Ever have a day or week full of things that took a lot out of you?

Maybe they zapped large bursts or a million little nibbles of your energy.

How about interactions or conversations you had recently where you came away drained, even if it was with someone you care about?

This happens to leaders and their teams more than we think. Leaders aren’t some impenetrable, fortified superhuman breed that don’t feel the effects of tension, a tough session of listening, or feedback giving. When I talk to leaders every week, I usually hear them say that the toughest aspect of their job is “the people part”, with the technical / tactical part being easier.

It’s true, for many, the “people part” challenges all sorts of things about ourselves that we might not have thought about before, including boundaries we manage.

Instead of boundaries to balance work and personal life, let’s think about emotional boundaries. If this topic is talked about, it usually doesn’t come up with leaders and teams until there’s a problem or, worse yet, a breaking point.

On one hand, we can have little-to-no boundaries, being an emotional “sponge” (absorbing the stress energy from those we come in contact with, which ultimately drains our energy and adds to our stress). On the other hand, we can be a deflective “brick” (letting the emotion and feelings from others just bounces off us) and notice very little.

When we’re a “sponge”, we usually absorb more than what’s good for us to be effective leaders, coaches, or team members. We might lose sight of what would be helpful in the moment, such as challenging a frame or perspective someone has. Instead, we’re essentially “stuck in the mud” with the person we’re trying to support. We might even rescue or collude more. As we all know, a sponge full of water is heavy, leaks everywhere, and can’t take on any more. It’s not as useful as it could be.

When we’re a “brick”, we absorb little to nothing, and some might experience us as not hearing or listening to understand people and what’s really going on with them. The “brick” can experience lots of stress in not feeling like they connect or work well with others. Maybe there’s a history of feedback of us being difficult to work with.

If you tend to absorb more emotionally, it can be helpful to recover by unloading some of the “water” regularly. This can be as simple as an end-of-day reflection, going for a walk to clear your head, or talking with someone you can be open with. If your boundaries are more like a “brick”, try and pay attention to reactions from others – these can often be signals to listen longer, ask more questions, and try to understand a little deeper. For both, practice looking for patterns.

What do you notice?

I’ve struggled with both ends of this spectrum, and the “sponge” and the “brick” creep in when there’s more stress and not enough rest. The answer I’ve found isn’t to force a switch and become more of the opposite of whatever you are – it’s to know ourselves better to use our natural boundaries in situations that need it. And also to know when our natural boundary tendencies affect our relationships and our energy in ways we don’t want.

All this to say, when we better understand the boundaries we need and practice adjusting, we’re better leaders and better teammates because everyone’s getting the best version of us.

Here are a few related resources that I’ve enjoyed recently and have been sharing:

1 // “You fully and intently listen to others. You tend to focus on others’ emotions, often feeling them more so than your own.” How Empathic People Can Set Effective, Loving Boundaries (7 min read)

2 // “Boundaries are a prerequisite for compassion and empathy.” Thank you, Brené. (1 min read)

3 // “When our status is challenged, our body reacts like it’s in physical danger.” The Trap of the Inner Ring, The Body-Builder Trap, and The Trap of False Belonging – there are status traps everywhere, and this post has a number of helpful tips to pull ourselves out of a “status spiral”. (10 min read)

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