Work

The Dangers of Being Agreeable

We dedicate this to Harriet DeHaven Cuddihy, whose old world elegance and impeccably irreverent humor, deep curiosity and optimism made her one of my true idols. Words cannot say how much we will miss her.

Love, gp


Q

As a woman who was raised in a society where it is implied that women should be agreeable and amenable, where speaking up for yourself can label you “difficult,” I personally have found it difficult to do that very thing. Why is it important to have personal boundaries and make sure they are not crossed? More importantly, how can we keep them while coming off strong and not strident?

A

When I first read this question it sounded so 1950’s…do we as women still feel this way—the need to please? But then I remembered something that happened some years back … and I thought, “Oh right, I get this!”

Many years ago, in a work-related incident, a man crossed a verbal and physical boundary with me. There were many people around—mostly women. And yet, there was a sort of atmospheric understanding that everyone was expected to be “agreeable and amenable” with this man. He was important in this context. So when he crossed this boundary, everyone was stunned and wondering what was going to happen.

The situation stunned me too—it threw me off guard. I never thought of myself as timid … and yet I didn’t say anything. The fact that I didn’t respond disturbed me more than the man’s words or actions. Why did I hesitate? For some days this became a puzzle for me.

When we ask, “Why is it important to have personal boundaries and make sure they are not crossed?” it is perhaps because we want to have a healthy and sane relationship with our world. How do we create avenues for relationships that support ourselves and others and the work we engage in together?

During those few days I grappled with my dilemma, I realized there was a lot at stake. First, I felt an allegiance to my own sense of dignity. But that was only part of it. I understood that I had stepped into a situation where there had already been an ongoing transgression of boundaries. Everyone (especially the women in this case) was looking toward me for some clarity. I felt a sense of responsibility. Furthermore, I had a working relationship with this man. How could I create a healthy dynamic so that our work together could continue to benefit?

Boundaries can support us. I remember my son once said, in a moment of feeling overwhelmed by his own wildness: “Mom, I think I need some boundaries right now.” I understood that if I helped him focus on a task it would help him calm down and connect with what he already recognized as a state of well-being. It helps us to understand how structure can serve us in this way.

At the same time, boundaries can also be divisive and isolating. We often put up boundaries when we just don’t want to “deal.” When we cut off others to protect ourselves we usually react with a little aggression. This often has consequences. We can sever opportunities and even friendships. Furthermore, we fail to see that we have the resources to bring clarity to a situation where clarity is badly needed.

So what I realized, in responding to my challenge, was that I wanted to work with this situation in a way that created clarity for all. I asked myself, “What will serve everyone involved here?” With this intention I could confront this man without aggression. Because I didn’t blame him, I didn’t have to feel like a victim myself—which was empowering.

Because of this shift in attitude I found a way of communicating with this man that was not harsh or “strident.” This naturally created a completely different tone in our conversation; a different tone of voice, a different tone in speech, a different tone in presence and body language, and therefore a different overall tone in the environment. Because he didn’t feel attacked, this man (to his benefit) could self-reflect. When I asked him for more formality in the relationship—he agreed.

I have found in my experience that when I have had the wherewithal to step back and ask myself, “what serves” rather than simply reacting to a situation, I find creative and surprising ways of responding to life. It is emboldening and important for us as women (and human beings in general) to find inventive ways to respond skillfully to people and situations. This is where we find true strength, compassion, and clarity. In this way everyone benefits.

— Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel is the author of the book, The Power of an Open Question.

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