Work-Life Balance: Setting Boundaries from Within

Work-life balance and boundaries

In a world that’s becoming faster paced by the minute, work-life balance is a hot topic. In particular, we talk a lot about boundaries: recognizing we need them, developing the competency to assert them (usually by saying “no”), and vigilantly maintaining them so that we’re not overextending and neglecting what is important to us.

I think most of us see boundaries as a structure that defends our precious resources—our time, energy, loved ones, etc.—against invaders. Especially when we are inundated with immediate concerns, boundaries are like the wall around the castle, defending us against incoming attack.

In Integral Coaching we have several ways of assessing a client and taking them somewhere new. One way of doing this is through the use of narratives. Narratives are metaphors that illustrate how the client is showing up in her life. The current narrative shows where the client is. The deeper narrative shows where it’s possible for the client to go.

In this case, the current narrative would be the person defending the castle. They are pulling back into the keep, hunkering, protecting their time and energy and family against invaders. The mood is fearful, vigilant, on alert. It means that anything not inside the wall are enemies. It’s likely the person resents or downright dislikes the commitments and people that are invading.

It’s difficult to have genuine engagement from this narrative, isn’t it? Not only is it disempowering, but if we get ‘good’ at these kinds of boundaries—fortifying our walls so securely—it’s no longer possible for us to get out and explore new territory.

What if there was another way of setting boundaries?

One client of mine, a loving and capable soul who is deeply rooted in service and vocation, described to me once what it felt like to her to be centered and powerful. She felt it as a spinning column of energy running vertically through the middle of her body. When she sat with it, she could feel the truth of what she was up to, where she was needed, and what she was capable of. It was receptive as well as generative: “catching” and handling things, but also producing the energy necessary to meet whatever was coming in.

This person has healthy work-life balance and great boundaries—but those boundaries are a very different shape than the defensive ones described above. Rather than defending a vulnerable, sparsely occupied space, her boundaries are the leading edge of this outward-flowing, self-generated energy. She’s able to expand into the unknown, trusting that she’ll know what is right to take on and that her system will adjust to meet whatever is next.

As we deepen in our development, becoming more and more in touch with what is worth our time and energy, there is a different orientation to work-life balance and boundaries. It becomes an empowered, directed movement, informed by what we know to be true about ourselves. We’re no longer hunkered and powerless against whatever the world is throwing at us. There is choice. There is agency.

A deeper narrative in this case might look like an ever-expanding universe, with ceaseless resources, with a ‘big bang’ (purpose) having set it into motion. The boundary is the frontier, fluid and moving outward as our inner capacity grows and grows. Everything is contained within this system. The motion is organic, inevitable. There is nothing to attack or defend against.

How to get from here to there

The key to changing shape in this way is drawing our focus more and more to our own alignment. What is mine to do? What is the world asking of me? What is truly important to me? What is my life for? If we imagine our spine as a continuum of energy connecting us to heaven (our divine directive) and down into the earth (where it manifests), and spend some time physically attuning to that, our attention shifts more toward our values, our vocation, or calling, and less on what is being demanded of us from the outside.

Naturally it’s not as simple as this—insight only gets us so far. We can’t just decide to shift focus and expect our relationship with boundaries to change. We have to re-shape our bodies and nervous systems through practice.

Examples of practices an Integral Coach might give to help a client orient to her center are:

  • Pilates or balancing exercises
  • A visualization during daily meditation
  • A self-reflection where the client journals on when they were being the castle and when they were the universe that day.

Narratives are one of many powerful ways we have of working with clients. Several of these methods are taught in our two-day introductory workshop, Foundations of Coaching