Tuesday, April 27, 2010

How to Stand Your Ground without Stepping on People’s Toes

There’s a fine line between boundary management and self-righteous entitlement.

As Diane Draher wrote in The Tao of Inner Peace, “We must never let a cause, organization or a relationship so complete eclipse our lives that we forget who we are.”

LESSON LEARNED: If you’re going to stand your ground, make sure you’re not stepping on people’s toes.

Consider these ideas for walking the fine line:

1. Commitment can be seductive. The deeper you commit to something, the more likely you are to become so wrapped up and so obsessed with idea of being (and appearing) committed to that something, that your desire actually becomes bigger than what you’re committed to.

And that’s when people start to get hurt. That’s when things start to get broken. There does come a point at which commitment becomes a detriment. After all, what good is being committed if your commitment annoys, harms or offends the people around you? Make sure you don’t become a victim of your own conviction. Is your commitment a detriment?

2. Stop proving yourself and start expressing yourself. Let’s explore the distinction. Proving yourself is doing; expressing yourself is being. Proving yourself is claiming commitment; expressing yourself is embodying commitment. Proving yourself is screaming your truth; expressing yourself is walking your truth. Proving yourself is striving for approval; expressing yourself is allowing for refusal.

What’s more, proving yourself is demanding your rights; expressing yourself is deploying your gifts. Proving yourself is trying to be somebody; expressing yourself is embracing who you already are. And finally, proving yourself is advising people from the outside; expressing yourself is inspiring people from the inside. Which approach do you take?

3. Watch your volume. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I don’t do drugs. I don’t gamble. And I don’t go to strip clubs. And admittedly, I used to be a lot more vocal about my choices. But over the years I’ve learned that louder you say no, the more judgmental you sound.

Don’t make a spectacle. If you’re going to abstain from something, just thank people for offering, politely refuse and get on with your life. They don’t want to hear the entire philosophy behind each of your choices. It is possible to say “No” without screaming “No way!” Is the volume of your commitment disturbing the peace?

4. Offer simple, unarguable reasons. Next time someone asks you why you choose (not) to partake in something, try this: Instead of launching into your seven-minute diatribe about why a particular choice goes against your personal constitution or runs crosswire to the grain of your soul, just smile and simply say, “It’s not important to me.”

That’s enough. That’s all people need to hear. Anything more is probably unnecessary. Take it from someone who used to share his personal philosophy on everything, with everybody, in every conversation – even when they didn’t ask. Unless people put in a request for your entire dissertation, keep the explanation of your self-discipline brief and simple. Are you exhausting to be around?

5. Saying no stretches other parts of you. It’s amazing how creative you become once you’d made the decision not to cross a certain line. For example, think about the last time you approached a construction detour in your hometown. I bet you managed to discover several cool, new and exciting shortcuts to get to the same place you’ve been going for years, right?

Creativity works the same way: When you commit to (not) doing something a certain way, your brain immediately searches for alternate routes to accomplish the same goal.

I’m reminded of a time in college when Route 27 was blocked off for severe thunderstorm damage.

Since I was late for a final exam, I didn’t have time to take the detour. So, I revved up my ’95 Grand Am and plowed through the mud like a natural born monster truck. And after a few minutes of spinning my tires and spraying mud ten feet into the air, I actually busted through the barricade and came out on the other side without damaging my car or destroying the land.

Honestly, I don’t know what came over me. I’d never been so impressed with myself. I felt like Chuck Norris in Walker Texas Ranger, but without the tight jeans. Lesson learned: Next time you say no to something, start asking yourself, “What will saying no energize me for?”

It’s almost ironic. Setting healthy boundaries in one part of your life actually stretches you in other parts. Cool. Maybe you’ll discover a new skill you didn’t even know you had, simply by standing your ground. When you stick your stake in the ground, what new terrain might you uncover?

6. Give yourself permission to indulge occasionally. The moment you refuse to do so is the same moment your admirable self-discipline starts to morph into intolerable self-righteousness.

For example, I don’t eat (much) meat or dairy. Not that I’m a vegetarian or vegan. In fact, I’m all for slaughtering animals for delicious human consumption. It’s primarily a digestive issue and a health choice.

Still, don’t put it past me to throw down an occasional basket of buffalo wings like the carnivore I once was. Hey, I‘m realistic. Standing your ground is one thing. But life without buffalo wings? That’s just wrong. Once in a while never hurt anybody. Except maybe the chickens. What did you indulge this week?

7. Bamboo, not wood. As you can tell, I’m a fairly obstinate guy. When I make a certain choice, I stick to my guns. And when I believe in a particular philosophy, I rarely back down. It’s crucial to my value system and central to my fundamental orientation: I practice resolute persistence while staying committed to my boundaries.

Unfortunately, this particular orientation has the potential to alienate people if executed close-mindedly. I’m learning to be more careful. Sometimes a person’s strongest asset can become his deepest liability.

It’s all about walking the fine line between flexibility and determination. Between immovability and adaptability. Because if you don’t, you’ll snap like a twig under the weight of external pressure; when bending like a bamboo would probably be much more helpful.

Remember: Being obstinate is worthless when carried out at the expense of another person’s respect. When you stand your ground, how much foreign terrain are you willing to make room for?

8. Reciprocation is essential. The final component of standing your ground is the respect and openness you must extend to other people when they stand their ground. Even when you don’t agree with them. (Especially when you don’t agree with them!)

You still have to honor other people's truth. You still have to stand on the edge of yourself to salute them, without the desire to change, fix or improve them. Even if you have to “agree to disagree.”

Truth is: Standing your ground without stepping on people’s toes means learning to allow people you care about to challenge your opinions – without becoming frustrated. Instead, becoming thankful for the opportunity to (either) reinforce your own beliefs and stick to your guns, or to realize when you’ve been shortsighted.

Yes, it’s tough to accept influence from others – especially those you love. But sometimes they can see things you can’t. Sometimes they’re the very alarm clock you didn’t realize you needed. Don’t press the snooze button on them. Are you obstinate, yet flexible enough to bend when needed?

REMEMBER: Beware of excessive restraint.

Yes, constantly remind people of your commitment.

But not for the sole purpose of strengthening your own position.

No need to be a jerk about it.
No need to step on people’s toes.
No need to overlook the possibility of reconsideration.

Otherwise your self-restraint might be perceived as self-righteousness.

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What are you sacrificing at the expense of your self-control?

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Scott Ginsberg
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