Guardrails and bowling bumpers: Reframing boundaries

view from the edge of a lily pond uphill toward a red house in the woods
TC Steele Historic Site in Brown County, Indiana

Learning to live in wellbeing with myself has its struggles. Wednesday was one of those days. 

I had one meeting with colleague-friends to finish up a paper we are writing. It’s the final stage of the writing and editing, and we have difficult decisions to make about cutting length and checking the alignment of all the pieces of the paper: purpose, hypotheses, data presented, analysis. As much as I’m proud of our work together and what we have to say, I feel like I’m trudging to the finish line on this paper. The vibe wasn’t there. We’re tired and over it. All of it. 

After that meeting, I lost myself in hours of email management. Hours. During my mental health leave.

At the end of the day, I finally took a moment of mindful consciousness about what I was doing, how it made me feel, and the goals I had set for the day. Once I realized where I was – dissociated from my body sensations and emotional experience – I was frightened at how I could lose connection with myself so quickly. I had observed my own self-abandonment and self-toxicity happen over the span of hours. I felt lousy, hollow, forced, and disengaged. The hours of email were joyless, dismal, lifeless, tormenting, and bleak. I could hear one part of me saying, “just one more thing, just 15 minutes more,” while another part of me was wailing, “but I want to go walk around Jackson Creek Park this afternoon.” 

Dear reader, there were tears.

I had started the day with an achievement mindset and I was using a work rubric to define that measure of accomplishment. The work-acceptable Wonder Woman self was holding my authentic self captive and ignoring my needs for rest and joy. I was engaging fully in cognitive work while not giving awareness or responsiveness to how I was feeling. The larger context is probably explanatory and offers some grace. To me, many current events feel destabilizing, disempowering, heartless, and uncertain. It seems reasonable to bury big, sad feelings about those things through work. And it seems reasonable to try to control something through work when everything else feels out of my control.

Through the tears, I resolved that I would be more honest with myself, honest with others, and responsive to my needs. In my opening remarks at a graduate student event on Thursday morning, I mentioned my mental health leave and also spoke briefly about engaging in an ethics of care while writing our dissertations in the context of these compounding crises. The graduate student who spoke after me elaborated on themes about approaching our work with an ethics of care. Fear- and scarcity-based approaches are avoidant, isolating, self-abnegating, overwhelming, anxiety-inducing, and neglectful of basic needs such as sleep, food, exercise. Love- and abundance-based approaches are affirmative and responsive to meeting needs and involve curiosity, vulnerability, relationships, calm, peaceful, and clear state of mind. 

Though the graduate student was talking about his dissertation-writing process, he also spoke about iterations and chaos as part of their dissertation process. Those ideas seem appropriate to my own wellbeing process, too: back and forth, checking alignment, progress and setbacks, self-doubt and growth, disappointment and acceptance, grief and celebration, and learning and teaching. 

The whole day was exactly what my authentic self needed. I was nurturing openhearted and truthful relationships with the graduate students. After I left the graduate student event on Thursday, I went to the T.C. Steel Historic Site in Brown County, Indiana. I walked the trails, toured the artist’s house and studio, had a picnic lunch by the frog ponds, and looked at beautiful impressionist landscapes of southern Indiana. I enjoyed my own company, was completely responsive to my needs, learned new things about art, had quiet and solitude, and spent time in nature. I feel so much better letting my authentic self and love-/abundance-based experiences be at the forefront.

Guardrails and bowling bumpers

Sometimes, I think we use “boundaries” to mean the ways we contain and restrict ourselves to be socially acceptable. I’m starting to reframe boundaries now as the abundance of time, space, and energy I need to bring my love-based self to the table. Instead of boundaries, I’m thinking about guardrails and bowling bumpers – adaptations to my life that make it less likely to get off track or fall off the cliff into fear, shame, and scarcity mindsets. 

I’m starting with guardrails around email. I need to contain email so that it is less likely to dominate my time and energy. The Email Charter and Calm Inbox both mention putting hard limits on how often you check email and managing your recipients’ expectations about response times. I also like the suggestion of asking your sender to categorize the mail status in the subject line so that you know what action is needed. I’ve now updated my auto-response as well as my signature file to include this information: 

“I am on a mental health leave, recuperating and restoring from stress and exhaustion, until June 6.  Update: This is a Calm Inbox. I will check and respond to email for an hour each on Tuesdays and Fridays. Help me prioritize your email with what project or topic your email is about and status information, for example:

  • [Info]
  • [Response requested]
  • [Time sensitive]
  • [Meeting requested]

If your concern is urgent, please contact [office, phone, email].”

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