and priorities should inform these decisions. If we’re new to setting boundaries or have struggled with it in the past, we’re wise to start small and build out from there.

8. Communicate boundaries clearly. Sometimes, the problem is that we’re expecting people to read our minds and just know our boundaries. It’s a recipe for frustration and failure. Sometimes, we may want to explain our rationale so the person has context (e.g., “I’m fully booked now so I can’t help with that”). In other cases, we can leave it with a declaratory statement (“I can’t take that on”) or even just a simple “No.”

“No is a complete sentence.”
-Anne Lamott, writer

9. Be consistent in communicating and enforcing boundaries. This is key. It’s where the rubber meets the road. Without consistency, others are likely to get confused or forget, and that may take us back to square one. Better to do the hard work upfront and in the early stages until things start to take on a life of their own.

10. Develop our assertiveness, including getting better at saying “no” and saying it more often. We can focus on saying no to requests and opportunities that don’t align with our values or advance our priorities. We can avoid spending time with negative people who drag us down with their criticism, complaints, neediness, or narcissism. And we can decline opportunities or requests, so we don’t end up doing all the work ourselves (versus delegating things to others).

“The difference between successful people and really successful people
is that really successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.”
-Warren Buffett, chair and CEO, Berkshire Hathaway

11. Be kind but firm. Ideally, we come across as thoughtful and considerate while still assertive and clear. Sometimes, a little humor helps.

12. Get clear about who we are, what we value, and how we work best. When we’ve done this inner work, it allows us to set and enforce boundaries.

13. Set boundaries on our work time. For example, we can set a maximum number of hours we’ll work each week. We can limit email to certain hours, with rare exceptions only as needed. It helps to plan ahead—and be sure to identify and focus on our most important tasks.

14. Place boundaries around our emotional commitment to others. Boundaries aren’t just about our time. They’re also about the focus of our attention and emotions. It’s a trap to feel responsible for other people’s choices or their happiness or outcomes.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

Conclusion

Of course, setting and enforcing boundaries isn’t a one-and-done deal. It’s an ongoing process that requires reflection and course corrections. As we proceed with it, we must keep making judgments about when to be strict and when to make exceptions based on new information.

As we choose our boundaries, we should bear in mind that other people will make different choices about their boundaries. What works for us may not work for others. So, we should respect other people’s boundaries even as we fight for our own.

Also, it’s a mistake to think about boundaries only in the negative—only as things that we and others can’t do. Why? Because when we get good at setting and enforcing boundaries, it sets us up for all the positive things we actually want to do and experience. By setting limits, we gain freedom. We free up our time and energy to live life on our terms.

“Love yourself enough to set boundaries. Your time and energy are precious. You get to choose how you use it.
You teach people how to treat you by deciding what you will and won’t accept.”

-Anna Taylor, author

 

Tools for You

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

Related Traps

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Boundaries

  • “Half of the troubles of this life can be traced to saying yes too quickly and not saying no soon enough.” -Josh Billings, American humorist
  • “Givers need to set limits because takers rarely do.” -Rachel Wolchin, author

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, and TEDx speaker on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

How to Get Better at Asking for Help: 10 Tips

Many of us have a hard time asking for help.

Maybe we pride ourselves on being independent. Self-sufficient. A Lone Ranger.

There’s value in being self-sufficient, but when we’re too proud to ask for help it can be costly. It can keep us stuck in hardship and delay our advances, or lead to overwork and burnout. And it can inhibit close relationships with family and friends.

“Going it alone in times of hardship is never a good idea.”
-Jonathan Rauch, The Happiness Curve

Asking for help is an important skill that can aid us in all our endeavors, from living and loving to leading and learning. We’re wise to get good at it.

 

How to Get Better at Asking for Help: 10 Tips

Here are 10 things you can do to develop the useful skill of asking for help:

1. Notice that nobody succeeds without the help of others. Where would you be without the help of parents, teachers, coaches, teammates, colleagues, mentors, and friends?

2. Recognize that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. It means you’re committed to your goals and confident enough to show some vulnerability.

3. Realize that the alternative (not asking for help) means continuing your frustration and suffering.

4. Understand that your fears about asking for help are misplaced. Even the worst-case scenario probably isn’t so bad. Perhaps the person refuses to help or can’t right now. Maybe you feel a bit awkward or disappointed for five seconds. So what?

5. Recall that most people like to help others. It makes them feel good to contribute. Think about how you felt when you were asked for help. (1)

“How have you felt when you have helped others? I think we can agree that’s one of the great feelings, right?
Why would you deprive others of the same feeling?”

-Marshall Goldsmith, The Earned Life

6. Stop waiting so long to ask. Consider how much time you’ve already spent on the issue, whether it’s something you’re good at addressing, and whether there are better uses of your time and energy.

7. Trust others to set boundaries for themselves. They can always decline or chat further about the extent of help they may provide.

8. Tally the potential benefits of getting help. Maybe you’ll get fresh ideas or greater clarity about how to proceed. And in the process you may very well deepen your relationship with the person contributing.

9. Start small when trying this out and build from there. This will make it more manageable and less likely that you’ll abandon it.

10. Be open with others that it’s hard for you to ask for help, but you’re trying to get better. This will make it easier to ask when the time comes.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Tools for You

 

Related Traps

Goal-Setting Template

Goals are the desired results we hope to achieve—the object of our effort and ambition. Goals are common in our life and work, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at setting and achieving them. Use this Goal-Setting Template to set your goals properly, based on the research and best practice.

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Seeking Help

  • “If I can leave you with only one piece of advice to increase your probability of creating an earned life, it is this: Ask for help. You need it more than you know.” -Marshall Goldsmith, The Earned Life
  • “Isolation is fatal…. The burden of going it alone is heavy and limiting—and potentially dangerous…. In fact, social isolation can take up to seven years off of your life. Isolation contributes to heart disease and depression; it influences your immune system and leads to faster aging and advanced health problems.” -Richard Leider and Alan Webber, Life Reimagined
  • “Economists call it the warm glow of giving, and psychologists call it the helper’s high. Recent neuroscience evidence shows that giving actually activates the reward and meaning centers in our brains, which send us pleasure and purpose signals when we act for the benefit of others. These benefits are not limited to giving money: they also show up for giving time.” -Adam Grant, Give and Take

 

References

(1) According to a 2022 study by researchers Xuan Zhao and Nicholas Epley published in Psychological Science, “Those needing help consistently underestimated others’ willingness to help, underestimated how positively helpers would feel, and overestimated how inconvenienced helpers would feel…. Undervaluing prosociality could create a misplaced barrier to asking for help when needed.” (Source: Zhao, X., & Epley, N. (2022). Surprisingly Happy to Have Helped: Underestimating Prosociality Creates a Misplaced Barrier to Asking for Help. Psychological Science33(10), 1708–1731.) There’s also research noting that helping others may promote feelings of happiness, increase social connection and self-esteem, lower stress levels and blood pressure, and promote longevity. (Source: Oliver Scott Curry, Lee A. Rowland, Caspar J. Van Lissa, Sally Zlotowitz, John McAlaney, Harvey Whitehouse, Happy to help? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of performing acts of kindness on the well-being of the actor, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 76, 2018, 320–329.)

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, and TEDx speaker on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Getting Good at Asking for Help

Many people struggle with asking for help. It just doesn’t feel right, or it goes against their nature.

This fits with a narrative we’ve been fed all our lives. In our culture, we tend to worship the self-made man or woman. We’re told to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps (a truly ridiculous phrase, if we stop to think about it).

Perhaps we grew up admiring the Lone Ranger, Superman, Ironman, or Wonder Woman. It’s part of U.S. history, with the rugged individualism and self-reliance inherited and lionized from the frontier days of the Wild West.*

We value being independent and self-sufficient, a grinder who can push through hardship and get things done.

There’s surely value in much of this, but it comes with a hefty price. If we’re reluctant to ask for help, it can get us into big trouble in life by keeping us stuck or slowing down our advances.

Asking for help is an important life skill, work skill, and leadership skill. Those who struggle with it are wise to address it urgently.

“I respect and value the ideals of rugged individualism and self-reliance. But rugged individualism didn’t defeat the British, it didn’t get us to the moon, build our nation’s highways, or map the human genome. We did that together.”
-Cory Booker, U.S. Senator, former Mayor of Newark

 

The Problem with Not Getting Help

When we fail to reach out and ask for help, we’re more likely to get and stay stuck. We’re more likely to struggle with overwork and burnout. And we’re bound to experience the emptiness of going it alone.

It can prevent us from maintaining closeness with friends and family. When we let our relationships and social ties lapse, it reduces our happiness and can lead to anxiety or depression.

 

Types of Help

Since many people aren’t accustomed to seeking and accepting help, they may not be clear on the many distinct types of help available to them. For example, types of help we can receive include:

  1. listening as we process difficult emotions
  2. sharing their experience with similar challenges
  3. brainstorming potential solutions
  4. serving as a sounding board
  5. providing input and feedback
  6. reviewing our work for errors or things we’ve missed
  7. encouraging us to stay the course despite challenges
  8. giving advice or counsel
  9. teaching us a new skill
  10. asking tough questions
  11. holding us accountable to our commitments
  12. introducing us to people who can help

At any given time, any one of these can be significant. We’re wise to be open to them so we can operate at our best.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

What Prevents Us from Asking for Help

We may “get” the conceptual case for seeking help, but that doesn’t make it easy to do. There are many reasons we may be reluctant to do so, including that we:

  • don’t want to feel stupid or embarrassed
  • are too proud
  • don’t want to be a bother
  • are too shy
  • would rather just figure it out on our own
  • are afraid of appearing weak, stupid, or incompetent (at work here is the deeply mistaken belief that vulnerability is weakness)
  • fear rejection
  • worry about losing status (e.g., tarnishing our image of being a go-getter) or control
  • don’t want to feel beholden to others
  • believe we don’t deserve help

Sometimes, we can trace one or more of these common thoughts and feelings to a source. For example, maybe someone criticized or belittled us as a kid when we asked for help. According to Deborah Grayson Riegel, coauthor of Go To Help: 31 Strategies to Offer, Ask For, and Accept Help, “starting at about seven years old, we start to associate asking for help with reputational costs. We’ve been conditioned to think ‘They’re going to think I’m dumb/bad/lazy/weak if I admit I need help.’”

Additionally, we may have inherited a personality trait that makes it difficult to ask for help. For example, perfectionists often insist on doing everything on their own because they feel strongly that things must be done a certain way and believe it’s better just to do it all themselves—even though that often makes them a bottleneck and prone to overload.

Our mindset is also relevant here. Dr. Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychologist, distinguishes between a fixed mindset (in which we believe our intelligence, abilities, and talents are static and fixed) and a “growth mindset” (in which we believe we can develop them). A fixed mindset, she argues, leads to a desire to look smart in front of others, making it harder for us to ask for help.

Our personal core values can also get in the way. Those who have self-reliance as a core value, for instance, may pride themselves on being able to manage things on their own. Or perhaps we identify as a high-performer and overachiever and feel like it’s beneath us to ask for help, or we’re a martyr and wish to make others feel guilty for our suffering.

Cultural influences are also relevant. Many Western societies value individualism, as do many families and organizations. It’s part of their ethos. People don’t want to ask for help in cultures where it’s looked down upon.

Finally, we often misjudge how others will respond to our requests. According to a 2022 study by researchers Xuan Zhao and Nicholas Epley published in Psychological Science:

“Those needing help consistently underestimated others’ willingness to help, underestimated how positively helpers would feel, and overestimated how inconvenienced helpers would feel…. Undervaluing prosociality could create a misplaced barrier to asking for help when needed.” **

There’s research indicating that serving others may promote feelings of happiness, increase social connection and self-esteem, lower stress levels and blood pressure, and promote longevity. *** In other words, when we ask for help, in some ways we’re helping those we’re asking, because it allows them to do things that help them enjoy life and thrive. It’s called the “helper’s high.”

“The person who is being asked to help also gets a huge benefit from being in that position. They are strengthening social ties and they are able to feel generous. Asking for help is quite generative for both parties.”
-Dr. Pooja Lakshmin, M.D.

At the World Economic Forum, Bill Gates said, “there are two great forces of human nature: self-interest, and caring for others,” and we’re most successful when we’re driven by a “hybrid” engine of those two forces.

 

The Benefits of Seeking Help

Getting good at asking for help can lead to big wins in our life and work, because it can affect so many things. For example, it can help us deepen our relationship with others, because asking for help involves courage, vulnerability, authenticity, and trust, which are powerful connecting forces in relationships.

“We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness, and affection.”
-Brene Brown, researcher, speaker, and author

Asking for help can help us gain clarity on the issue at hand as we describe it to others. It can set up a powerful dynamic of reciprocity that benefits all. And it can inspire others to stop going it alone and ask for help more as well.

In her book, Daring Greatly, Brene Brown recounted the personal implications of this in her life:

“…my greatest personal and professional transformations happened when I started asking hard questions about how my fear of being vulnerable was holding me back and when I found the courage to share my struggles and ask for help…. I also learned that the people who love me, the people I really depend on, were never critics who were pointing at me while I stumbled. They weren’t in the bleachers at all. They were with me in the arena. Fighting for me and with me…. Sometimes out first and greatest dare is asking for support.”

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

How to Get Better at Asking for Help

Though it’s sometimes hard to ask for help, thankfully there are many things we can do to develop this valuable skill. For example, we can:

  1. recognize that asking for help is a strength, not a weakness, because it means we’re committed to our goals and confident enough to demonstrate some vulnerability
  2. consider that the alternative (not asking for help) means continuing our frustration or suffering
  3. recognize that nobody succeeds in life without the help of many people from different areas of life (e.g., parents, teachers, coaches, mentors, friends, even rivals sometimes)
  4. recognize that our fears about asking for help (e.g., that we’ll lose status) are misplaced, given all the research on how people underestimate others’ willingness to help
  5. recall that most people like to help others, as it makes them feel good
  6. evaluate whether it’s a good time to ask for help, given that most people tend to wait too long to do so (good things to consider include how much time we’ve already spent on the issue at hand, whether we have the time to keep working on it alone, whether it’s something we’re good at solving, and whether there are better uses of our time and energy)
  7. trust others to set boundaries for themselves and say “no” if warranted
  8. flip the script and recall times when people asked us for help and whether that made us feel burdened and resentful or glad to be asked and happy to help
  9. consider the worst-case scenario (i.e., the person refuses to help or can’t right now, and perhaps we feel awkward for a bit)
  10. tally the potential benefits of getting help (e.g., having more bright people working on potential solutions or sharing how they’ve solved a similar problem, as well as the support and solidarity that may arise)
  11. start small when first learning to ask for help, and build out from there (this will make it more manageable and less likely that we’ll abandon it)
  12. share with others that we struggle with asking for help but want to improve (this will make it easier to ask when the time comes and help us be accountable for improving)
  13. set a target for how many “asks” we’ll make in a week or month—and keep track

 

Things to Do When Making the Ask

Sometimes it’s helpful to address the mechanics of how exactly to go about asking for help. Here are some tips:

Do substantial initial work and thinking on the issue before turning to others. Don’t be the person who goes straight to asking others without putting in some initial thought or work, as that can drift into taking advantage of them. Sometimes, Google and YouTube searches can go a long way.

Ask in person or by videoconference or phone and not email or text, if possible. That will help make it more personal. (According to the research, in-person requests are much more successful anyway.)****

Provide enough information and context for the person to make an informed decision about whether and how they can help. The more clarity and transparency upfront, the better.

Respect their time, expertise, context, and preferences.

Be specific on what the ask is and isn’t, with clear boundaries, including why it matters to us and how we think the person we’re asking can contribute. Many experts recommend making what they call “SMART” requests for help, an acronym that stands for Specific, Meaningful, Action-oriented, Realistic, and Time-bound. The clearer we can be on exactly what kind of help we want and need, including the time and resources involved, the better. But even while we make our requests specific, we should be open to new information as we learn what people know, who they know, and how they can help. Let the people we’re asking for help decide how much help they can offer (or not)—and how.

Don’t apologize for asking and don’t minimize the request. That can take away from the other person’s generosity. Be straightforward and matter-of-fact.

Don’t emphasize reciprocity when making the ask. By promising a return favor, we risk turning the request from altruistic and noble to transactional.

Follow up afterward to thank them and let them know how things went (and, ideally, what impact they made).

Watch out for the “illusion of transparency” (the mistaken belief that our thoughts, feelings, and needs are obvious to others). Don’t expect people to read our minds about what we want and need. Also, watch out for the “curse of knowledge” (when better informed people find it difficult to adopt the perspective of others—or subconsciously assuming others know what you know about a topic or situation).

Recognize that it can take time to become comfortable with and good at asking for help, because old habits die hard. We can surely get better at it with practice. According to Dr. Wayne Baker, faculty director of the Center for Positive Organizations and the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, “You’re working to become desensitized to the fear of what might happen when you ask for help.”

Develop this practice into a habit, not a one-and-done activity.

Ensure this is reciprocal. If we want help from others, we must be willing to give help—and sometimes actively to seek ways to help others (but without being needy about it). Ideally, we can earn help from others by being a helpful person—not just once but consistently over time. Still, someone has to start the cycle of helping first, which means that someone needs to receive help first.

Try a “reciprocity ring,” a fun and rewarding approach created by Wayne and Cheryl Baker. In such a ring, a group convenes so that each person can ask for something they need and can’t easily get or do themselves. As each person takes a turn articulating their request, the others think about the resources they might have to help. They can make as many offers of help as they like. Even if they can’t help personally, they can connect the person to someone in their network who might be able to help. Such a practice is powerful because reciprocity is hardwired into our brains, and it can normalize the act of asking for help.

 

Implication for Leaders

Leaders are wise to create a culture in their team or organization in which asking for help is not only encouraged and common but also rewarded. At IDEO, designers receive coaching on this and executives model it. And at Zingerman’s, a Midwestern food company, all attendees at the induction of new managing partners state what they’ll do to help each new partner succeed. The company’s founding partners participate as well, sending an important message from the top.

Notably, asking for help can help reduce burnout levels in organizations. A global study conducted by Rebecca Zucker from Next Step Partners found that lack of help-seeking was one of the top two predictors of feeling overwhelmed at work. Those who don’t ask for help, she found, scored 23% higher on overwhelm.

 

Conclusion

For many, asking for help is difficult—and one of the most important skills we can develop because of the connections and breakthroughs it can engender.

Be patient with this process. It may take time, because it involves unlearning old habits. But it’s well worth it.

“If I can leave you with only one piece of advice to increase your probability of creating an earned life, it is this:
Ask for help. You need it more than you know.”
-Marshall Goldsmith, The Earned Life

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Are you in the habit of powering through adversity without asking for help—or even considering it?
  2. Do you wait too long before seeking help, wasting precious time along the way?
  3. In what areas are you comfortable asking for help?
  4. In which cases did you not ask for help when you should have, and why?
  5. What will you do today to develop this important skill?

 

Tools for You

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Related Traps

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Seeking Help

  • “Going it alone in times of hardship is never a good idea.” -Jonathan Rauch, The Happiness Curve
  • “When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability. To be alive is to be vulnerable.” -Madeleine L’Engle, writer
  • “Until we can receive with an open heart, we are never really giving with an open heart.” -Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
  • “Isolation is fatal…. The burden of going it alone is heavy and limiting—and potentially dangerous…. In fact, social isolation can take up to seven years off of your life. Isolation contributes to heart disease and depression; it influences your immune system and leads to faster aging and advanced health problems.” -Richard Leider and Alan Webber, Life Reimagined
  • “Economists call it the warm glow of giving, and psychologists call it the helper’s high. Recent neuroscience evidence shows that giving actually activates the reward and meaning centers in our brains, which send us pleasure and purpose signals when we act for the benefit of others. These benefits are not limited to giving money: they also show up for giving time.” -Adam Grant, Give and Take
  • “How have you felt when you have helped others? I think we can agree that’s one of the great feelings, right? Why would you deprive others of the same feeling?” -Marshall Goldsmith, The Earned Life

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

* There are cultural differences at work here. For example, many Western societies value individualism, while East Asian and Latin American societies tend to place a greater value on the group, the community, and the collective.

** Zhao, X., & Epley, N. (2022). Surprisingly Happy to Have Helped: Underestimating Prosociality Creates a Misplaced Barrier to Asking for Help. Psychological Science33(10), 1708–1731.

*** Oliver Scott Curry, Lee A. Rowland, Caspar J. Van Lissa, Sally Zlotowitz, John McAlaney, Harvey Whitehouse, Happy to help? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of performing acts of kindness on the well-being of the actor, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 76, 2018, 320–329.

**** M. Mahdi Roghanizad, Vanessa K. Bohns, Ask in person: You’re less persuasive than you think over email, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 69, 2017, 223–226,

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Setting Boundaries—Why It’s Hard and How to Do It

Article Summary: 

Setting boundaries is one of the hardest things for many people to do but it’s a powerful and empowering personal development practice. And costly if we don’t do it well. This article addresses why it’s hard, its benefits, and how to do it well.

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Boundaries are dividing lines that mark the limits of an area. If we pause to notice, we can see boundaries all around us. The boundary of our body. Our apartment walls or home and property line. State and national borders. The boundaries of sports. In soccer, it’s sidelines, penalty areas, goals, and goal posts. With basketball, it’s sidelines, free-throw lines, three-point lines, and more. In track and field, it’s running lanes. And in many sports, the clock serves as a time boundary, delineating quarters, periods, or halves, and perhaps overtime.

In life, setting boundaries is about identifying ways for others to behave towards us—and also setting lines for ourselves that we resolve not to cross. Our personal boundaries set a limit on what we’ll accept or tolerate.

We need boundaries to function effectively in and enjoy our life and work. They’re there for our protection and wellbeing, and they can give us a sense of control over our lives.

 

The Problem with Not Having Boundaries

Lack of boundaries can lead to many negative consequences, including:

  • negative emotions like anxiety, frustration, resentment
  • overcommitment and a sense of “time poverty” (“the chronic feeling of having too many things to do and not enough time to do them”)
  • overwork or workaholism
  • exhaustion and burnout
  • numbing behaviors (escaping from our thoughts and feelings by doing other things like shopping, eating, binge watching, or doom scrolling)
“When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated.”
-Brené Brown, researcher and author

 

Boundary Types and Examples

To understand boundaries, it helps to consider their different types and see examples of them in action. There are many different types of boundaries, including:

  1. Physical boundaries (e.g., whether we hug or shake hands with people we meet, what we do with our bodies, who we allow into our personal space and under what conditions)
  2. Emotional boundaries (e.g., whether we take on other people’s emotional burdens or allow their moods to change ours)
  3. Relationship boundaries (e.g., how we let others talk to or treat us, such as whether we tolerate disrespect, dishonesty, wasting our time, belittling, bullying, etc.)
  4. Privacy boundaries (e.g., deciding what personal information we choose to share and with whom, when, and where)
  5. Conversational boundaries (e.g., whether there are topics—like politics and religion—we choose not to discuss with certain people or in certain circumstances because they may be awkward, painful, volatile, or triggering)
  6. Work boundaries (e.g., whether we allow ourselves to get overcommitted, whether we take on the workloads of colleagues who are slacking, whether we work on weekends or check email on vacation)
  7. Self-care boundaries (e.g., whether we have good sleeping, eating, and exercise habits, whether we check our phones first thing in the morning and/or last thing before bed, how much time we spend on our devices)
  8. Ethical boundaries (e.g., whether we harm, deceive, or manipulate others, whether we look the other way or cover for people when they’re doing bad things)
  9. Financial boundaries (e.g., what to purchase, how much to spend, whether we choose to lend people money and, if so, who, when, how, and how much)
  10. Sexual boundaries (e.g., which kinds of intimate behaviors we’re comfortable with or not)

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Causes of Poor Boundaries

For many, it’s not easy to draw the line, say no, and enforce boundaries. It requires knowing our preferences and breaking points as well as being willing to assert our desires and needs.

“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.”
-Brené Brown, researcher and author

Why is it hard? Many reasons, including that we may:

  • find it stressful and draining to have such awkward or difficult conversations, or feel guilty about asking for what we want or need
  • be afraid of harming our relationships
  • suffer from self-doubt or low self-esteem
  • fear of judgment
  • feel undeserving or unworthy
  • focus too much on others’ needs
  • care too much about what others think of us
  • struggle with perfectionism 
  • have people-pleasing tendencies
  • lack clarity about what we want and where we’re going, thus making it difficult to know where to draw the line to protect those priorities
  • not be in touch with our emotions and their causes (that is, not connecting the dots between our anxiety and people making us uncomfortable with certain behaviors)
  • have experienced previous boundary-crossing, betrayal, violence, or trauma, which can damage or destroy our self-esteem and make it harder for us to set boundaries
“People-pleasing is not who we are; we’re living a lie. So, if we don’t say yes authentically, we say it resentfully, fearfully, and avoidantly, and that leads to far more problems than if we’d just said no in the first place. Find your no, find yourself, find your joy.”
-Natalie Lue, author, The Joy of Saying No

 

The Benefits of Boundaries

Getting good at setting and enforcing boundaries can lead to big wins in our life and work, because it can affect so many things. Setting healthy boundaries can help us:

  • protect our personal space, safety, and energy
  • feel less anxiety, anger, frustration, and resentment
  • enhance our mental health and protect our emotional wellbeing
  • build and maintain a strong identity
  • develop greater self-respect and confidence
  • get clear on who we are, what we want, and our core values and belief systems
  • develop independence
  • grow as a person
  • protect our time and energy and thereby avoid burnout
  • manage our life, work, time, and relationships more effectively and with greater ease
  • develop and maintain healthy and positive relationships with mutual trust
  • earn respect from others
  • prevent relationship conflicts
  • positively influence others
“Setting emotional boundaries prevents people from manipulating you, using you, and playing with your feelings.”
-Remez Sasson, author

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How to Get Better at Setting Boundaries

We know it’s hard for many people to set and enforce boundaries. It’s easier said than done! So, how can we get better at it? Here are some effective approaches:

Recognize that setting and keeping boundaries can add great value to our lives. It’s well worth the effort, and it gets easier over time. Note all the benefits above and consider the personal empowerment and freedom they can bring.

Recognize that setting and keeping boundaries is not just good for us but for all involved because it creates clarity and mutual respect. It’s not an unreasonable or selfish endeavor. Far from it.

Evaluate our current boundaries (if we have any), including whether there are situations that often result in discomfort or resentment.

Take an emotional inventory of potential boundary crossings, including the people we’re spending time with, the situations we’re in, and how they’re making us feel. This requires tapping into or further developing our self-awareness and emotional intelligence to help us gauge our comfort level. A little self-reflection goes a long way here.

Determine new boundaries and recommit to or update old boundaries, ideally informed by our core values and current goals and priorities. If we’re new to setting or enforcing boundaries, it may be wise to start small and build from there. The earlier we start, the better, so we can work through conversations and make adjustments before getting too far down the road.

Communicate boundaries clearly. In some cases, we may want to explain our rationale so the person has context (e.g., “I’m fully booked now so I just can’t help with that,” or “I’m exhausted from a bunch of things lately so I can’t get together this week”). In other cases, we can leave it with a simple statement (“I can’t take that on,” “That doesn’t work for me”) or even just a straightforward “No.”

“No is a complete sentence.”
-Anne Lamott, writer

Be as consistent as possible in communicating and enforcing boundaries, lest others get confused or forget.

Work on developing our assertiveness, including self-advocacy and getting better at saying “no”—and saying it more often. For example, we can focus on saying no to:

  • requests and opportunities that don’t align with our values or further our personal or professional priorities
  • spending time with negative people who drag us down with their criticism, complaints, or excessive neediness
  • doing all the work ourselves (versus delegating to others) or overworking, in the process sacrificing our health and important relationships
“The difference between successful people and really successful people
is that really successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.”
-Warren Buffett, legendary investor

Strike a good balance between being kind but firm. We should work at being thoughtful and understanding while still clear and assertive. Sometimes, a little humor or levity can go a long way in dialing tensions down.

Get as clear as we can about who we are, what we value, and how we work best. Doing that allows us to set and enforce boundaries. Incidentally, if we’re doing a good job of protecting our boundaries, over time we’ll be filling more of our days with productive and enjoyable activities. In essence, we’re crowding out the bad stuff with the good stuff.

Set boundaries around our emotional commitment to others (e.g., avoiding the trap of feeling responsible for their choices or their happiness or outcomes).

Set boundaries on our work time. For example, set a weekly maximum number of hours and limit email to certain hours, with rare exceptions only as needed.* It helps to plan ahead so we can use our time intentionally and effectively. And it helps to remember the “80/20 rule” (a.k.a., “Pareto Principle”), a power law distribution suggesting that about 80% of our results typically come from 20% of our efforts. So, we’re wise to determine and focus on our most productive tasks. (See the Appendix below for tools that support our time boundaries.)

 

Conclusion

Of course, setting and enforcing boundaries is an ongoing process, not a one-and-done deal. As we do it, we must keep making judgments about when to be strict and rigid and when to make exceptions or changes based on new information or factors.

Also, it’s a mistake to think about boundaries only in the negative—only as things that we and others can’t do. Why? Because when we set and enforce boundaries, it sets us up for all the positive things we can experience within those bounds. It helps facilitate all the things we want to do and will allow, without having to worry about the stresses and resentment of being defensive and fighting back against potential incursions.

Having boundaries frees up our time and energy to live the life we want.

As we work through this process, we’re wise to recognize that, since people are so different, they’re likely to make different choices—and sometimes vastly different choices—about their boundaries. What boundaries work for one person may not work at all for others. So, we need to advocate for our own boundaries while also helping people advocate for their own—and respecting their choices even as we fight for ours.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Which boundaries are most important to you, and why?
  2. What boundaries are easier for you to set and enforce?
  3. Which boundaries do you struggle with, and why?
  4. Do those boundary struggles tend to involve certain people and/or certain situations, places, or times?
  5. What more will you do to set and enforce healthy boundaries, starting today?

 

Tools for You

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Related Traps

 

Appendix: Tools that Help Protect Our Time

There are many tools that can help us protect our time. Here are several:

  1. Ivy Lee Method: give ourselves no more than six important tasks per day, listed from most important to least important. Then address them in order of priority, only moving to the next task after completing the current one.

  1. Eisenhower Decision Matrix (a.k.a., Urgent-Important Matrix): distinguish between tasks that are urgent (time-sensitive, demanding immediate attention) and important (contributing to our long-term purpose and vision), using a simple matrix.

  1. Warren Buffett’s Two Lists: write down our top 25 goals, then circle our five highest priorities from that longer list. From there, choose only to pursue the top five—“avoiding at all costs,” as Buffett says, working on the other 20.

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Boundaries

  • “Love yourself enough to set boundaries. Your time and energy are precious. You get to choose how you use it. You teach people how to treat you by deciding what you will and won’t accept.” -Anna Taylor, author
  • “Setting boundaries is a way of caring for myself. It doesn’t make me mean, selfish, or uncaring (just) because I don’t do things your way.” -Christine Morgan, psychotherapist
  • “Half of the troubles of this life can be traced to saying yes too quickly and not saying no soon enough.” -Josh Billings, American humorist
  • “It’s OK to do what is YOURS to do. Say what’s yours to say. Care about what’s yours to care about.” -Nadia Bolz-Weber, Lutheran minister
  • “Givers need to set limits because takers rarely do.” -Rachel Wolchin, author

* According to a February 2023 Pew Research Center study, workers with postgraduate degrees and higher incomes were most likely to report that they regularly respond to work emails and messages outside of work hours.

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, and TEDx speaker on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Gratitude and Recognition in the Workplace–The Benefits and Top Practices

Gratitude and Recognition in the Workplace— The Benefits and Top Practices

We don’t need to look at the data on “quiet quitting” and the “great resignation” to understand that many workers today feel undervalued and underappreciated. They feel like disposable widgets in a heartless organization.

Though recognition is a fundamental human need, many managers think that having a job and salary with benefits should be thanks enough for their workers. Those managers may not only be stressed but also unappreciated themselves.

But they’re missing something fundamental. In a previous article, “The Trap of Not Being Grateful for What We Have,” we saw that gratitude can lead to better moods, more happiness, better sleep, lower blood pressure, less stress, and more

What about gratitude at work?

 

10 Benefits of Gratitude in the Workplace

According to researchers, gratitude and appreciation in the workplace can:

  1. boost worker health, wellbeing, and optimism
  2. help improve the work environment and organizational culture
  3. facilitate closer and better relationships among co-workers and between works and their managers
  4. help managers be more effective
  5. help protect workers from stress and burnout
  6. help make workers more enthusiastic about their work and motivated to do a better job
  7. help reduce employee turnover
  8. produce more trust and teamwork
  9. generate higher job satisfaction
  10. lead to better performance
“…study after study has shown that no one is immune from the motivating effects of acknowledgement and thanks.”
Mark Goulston, “How to Give a Meaningful ‘Thank You,’” Harvard Business Review, February 2013

Here’s a sample of some of the research on gratitude and recognition in the workplace:

  • According to a 2023 Great Place to Work survey, recognition was named by workers as the most important driver of great work.
  • In a Glassdoor survey, 81% of workers reported they’re motivated to work harder when their manager shows appreciation for their work.
  • In another survey, 40% of working Americans say they’d put more energy into their work if they were recognized more often for their efforts.
Research on gratitude and appreciation demonstrates that when employees feel valued, they have high job satisfaction, are willing to work longer hours, engage in productive relationships with co-workers and supervisors,
are motivated to do their best, and work towards achieving the company’s goals.
Christine M. Riordan, “Foster a Culture of Gratitude,” Harvard Business Review, April 2013

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The Problem with Lacking Gratitude and Recognition

It also cuts the other way. Problems abound when gratitude and recognition are missing at work.

In a January 2023 Workhuman report, 46% of workers reported feeling only somewhat valued and 11% reported not feeling valued at all in their workplaces. What’s more, those numbers are worse for women and workers of color, with 48.8% of women and 49.3% of workers of color reporting that they feel undervalued.

According to a 2023 Wakefield survey of 400 U.S. adults, 42% of workers overall say their organization lacks the strong culture of appreciation that’s essential for their success. It also found that workers who feel appreciated are more than seven times more likely to feel completely secure in their jobs.

In a 2022 poll, 59% of workers reported that they’ve never had a boss who truly appreciates their work, and 29% say they’d willingly give up a weeks’ worth of pay for more recognition from their employer.

According to a 2021 survey of 1,417 American workers, 49% of the workers said they had quit a job before because of a lack of recognition. And according to a study of 1,714 adults conducted by Harris Interactive for the American Psychological Association, half of all workers who say that they do not feel valued at work reported that they intend to look for a new job in the next year.

People may take a job for more money, but they often leave it for more recognition.”
-Dr. Bob Nelson

 

8 Ways to Bring More Gratitude into Our Workplaces

Worker recognition is a $46 billion market globally. Based on the data above, though, it’s clear that many managers and or have much work to do on this important front.

According to a Templeton Foundation survey, of all the places people express gratitude, workplaces are among the places where people are least likely to express it. What a shame.

What to do? Below is a punch list of gratitude-related workplace practices. (As you read through it, use it as a checklist to determine how you’re doing in each area—and consider getting input from your team as well.)

Employ simple expressions of appreciation via notes, letters, or emails. These can be surprisingly powerful for the recipient, especially since many people almost never receive thanks or praise in the workplace.

Launch appreciation programs and success celebrations (e.g., of accomplishments, launches, retirements, etc.) via events, newsletter features, appreciation parties, etc.

Create opportunities for workers to interact with their customers, users, or other beneficiaries of their products and services. This helps them get a sense of the value experienced.

Give simple gifts or rewards. This can be free meals, gift cards, event tickets, or company swag (tech accessories, bags, drinkware).

Encourage peer-to-peer recognition among workers. This can be done via thank-you notes or in meetings.

Give gratitude journals to workers to help them keep gratitude top of mind.

Educate workers about the benefits of gratitude and the many different gratitude practices they can consider. Distribute blogs, articles, videos, or books. (See my previous article, “The Trap of Not Being Grateful for What We Have.”)

Initiate a 30-Day Gratitude Challenge. Some tips on how to go about it:

  • Make an organization-wide announcement so people understand what it is and how it will work.
  • Ensure that the senior management team is actively involved with and communicating about it far and wide.
  • Promote it creatively via promotional materials (posters, flyers, etc.) and social media.
  • Consider providing incentives for participation, such as gift cards, meals, or a half-day Friday.
Take time to appreciate employees and they will reciprocate in a thousand ways.
Dr. Bob Nelson, expert on worker recognition

Leadership Derailers Assessment

Take this assessment to identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness. A critical and often overlooked tool for your leadership development.

 

How to Do It Well

In addition to the “what” of workplace gratitude and recognition efforts, it’s also important to think about the “how.” Some tips:

  1. Workplace gratitude and recognition efforts don’t have to be big and complicated. They’re often better when they’re simple and straightforward.
  2. Recognize people and express gratitude to them both in private sometimes and in public other times. Both are necessary.
  3. Thank people at key moments. It can be in the middle of a big push, during a stressful period, or after a big win. Pay attention to timing. Thank people immediately or very soon after the relevant action.
  4. Express appreciation for going above and beyond the call of duty. Acknowledge the effort and sacrifices involved with their work. Share what it means to you and the organization.
  5. Ensure expressions of appreciation are specific, relevant, and authentic. They can also be spontaneous. Standard, generic thank-you’s can be counterproductive.
  6. Personalize the thanks and recognition. Tailor them to the recipient.
  7. Pay attention to frequency. Many leaders don’t recognize and thank their people nearly enough. Researchers* have identified three levels of gratitude in the workplace:
    • Episodic gratitude, in which workers feel grateful for a particular experience.
    • Persistent gratitude, in which workers have a stable tendency to feel grateful for their organization or work context.
    • Collective gratitude, in which many, most, or all the members of an organization feel persistent gratitude. Why not shoot for more persistent and collective gratitude?
  8. Add in some creativity and fun. Many of us have sterile and joyless workplaces that lack life and heart. What a shame. In their book, The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership, Jim Dethmer, Diana Chapman, and Kaley Warner Klemp noted a clever example in which a couple weeks before the year-end holiday party, the organization asked workers to write three to five qualities that they most appreciated about each member of their team. The organization gathered all the qualities listed for each person and turned them into a word cloud. At the party, the word clouds were displayed anonymously around the room, with names hidden. Workers were asked to guess which word cloud was theirs, and they held a contest to see how many people could be correctly identified via the word clouds.
  9. Smart leaders also build celebrations into the rhythm of their organizations. In their book, Corporate Celebration: Play, Purpose, and Profit at Work, Terrence Deal and M. K. Key outline different types of celebration at work, including:
    • Celebrations with seasonal themes or organizational anniversaries
    • Recognition ceremonies
    • Celebrations of collective accomplishments (e.g., new office or product launch)
    • Personal transitions: entrances and exits
  10. Make sure no one is left out in the larger scheme of gratitude and recognition efforts over time. Appreciation is especially important for front-line workers who often bear the brunt of customer complaints. Think of salespeople, service personnel, customer support staff, and call center workers—and how cruel and vindictive stressed-out customers can be sometimes.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

The Dark Side of Gratitude in the Workplace

The benefits of gratitude are clear and powerful, but as with most things, there are some nuances to consider. In some cases, dynamics around gratitude can become problematic, according to researchers. For example, it can cause resentment if gratitude becomes like a type of currency in a relationship or team, with one or more people feeling underpaid or exploited. Also, those who receive large gifts or favors may struggle to establish appropriate boundaries, in part due to expectations around reciprocity.

We should also be wary of gratitude that’s based on flawed foundations like obligation, shame, or guilt. Some people, including narcissistic or toxic leaders, may seek to manipulate people via gratitude. For example, if we feel we should be grateful to our boss for our job, it can make us blind to their flaws and harms. That gratitude can also make us more willing to violate our values to protect them if they misbehave.

Researchers have also found that gratitude in the workplace can solidify existing power structures, with low-power group members dependent on high-power ones, and high-power group members pacifying low-power group members with expressions of gratitude. (For more on this, see “Gratitude Traps: Why We Should be Critical of Gratefulness.”)

 

Conclusion

Too many workers today feel undervalued and unappreciated. Gratitude and recognition are key components leaders can employ to humanize the workplace, giving people a sense of pride and belonging for their efforts and contributions.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. How are you doing when it comes to recognizing and thanking your colleagues?
  2. Have you checked with your team or surveyed your organization to determine how well you’re doing with gratitude and recognition—and in which areas you need work?
  3. What more will you do on this important front, starting today?

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Related Articles

 

Tools for You

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Gratitude in the Workplace

  • “When a manager recognizes an employee’s behavior, personally and sincerely, both feel proud, gratified, and happy. There’s a human connection that transcends the immediate culture to create a shared bond. The power of this bond is stronger than you might think; indeed, it’s the power that holds together great organizational cultures.” -Erik Mosley and Derek Irvine
  • “Employees who report receiving recognition and praise within the last seven days show increased productivity, get higher scores from customers, and have better safety records. They’re just more engaged at work.” -Tom Rath, author and consultant
  • “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.” -Max DePree, former CEO of Herman Miller and leadership author

* Source: Fehr, Ryan & Fulmer, Ashley & Awtrey, Eli & Miller, Jared. (2016). The Grateful Workplace: A Multilevel Model of Gratitude in Organizations. The Academy of Management Review. 42. See also Waters, L. (2012). Predicting Job Satisfaction: Contributions of Individual Gratitude and Institutionalized Gratitude. Psychology, 3, 1174-1176.

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Self-Deception: Why We Do It and How to Stop It

Self-Deception: Why We Do It and How to Stop It by Gregg Vanourek

Article Summary:

What self-deception is, including examples and signs of it, where it comes from, its high costs (as well as some benefits), how it degrades our leadership, and what to do about it.

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We all do it. We engage in self-deception—hiding the truth from ourselves about our true feelings, motives, or circumstances. When we’re deceiving ourselves, we’re denying evidence, logic, or reality and rationalizing choices or behaviors to serve a false narrative. We’re not seeing or viewing things accurately. Our self-deception can be conscious or unconscious, controlled or automatic, acute or chronic.

You can fool yourself, you know. You’d think it’s impossible, but it turns out it’s the easiest thing of all.”
-Jodi Picoult, Vanishing Acts

Self-deception is often a defense mechanism used for self-protection, and it can be used for self-enhancement. But it often becomes a form of self-sabotage and betrayal because it denies reality. When we deceive ourselves, we become our own enemy posing as a friend. Self-deception can involve denial of hard truths, minimization of painful matters, or projection of fault onto others.

We do not deal much in fact when we are contemplating ourselves.
-Mark Twain

 

Examples of Self-Deception in Action

Self-deception is tricky because we’re often not aware of it when we’re doing it. (That’s how good we are at it.)

But if we took the time to look for it earnestly, we’d likely find many examples of it in our lives. For example, we may be pretending we still like a job or career when we don’t anymore or concealing our disappointment in ourselves for giving up on our dreams and goals.

Other examples of self-deception in action:

  • a dreamer who keeps postponing big plans with excuses about not having enough time or it not being the right time to start
  • a young single who keeps reading way too much into casual acts by a romantic interest
  • a spouse who keeps focusing on his partner’s faults and ignoring his own issues
  • a worker who spins self-serving tales about why others are getting raises and promotions
  • a person whose wishful thinking about credit-card debt or college loans starts to cause big problems
  • a spouse who looks the other way when there’s clear evidence of infidelity or violence, or a spouse who rationalizes his or her own deception
  • an addict who believes her addictions are under control*

What are we hiding from ourselves?
What truths are we running from?

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Five Signs of Self-Deception

Though it can be hard to detect, there are signs of self-deception in action. For example, we’re probably deceiving ourselves when we:

  1. keep making excuses for ourselves or others
  2. can’t accept responsibility for things
  3. keep blaming others
  4. keep avoiding unpleasant realities
  5. feel defensive or threatened when people challenge us

Our self-deception usually comes with a fair amount of discomfort and anxiety, in part because of the cognitive dissonance we experience when we do it. (Cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort we feel when we hold conflict believes, values, or attitudes or when there’s a disconnect between what we believe and how we behave.)

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.”
-Richard Feynman, theoretical physicist

 

Where Our Self-Deception Comes From

Where does our self-deception come from? It has many potential origins. For example, it can come from:

  • our upbringing or culture programming (seeing instances of self-deception from our parents or others)
  • lacking confidence (lying to ourselves to compensate for insecurity)
  • fear of judgment from others (deceiving ourselves with stories and rationalizations that prevent us from facing that harsh music)
  • wanting to please others (rationalizing the downplaying of our own needs so we can stay in their good graces)
  • wanting to impress others (kidding ourselves into believing we’re better than we are while downplaying our flaws)
  • wanting to avoid painful thoughts or experiences (e.g., after we’ve endured hardship or trauma)
  • preferring the convenience of an easy delusion over a hard truth

We may engage in self-deception out of anxiety, neediness, desire, or other powerful emotions. As humans, we have emotional attachments to many beliefs, some of which may be irrational. Our self-deception can serve as a coping mechanism for strong feelings of shame about our actions, feelings, or habits.

On the plus side, self-deception can make us feel better about ourselves and help us maintain our confidence in the face of challenges and setbacks. But it can also help us avoid taking responsibility for our actions.

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

The High Costs of Self-Deception

Self-deception isn’t only a matter of mental games we play. Unfortunately, its consequences are all too real. For example, self-deception can:

  • make it harder to grow and develop because we’re not seeing our flaws clearly
  • detract from our mental and emotional clarity
  • cause us to lose sight of who we really are and what’s real because we’ve been deceiving ourselves so long
  • aggravate our worry and anxiety because it leads to letting things deteriorate further
  • lead to numbing behaviors like binge-watching, overwork, drinking, overeating, and more
  • make us feel like a fraud
  • make us feel exhausted from all the mental gymnastics of lying to ourselves and trying to cover it up
  • lead to inaccurate judgments and poor decisions, since we’re going off of faulty data
  • make us feel shame and guilt
  • lead us to deceiving others often, not just ourselves
  • weaken our relationships
  • diminish our power and agency in directing our lives effectively
  • keep us trapped in bad or even dangerous habits, situations, or relationships
  • become a vicious circle and way of life, a bad habit pattern that keeps harming us in many areas
Reality denied comes back to haunt.”
-Philip K. Dick, writer

In short, it can become a downward spiral leading to further self-deception and a host of other problems in our lives, many of which are quite serious. And the longer we do it, the more we believe the lies.

When we deceive ourselves, we start losing trust in ourselves. We no longer accept and trust ourselves or feel that we have a sense of control in our life.

Some people spend their entire life in self-deception or denial,
but the situations or circumstances that we are denying will usually get worse with time.”
-Terri Cole, Licensed Clinical Social Worker

According to researchers, when we’re not authentic, it makes us feel immoral and impure. According to Harvard Business School Professor Francesca Gino and her colleagues in their paper, “The Moral Value of Authenticity”:

“When participants recalled a time that they behaved inauthentically, rather than authentically, they felt more impure and less moral…. When people behave in ways that are inconsistent with their own sense of self, they feel morally tainted and engage in behaviors to compensate for these feelings.”

 

Are There Benefits of Self-Deception?

With all these costs associated with self-deception, it begs the question of why it exists at all. It turns out that there are some benefits of self-deception—in the right circumstances and amount. For example, according to some researchers, self-deception may:

  • help protect us as a coping mechanism or even survival tactic against painful or even intolerable emotions (e.g., after we’ve experienced trauma)
  • help us with our motivation when facing challenging situations
  • reduce cognitive load (the amount of information we can hold at one time in our brain’s working memory) in some circumstances, thus helping to conserve cognitive resources**

In addition, in a 1979 study, researchers noted that depressed people tend to assess their strong and weak points and recall negative criticisms more realistically (with less self-deception), while nondepressed people typically view themselves favorably and underestimate how often others judge them unfavorably. It makes sense that, if self-deception leads to more favorable self-assessments, that can lead to positive feelings that contribute to wellbeing.

In the end, though, many acts of self-deception will end up harming us in the long run if we let them continue.

“Everyone self-deceives, but that doesn’t make it harmless. At high levels, it is associated with poor mental health. At moderate levels, it can temporarily protect the self-deceiver from bad feelings but still presents a barrier to the deep well-being that comes from living with integrity. To be really happy, we must learn to be completely honest with ourselves.” -Arthur Brooks, “Quit Lying to Yourself,” The Atlantic

 

How Self-Deception Affects Our Leadership

In the workplace, self-deception can inhibit our effectiveness and degrade our leadership. For example, it can:

  • limit our growth and potential since we’re not facing up to our weaknesses
  • prevent us from seeing beyond our own opinions and priorities
  • lead to unethical decisions and behaviors, including justifying poor behavior, such as intimidation, harassment, or bullying
  • inhibit our leadership effectiveness and thus organizational productivity
  • lead to crises because we’re in denial about problems and our own role in them
If you want to be successful, you must respect one rule: Never lie to yourself!
Paolo Coelho, Brazilian novelist

Evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers has developed a theory of “self-deception in the service of deception”—a dangerous loop in which people like deceptive and toxic leaders can be so good at deceiving themselves about things that it makes them more effective in deceiving others, because they don’t show the telltale signs of lying. They’re so good at lying to themselves that it makes them adept at lying to others and remaining somehow credible to them.

“…if a liar can deceive himself into believing he is telling the truth, he will be far more effective in convincing others.
-Daniel Kriegman, Robert Trivers, and Malcom Slavin

Trivers calls this “hiding the truth from yourself to hide it more deeply from others,” and he notes that it can lead to “predatory deception” and exploitation. (It’s noteworthy that self-deception plays a major role in medical conditions such as narcissistic personality disorder and borderline personality disorder.)

It doesn’t stop there. In the Arbinger Institute’s book, Leadership and Self-Deception, the authors write, “Whether at work or at home, self-deception obscures the truth about ourselves, corrupts our view of others and our circumstances, and inhibits our ability to make wise and helpful decisions…. Of all the problems in organizations, self-deception is the most common, and the most damaging.”

The authors point out that that self-deception can lead to treating people like objects because we view their needs as less important than our own, inflating our own virtues and other people’s faults, and a vicious cycle of mutual blame and mistreatment.

They also point out that it’s contagious. The more self-deception occurs, the more it will spread to others.

So what can leaders do to mitigate the negative effects of self-deception? A few things: First, be wary of praise, noting that most people are suckers for praise and that it can distort our perceptions and inflate our ego. Second, be open to tough feedback, especially when we find ourselves resisting it. Third, solicit feedback proactively and regularly, including structured and confidential 360-degree feedback.

We’re all liars…Entrepreneurs are particularly good at lying to themselves.
Entrepreneurs are the most delusional of all.
-Alistair Croll and Benjamin Yoskovitz, Lean Analytics

 

What to Do About It

Though self-deception is a common and vexing problem, there are many things we can do to address it:

  • be on the lookout for examples of it in our own life so we can begin to address it
  • commit to being fully honest with ourselves and “fierce with reality,” as educator Parker Palmer advises
  • engage in regular self-reflection and build self-awareness so that we have a clear sense of who we are, what motivates us, and what trips us up
  • work to understand the root causes that led us to start deceiving ourselves
  • reflect on our fears and where they come from and how they show up in our lives
  • work on our self-acceptance, especially on accepting our flaws
  • develop our confidence so that we truly believe that we’re enough (and thus don’t need to lie to ourselves)
  • remain open to changing our mind about things as we obtain new information or perspectives
  • seek help with being honest with ourselves from trusted friends and colleagues or a coach or mentor
  • when we find ourselves blaming others, shift our focus from the faults of others to ideas about how we can help them
  • journal openly and freely, with stream-of-consciousness observations and reflections (the privacy of our journaling may help us be more fully honest with ourselves)

 

Conclusion: The Benefits of Being Totally Honest with Ourselves

The work of moving from self-deception to fierce acceptance of truth and reality may not be easy, but it’s well worth it. In the process, we’ll start trusting ourselves again and develop our self-acceptance as well as our authenticity.

Meanwhile, we can develop our emotional intelligence, connect more genuinely with others, set a good example by being honest and self-aware, and get better results in our chosen endeavors.

 

Reflection Questions

  1. To what extent are you engaging in self-deception—and in which areas?
  2. How is it holding you back?
  3. What will you do about it, starting today?

 

Tools for You

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Related Articles and Traps

 

Appendix: Self-Deception and Cognitive Biases

Research from psychologists Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, and many others has shown that we have many cognitive biases—systematic errors in thinking that influence how we make decisions—which can lead to distorted perceptions and faulty judgments. Cognitive biases manifest automatically and unconsciously over a wide range of our reasoning. Researchers have identified at least 58 cognitive biases and heuristics (the process by which we use mental shortcuts to arrive at decisions).

Examples of cognitive biases related to self-deception include:

  • Confirmation bias: our tendency to favor information that confirms our beliefs or hypotheses.
  • Overconfidence bias: our tendency to overestimate our abilities.
  • Illusion of control: overestimating our ability to control events.
  • Optimism bias: our tendency to overestimate favorable outcomes.
  • Planning fallacy: our tendency to underestimate the time, costs, and risks of future actions and to overestimate their benefits.
  • Positive illusion: our unrealistically favorable attitudes towards ourselves or those close to us.
  • Competition neglect: ignoring the likelihood of other entrepreneurs or competitors undertaking the same venture.
  • Dunning–Kruger effect”: when people with low ability at a certain task overestimate their ability.

According to researchers, we tend to overestimate our positive attributes (e.g., intelligence, competence, attractiveness) and underestimate our negative ones (e.g., character flaws, mistakes). Some telling examples of self-deception and biases in action:

  • The vast majority of us consider ourselves above average.
  • Only 2% of high school seniors believe their leadership skills are below average; 70% report they’re above average.
  • 25% of people believe they’re in the top 1% in their ability to get along with others.
  • 94% of college professors say they’re doing above-average work.
  • For certain types of questions, answers that people rate as “99% certain” turn out to be wrong 40% of the time.

Sources: Chip and Dan Heath, Switch (Crown Business, 2010) and Adam Grant, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World (Penguin, 2016). Peter Borkenau and Anette Liebler, “Convergence of Stranger Ratings of Personality and Intelligence with Self-Ratings, Partner Ratings, and Measured Intelligence,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 65 (1993), 546-553. David Dunning et al., “Flawed Self-Assessment,” Psychological Science in the Public Interest 5 (2004).

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Avoiding Self-Deception

  • “All humans have self-deceptions.” -Harry C. Triandis, professor emeritus, University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana
  • “To thine own self be true…. Thou canst not then be false to any man.” -Polonius to his son Laertes in “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare
  • “The ingenuity of self-deception is inexhaustible.” -Hannah More
  • “No one wants to be seen as a liar. Liars are considered untrustworthy at best and immoral at worst. And yet, we are perfectly content to lie to ourselves all the time.” -Arthur Brooks, “Quit Lying to Yourself,” The Atlantic
  • “Dishonesty is a trait that most of us have no problem pointing out in others. We feel a sense of anger, disgust, and mistrust towards those who try to deceive us…. Secretly, it feels good to point the finger at others because it makes us feel morally righteous. But here’s the truth: at the end of the day, most of us fail to see that we also lie—to ourselves—frequently…. Deception is such a despicable quality that we would rather disown it than face it honestly.” -Aletheia
  • “Being entirely honest with oneself is a good exercise.” -Sigmund Freud
  • “If I was lying on my deathbed and I had kept this secret and never ever did anything about it, I would be lying there saying, ‘You just blew your entire life. You never dealt with yourself,’ and I don’t want that to happen.” -Caitlyn Jenner
  • “…the ultimate self-help strategy, the one practice that could end all your suffering and get you all the way to happiness. Stop lying.” -Martha Beck in The Way of Integrity
  • “Our lives only improve when we are willing to take chances and the first and most difficult risk we can take is to be honest with ourselves.” -Walter Anderson
  • “Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.” -Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
  • “The lies we tell other people are nothing to the lies we tell ourselves.” -Derek Landy, Death Bringer
  • “We all practice self-deception to a degree; no man can handle complete honesty without being cut at each turn. There’s not enough room in a man’s head for sanity alongside each grief, each worry, each terror that he owns. I’m well used to burying such things in a dark cellar and moving on.” -Mark Lawrence, Prince of Fools
  • “Life out here is hard. We all try to get through the best way we can. But trust me, there’s not a single person here who isn’t lying to themselves about something.” -Jane Harper, The Lost Man
  • “Lying to ourselves is more deeply ingrained than lying to others.” -Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • “You can never be true to others, if you keep on lying to yourself.” -Gift Gugu Mona
  • “Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.” -Thomas Jefferson

* Researchers have observed that drug and alcohol addicts exhibit higher scores of self-deception. Martínez-González JM, Vilar López R, Becoña Iglesias E, Verdejo-García A. Self-deception as a mechanism for the maintenance of drug addiction. Psicothema. 2016; 28(1): 13-9.

** “Cognitive and emotional dissonance are difficult to hold. Self-deception allows us to hold onto this sense of coherence, even though it means we leave out some parts of the truth of who we are and live under some form of illusion.” -Ling Lam, PhD, licensed marriage and family therapist

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

How to Stop Catastrophizing–Managing Our Minds

Ben White Unsplash
The sky has finally fallen. Always knew it would.”
– Eeyore, from Winnie the Pooh

Things have been tough in the last few years. Pandemic. Inflation. War.

Many are suffering mightily. Maybe you’ve been suffering too.

But are you complicit in your own suffering? Are you making things, as tough as they may be already, even worse?

One of the ways we do this is through “catastrophizing.”

Catastrophizing is a form of cognitive distortion, in which we assume the worst and blow things out of proportion. We imagine the worst possible outcome and generate an exceptionally negative expectation of future events.

When we’re catastrophizing, we see something concerning or bad and assume it’ll become a disaster. We believe our own horrendous forecast even when those thoughts have no basis in reality. Our catastrophizing brain becomes a breeding ground for stress and anxiety, starting a downward spiral.

When we’re catastrophizing, we’re also assuming that we won’t be able to cope with the predicted disaster when it materializes.

One of the worst things anybody can do is assume. I think fools assume.
If people have really got it together, they never assume anything.
They believe, they work hard, and they prepare–but they don’t assume.
– Mike Krzyzewski

Warning Assumptions Ahead

 

Examples of Catastrophizing

Here are examples of catastrophizing:

  • “If my partner leaves me, I’ll be alone and unhappy for the rest of my life.”
  • “I’m hurting today. It’s going to get worse, and I’ll never get better.”
  • “If I fail this test, I’ll have to drop out of school. I’ll devastate my parents and become a failure.”
  • “I’m having a hard time with this challenge. I’m worthless. I may as well quit.”

Though it sounds extreme, catastrophizing can be common. Many psychologists believe that we’ve all done it sometimes.

Catastrophizing is related to anxiety, but there’s an important difference: anxiety can benefit us by causing us to take preventing measures. By contrast, catastrophizing has no redeeming value. It only makes us feel worse about phantom probabilities.

Catastrophizing is a bit like taking a microscope to our worst fears and viewing them at a scale a hundred times their actual size. The proportions are way off. So it shuts us down.

Sometimes catastrophizing joins forces with other nefarious thinking traps, such as:

  • Rumination: obsessive thinking about our distress (as opposed to its solutions)
  • Helplessness: feeling powerless when facing a negative situation

 

Causes of Catastrophizing

Why do we do catastrophize? There are many causes.

For starters, when we’re in a state of fear and/or anxiety, we’re more prone to catastrophizing. (See my article, “Getting Good at Overcoming Fear.”)

Also, our catastrophizing is often worse when we place extra importance on someone or something. When we value something greatly, like our relationship with a partner or our position in a social hierarchy, we can develop a hyped-up fear of losing it.

In addition, ambiguity can amp up the catastrophizing quotient. If, for example, we get a message from our spouse or boss that reads, “We need to talk,” it may cause our catastrophe circuits to go haywire.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

 

The Problem with Catastrophizing

Anxiety’s like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do,
but it doesn’t get you very far.”
– Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult quote

There are big downsides to catastrophizing. At its worst, it can:

  • fill us with harmful (and unnecessary) emotions
  • take time and thought away from the actual situation we’re in (and its potential solutions)
  • amplify our self-doubt
  • lead to paralysis and inaction
  • give us the illusion that the worst case is our new normal
  • contribute to a victim mentality that gets us nowhere
  • prevent us from experiencing contentment and happiness
  • become a destructive lifelong habit unless we nip it in the bud
Deal with your negative patterns before they become habits
because habits are hard to break.”
– Germany Kent

 

12 Ways to Stop Catastrophizing

Thankfully, we don’t have to be passive victims of whatever thought-streams appear in our heads.

There are many things we can do to reduce or eliminate catastrophizing. Here are twelve of them:

  • acknowledge that bad things happen to all of us
  • recognize when we’re engaging in catastrophizing (mindfulness and meditation techniques can help make such awareness easier over time)
  • place our experiences into perspective
  • consider a range of possible outcomes—from positive to neutral to mildly negative ones and not just disasters
Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?”
“Supposing it didn’t,” said Pooh after careful thought.
Piglet was comforted by this.
-A.A. Milne, English poet and playwright
  • reframe thoughts from negative to positive ones (e.g., opportunities to learn and grow)
  • recall situations in which we’ve coped with and overcome negative events
  • lean on trusted relationships—and community—to provide support, encouragement, and perspective when needed
  • focus more on helping and serving others and less on how things are going for ourselves
  • think about the things we can control, letting go of things we can’t
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.”
-the Serenity Prayer
  • command ourselves to stop catastrophizing (some people actually benefit from speaking the words out loud, e.g., “Stop catastrophizing!”)
  • use positive affirmations (constructive statements that we repeat to ourselves to condition our brain for clarity and success)
  • engage in regular self-care practices, such as eating well, maintaining good sleep routines, exercising often, taking frequent breaks throughout the day, breathing deeply, enjoying hobbies, and getting out into nature

In the end, we all experience bad things in life. The key is to avoid making them worse by magnifying our negative thinking about them. Instead, why not take productive action to avoid or address them?

serenity prayer

 

Reflection Questions

  1. Have you been catastrophizing?
  2. In what areas?
  3. What will you start doing to turn your thoughts into allies instead of enemies?

 

Tools for You

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

Related Articles

 

Postscript: Quotations on Catastrophizing

  • “Believing in negative thoughts is the single greatest obstruction to success.” -Charles F. Glassman
  • “I define anxiety as experiencing failure in advance.” -Seth Godin
  • “Fear starts in the mind and it generates emotions. One fearful thought will lead to another if you let it. The way to keep that from happening is to not allow yourself to camp out in fear in your mind.” -Sadie Robertson, Live Fearless: A Call to Power, Passion, and Purpose

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, and TEDx speaker on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Mental Prisons We Build for Ourselves

“Our life is what our thoughts make it.”
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Though we like to think of ourselves as free, many of us are confined to a mental prison we’ve built for ourselves.

Our most vicious jailer is our unhealthy “self-talk”—our inner critic that savagely sabotages us with haunting doubts and harsh judgments. We’re our own worst enemy.

We’re a prisoner of our “monkey mind”—feeling unsettled or restless and easily distracted by thoughts that bounce around like agitated apes. Often, we’re dwelling on the past or worrying about the future—always neglecting the present moment.

Most of our mental prisons are fictional stories our minds invent to prevent us from potential suffering. The sad secret, though, is that the suffering is wildly unlikely to occur outside our overactive imaginations. Our mental prisons are fear factories.

“My favorite cartoon shows two haggard captives staring through the bars of a prison window. The odd thing is that there are no walls on the prison, the two men are simply standing in the open, holding bars to their own faces with their own hands.”
-Martha Beck in Steering by Starlight

Sometimes our mental prison is the need we feel, often flowing from childhood, to gain approval and be liked or admired, or it’s the prison of the expectations of others (or, more accurately, what we presume those expectations to be, often wrongly).

Here’s the thing: We think we’re struggling with the outer game but it’s actually the inner game that’s tripping us up.

“Happiness is an inside game, literally and neurochemically.”
-Shirzad Chamine, author

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

The Toll of Our Mental Prisons

These prisons are harmful in countless ways:

  • Lower confidence, sense of wellbeing, and joy.
  • Decrease in motivation and performance.
  • Distorted perceptions: we’re looking at reality with an overlay of past memories and hurts as well as future hunches and worries, skewing our senses.
  • Loss of our sense of control, agency, and responsibility—sometimes by blaming all our troubles on a single source (such as an ex-spouse, or an addiction), when in reality there are multiple factors contributing to problems (including our own mindset and behavior).
  • Learned helplessness”: a well documented phenomenon in which we give up after a number of futile attempts at something, eventually surrendering our agency even when there may be potential solutions and overlooking opportunities for change.

 

The Building Blocks of Our Mental Prisons

Building our own personal confinement is a strange endeavor, yet all too common. What drives it?

It begins with root causes that are exceedingly difficult to overcome because they’re often subconscious. First is depending on circumstances for our happiness: “If and when X happens,” we believe, “then I’ll be happy.” The logic seems sound, but it’s deeply flawed. We’re terrible at knowing what will truly make us happy and fulfilled over time, causing us to spend time on the wrong things. Also, with this logic, we’re placing our happiness in the hands of too many factors outside our control. The key is to learn to be happy and well regardless of our circumstances.

Second is our automatic emotional reactions to events, preceding our rational brain’s ability to interpret the situation from a higher level of consciousness and with a broader perspective and openness to different interpretations and possible responses.

There are also more mundane but also significant contributors:

“Most people today live in relatively constant distress and anxiety.
This is related to a low-grade but perpetual fight-or-flight response… in reaction to the challenges of life.”

-Shirzad Chamine, Positive Intelligence
Shirzad Chamine

In her book, Mindfulness, psychologist Ellen Langer identifies several causes of mindlessness that also inhibit our mental wellbeing:

  • Having a narrow self-image, such as defining ourselves solely by our work (e.g., as a project manager, bookkeeper, or customer service rep) as opposed to all of our multifaceted identities (for example, son or daughter, mother or father, friend, colleague, artist, gardener, athlete, etc.). Being overly invested in one part of our lives is risky because it’s likely to go up and down over time—and can even disappear entirely.
  • Having false beliefs about common things. Example: conflating old age with poor health. While they’re correlated, they’re very different, and there are many examples of people who thrive mentally, emotionally, and physically in their later years.
  • Preoccupation with expected outcomes that sometimes fail to materialize (based on many factors outside our range of influence), instead of a healthy focus on the process.
  • Making faulty comparisons with others based on the outcomes they have (e.g., wealth, accomplishments) instead of the process they used to get them.

Our Mental Saboteurs

Shirzad Chamine, an executive and best-selling author of Positive Intelligence, has done important work that can help us understand how we’re sabotaging ourselves with our thoughts.

He identifies nine “saboteurs,” which are “automatic and habitual mind patterns” that harm our ability to function effectively. As you read them, note which ones challenge you:

  1. Judge: finding fault with self, others, or circumstances
  2. Victim: focus on painful feelings as a way of earning attention or empathy
  3. Pleaser: flattering, recuing, or pleasing others to gain acceptance
  4. Avoider: putting off or avoiding difficult tasks or conflicts
  5. Stickler: excessive need for perfection, order, and organization
  6. Restless: needing perpetual busyness and never being content with what is
  7. Controller: anxiety-based need to control situations or others
  8. Hyper-achiever: depending on achievement for self-acceptance
  9. Hyper-rational: excessively analytical processing of everything, including relationships
  10. Hyper-vigilant: excessive vigilance that never stops, seeing danger around every corner (Source: Shirzad Chamine, Positive Intelligence)

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Fixed vs. Growth Mindset

Enter Carol Dweck and her pathbreaking research on mindsets. Dweck is a professor at Stanford University who studies motivation, personality, and development. She distinguishes between two mindsets:

  1. Fixed mindset: Belief that intelligence, abilities, and talents are fixed. People with a fixed mindset tend to:
    • Want to look smart
    • Avoid challenges
    • Ignore useful negative feedback
    • Feel threatened by the success of others
    • Plateau early and achieve less than their full potential
  1. Growth Mindset: Belief that intelligence, abilities, and talents can be developed. People with a growth mindset tend to:
    • Want to learn
    • Embrace challenges
    • Learn from criticism
    • Find lessons and inspiration in the success of others
    • Reach ever-higher levels of achievement

It makes an enormous difference whether we approach a situation with a desire to look smart or a desire to learn. Our mindset is especially evident in our reaction to failure:

Do we dread the prospect of failure because we view it as an embarrassing reflection on our competencies? Or are we open to the prospect of failure because we view it as a sign that we’re stretching ourselves in new areas?

Dweck notes that mindset plays an important role in virtually all aspects of our lives, from school, sports, and business to parenting, relationships, and more. Our mindsets shape our:

  • enjoyment of challenging tasks
  • goals and ideas about what we’ll strive for
  • honesty when confronted with situations where we may not look as good as we’d like
  • performance on tasks

We’re all born with certain predispositions, and our mindsets can vary in different areas in our lives, but here’s the good news:

“Can mindsets be changed? Can they be taught? Yes.”
-Carol Dweck, psychologist

 

How to Escape Mental Prison

If mental prisons are common to the human condition, what have we learned about ways to break free? Much, it turns out.

For starters, a surprising intervention involves breath work to change our physical and mental state: breathing deeply and intentionally, as with “box breathing.”

“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again.”
-Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness

We also want to start noticing our thoughts more—observing the strange things that pop into our heads and spotting the negative patterns that reappear. It helps to label them (e.g., “My ‘controller’ is making me feel anxious, or “I’m being overly judgmental again”).

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

More Actions We Can Take

  • Focusing on what we can control, and not worrying about the rest.
  • Exploring different aspects of the issue with a sense of curiosity and fascination.
  • Remaining open to new possibilities and alternate interpretations.
  • Avoiding the trap of catastrophizing (assuming the worst or exaggerating our flaws).
  • Changing our context to bring a different perspective and renewed energy, especially to a place that provides sanctuary.
  • Replacing our inner critique with a more charitable and helpful narrative.
  • Cognitive reframing: shifting our mindset to look at a situation or relationship from a different and more helpful perspective, such as redefining a problem as a challenge or puzzle that we become curious to solve.
  • Playing: it often changes our physiology by moving us into a state of deep engagement or flow.
  • Taking action: there’s freedom in action, and it reveals fear for the false phantom it is.
  • Choosing what to think and be mindful about. Many people become passive victims of the random thought-stream in their minds instead of engaging their “observer” or deeper perspective and employing their ability to choose which thoughts to keep and which to dismiss as unproductive or unwelcome.
  • Giving ourselves grace, acknowledging that nobody’s perfect and that the point of life is not to try to appear perfect or successful to others.

 

Reflection Questions

  • Is your self-talk too negative?
  • Are you disrupted by “monkey mind”?
  • What will you do to start arranging your escape from mental prison?

 

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Tools for You

 

Related Traps and Articles

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Self-Talk

  • “When you fight life you lose but only 100 percent of the time.” -Byron Katie
  • “To me, real success is where I can be at peace in the midst of chaos.” -Peter Crone
  • “I discovered that when I believed my thoughts, I suffered, but that when I didn’t believe them, I didn’t suffer, and that this is true for every human being. Freedom is as simple as that. I found that suffering is optional. I found a joy within me that has never disappeared, not for a single moment.” -Byron Katie
  • “The mind is restless, Krishna, impetuous, self-willed, hard to train: to master the mind seems as difficult as to master the mighty winds.” –The Bhagavad Gita
  • “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” -John Milton, Paradise Lost
  • “Everyone fails…. There is one other little question: ‘Did you collaborate in your own defeat?’” -John W. Gardner
  • “If you get the inside right, the outside will fall into place.” -Eckhart Tolle
  • “What a liberation to realize that the ‘voice in my head’ is not who I am. Who am I then? The one who sees that.” -Eckhart Tolle
  • “The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it. Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking. Separate them from the situation, which is always neutral, which always is as it is.” -Eckhart Tolle

Books that Will Help Free Your Mind and Mindset

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Leadership and Psychological Safety in Teams

The problems in far too many organizations today are legion:

  • Unproductive, boring meetings
  • Astonishing amounts of wasted time
  • Avoidance of sensitive issues
  • Lack of full engagement
  • Reluctance to provide candid, constructive feedback
  • Political games and hidden agendas

Sound familiar?

The effects are far-reaching, from low quality work to employee turnover. According to a Corporate Executive Board study: “Nearly half of all executive teams fail to receive negative news that is material to firm performance in a timely manner because employees are afraid of being tainted by the bad news,” and only “19% of executive teams are always promptly informed of bad news that is material to firm performance.”

“So many times, I’ve heard people say, ‘I knew our strategy wasn’t working, but no one was willing to tell our CEO. No one wanted to lose their job.” –Susan Scott in Fierce Conversations

Leadership Derailers Assessment

Take this assessment to identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness. A critical and often overlooked tool for your leadership development.

 

Avoiding Important Conversations

Andrew Kakabadse found that a very high percentage of top management team members in countries around the world report that there are issues not discussed because they are too sensitive, as shown below.

Lack of Dialogue among Top Management Team about Sensitive Issues (% of top management team members reporting that there are issues that should be aired but are not discussed because they’re too sensitive)

Source: Andrew Kakabadse, The Success Formula: How Smart Leaders Deliver Outstanding Value (Bloomsbury, 2015).

A related problem is groupthink—when people feel pressure to conform to an artificial consensus instead of pressure-testing ideas thoroughly without fear or favor.

What’s to be done?

 

Psychological Safety

What’s needed—desperately in some cases—is what Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson and others call psychological safety. It’s a shared sense that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. As with floating a new idea for improving performance, raising a concern, or admitting a mistake.

Timothy R. Clark notes that psychological safety exists when people feel included and safe to learn, contribute, and challenge the status quo—“all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished.”

Easier said than done.

Our neurological wiring helps explain why psychological safety is fragile: our brains process a raised voice or a cutting comment as a threat, triggering certain parts of the brain with a fight-or-flight response and shutting down the parts responsible for advanced reasoning and creativity. We become unable to think clearly just when we need it most.

Edmondson found that “Low levels of psychological safety can create a culture of silence… in which speaking up is belittled and warnings go unheeded.”

She notes that speaking up is only the beginning. If a manager responds negatively when someone raises a concern, it reduces or eliminates psychological safety.

She also notes that “psychologically safe workplaces have a powerful advantage in competitive industries.” That’s because they benefit from the feedback loops when customer service agents raise concerns with their managers or when line workers mention production problems to their supervisors, thereby identifying opportunities for improvement. In too many organizations, people are afraid to speak up, and so they don’t share their ideas.

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

The Importance of Trust—And Conflict

To create psychological safety we must build trust. Stephen M. R. Covey has noted that with high trust in organizations, speed increases and costs decrease.

Enter the work of Patrick Lencioni. He noted the value of conflict in organizations (productive, not destructive, conflict). Most people view conflict as something to avoid, because it’s awkward and uncomfortable.

Healthy teams use conflict productively, for example, to work through a difficult problem or understand the root cause of a breakdown. Lencioni observes that the best leaders “mine for conflict,” almost like it’s gold.

“Weak leaders want agreement. Strong leaders want the truth.” -Susan Scott in Fierce Conversations

Most teams run from conflict like it’s the plague. The first “dysfunction of a team” noted by Lencioni is an absence of trust. When people aren’t comfortable being vulnerable in the group (due to a lack of psychological safety), it’s impossible to build a foundation of trust. That’s because people are not open about their mistakes, weaknesses, and needs for help.

This tees up the second dysfunction: fear of conflict. Without trust, team members can’t engage in an unfiltered and vigorous debate, instead relying on veiled discussions and guarded comments that don’t get anywhere near the core issues.

“Trust is the foundation of real teamwork…. Great teams do not hold back with one another. They are unafraid to air their dirty laundry. They admit their mistakes, their weaknesses, and their concerns without fear of reprisal…. The most important action that a leader must take to encourage the building of trust on a team is to demonstrate vulnerability first.” -Patrick Lencioni

By showing vulnerability, leaders model the way and open a space where others feel comfortable doing the same.

The results of disciplined attention to these matters over time can be extraordinary. With high levels of psychological safety, fueled by vulnerability and trust, people rise to new heights of performance and engagement.

Psychological safety, while fragile and rare, is precious and powerful. The best leaders cultivate it carefully.

 

Tools for You

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Power of Empathy in Leadership

These days, we ask much of our leaders. Organizations and governments are under great pressures to perform, and these days leaders are responsible for crisis management during a pandemic with its attendant economic destruction and social and emotional anxiety.

More and more we are realizing that empathy is a powerful aspect of leading well.

Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from their frame of reference (i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another person’s position).

 

Different Types of Empathy

Researchers have identified several types of empathy:

  • Cognitive empathy is the capacity to understand someone’s mental state.
  • Emotional empathy is the capacity to respond with an appropriate emotion to another’s mental states, including a concern for others when they are suffering.
  • Somatic empathy is a physical reaction in our nervous system that entails physically feeling someone else’s pain (e.g., getting a sense of physical pain when you see someone else get hurt).

According to the research, when managers exhibit the most empathy toward their team, they are viewed as better performers. What’s more, when we exhibit empathy as leaders, we build trust with others because they see that we are paying attention to them and recognizing their issues and concerns.

When we empathize, we relate to and connect with people, and that contributes toward building a sense of teamwork and camaraderie.

According to Roman Krznaric in Empathy: Why It Matters and How to Get It, empathy “is not just about seeing things from another’s perspective. It’s the cornerstone of smart leadership. The real competitive advantage of the human worker will be their capacity to create relationships….”

 

Empathy and Leadership

Great leaders focus not just on vision and execution but also on building healthy and close relationships with people they work with.

Empathy shows up in several modern leadership frameworks. For example, it is one of the ten characteristics of a servant leader and one of the components of emotional intelligence (and its social awareness aspect).

In our “triple crown leadership” model for how to build excellent, ethical, and enduring organizations, it shows up in our “head and heart” practice, with leaders hiring, developing, and rewarding people not just for “head” skills like knowledge and skills but also for “heart” factors, including empathy.

What’s more, we can view leadership as a quest (e.g., to achieve a higher purpose). But as entrepreneur and author Jim Rohn notes, “As a leader, you should always start with where people are before you try to take them where you want them to go.”

Recently, we’ve seen troubling examples of narcissism in leaders, including an excessive need for admiration as well as a disregard for others’ feelings, interests, or safety.

That’s a real shame, because it keeps the focus on the leader as opposed to the larger purpose and the people in the organization and those they serve.

The best leaders leverage empathy to understand their customers much more deeply and thus lead their teams in creating products and services that solve real problems—and in seeing opportunities for innovation that others miss.

Empathy is an essential aspect of effective leadership and a powerful human trait that binds us together in the ups and downs of life and work.

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great“). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!