Imagine a physical boundary between the two major domains of your life: work and family. What would yours look like? A wooden shutter, a chicken wire fence, or maybe a line in the sand that disappears when the wind blows or the tide comes in? However you visualize it, whether you’re at the office or off the clock, if you’re like most working mothers, you never feel completely “there” regardless of where you actually are.
The electronic tether makes it all but impossible to be completely present: Whether it’s the new notification from Slack that chimes in the middle of the night, the text from the office that arrives home before you do, the call from the school nurse or the one from your son telling you he needs his gym shoes just as you’re walking into a client meeting, you’re in demand and on demand.
If you’re forever feeling the tug between work and family, your boundary style might not be compatible with your job. Boundary style is an often overlooked aspect of personality, like extroversion and introversion, that influences not only the kind of work you do but the environment you do it in; your relationships with your colleagues; and how you balance your career and personal life—or not.
Boundaries are the mental lines you draw between parts of yourself—your thoughts, feelings and impulses—and between yourself and others. They define how close to or distant you are in all your relationships. Your boundary style is determined by two properties, permeability and flexibility. While permeability tends to be a function of personality and occupy a relatively fixed place on the continuum from thick to thin, flexibility is what allows us to adapt our boundaries and let others in when we feel safe and the context is appropriate. Your boundaries might be thick, solid and well-defined in your professional life, but highly permeable in your most intimate relationships. And the greater your flexibility, the more able you are to vary the permeability of your boundaries when the situation calls for it—when you want more or less distance in the relationship or situation.
So what kind of boundaries do you have—and what kind of workplace should you be in?
People with thick boundaries are good at compartmentalizing. They tend to function best in organizations with established hierarchies and well-defined rules, roles, hours and responsibilities. If this describes you, you probably have no trouble leaving the office behind unless something unexpected happens. You’re pretty organized and accomplished at separating your professional life from your personal one, and categorizing your relationships according to function—these are the friends I vacation with, these are the ones I carpool with, these are the ones I turn to in a crisis. You’re also more likely to take time for yourself, although you often multitask when you do.
If your boundaries are less solid, you’re more likely to have an atypical career, often in a creative field. You’re mission or relationship-oriented, a healthcare deliverer or an activist. If you have an office, the atmosphere is casual and expressive rather than formal and restrained. When what you do is who you are, your “me time” is often experienced or processed through your work, especially if you’re an artist or therapist.
But flexibility is more important than permeability.
It’s what enables you to adapt to change in work and life. Research indicates that spillover from work is a better predictor of family stress than spillover from family does for work. That’s where boundary flexibility comes in: It allows you to judge when to open and close the shutters. Regardless of how permeable your boundary style is, you can increase your boundary flexibility by focusing on what matters most at the moment.
For instance, is it more critical that you finish that brief than serve your family a home-cooked dinner? More important that you go to your son’s baseball game than take a client out for a drink? More necessary to attend a professional conference than spend the weekend with your family? Is getting enough sleep, planting a garden, meditating, having sex, playing fetch with your dog, going to the gym, getting a good night’s sleep, planting some flowers or meditating more imperative than either work or family?
Boundary flexibility is a quality you can develop by simply being willing to challenge or at least examine where you’ve drawn the line between both work and life. It’s necessary for boundary intelligence—using that awareness and flexibility to improve your relationships and get the distance and closeness you want in all of them.