Why do setting and keeping internal boundaries matter? Advice from B2B copywriter, Ed Gandia

Georgia-based B2B copywriter, blogger, podcaster and coach, Ed Gandia, has produced some great marketing materials during the past  decade or so in which I have followed him. I “met” him by reading the influential book, The Wealthy Freelancer (that Ed co-wrote with my former coach, Steve Slaunwhite), and through their shared work in the “International Freelancers’ Academy.

Ed finds as much fascination in issues of entrepreneurial well-being as I do, and he regularly shares his research and insights on it.

Recently, I listened to a program he published on the importance of setting and keeping our own mental boundaries, as solo professionals, so that work does not take over all the time (and then some!) that we have. Ed cites “Parkinson’s Law,” that “work will expand to take up all available time,” if we let it. And nothing good follows.

For instance, if we make a habit of working on weekends, and don’t respect our own need for rest and to be with families and friends, we break the limits that we set for ourselves, leaving us prone to exhaustion and burn-out.  Our families express their disappointment and anger (or, if they’re children, they act out).

There’s nothing new to this observation, as psychotherapists, psychoanalysts and other mental health specialists wrote about “boundary violations” at least three decades ago. But Ed’s program caused me to pause because he describes how negotiating our own inner boundaries can be challenging, specifically because we are subject to both false guilt (FG) and true guilt (TG). Both forms of guilt can dog the outcome when we break our own boundaries.

True guilt (TG), Ed observes, results when we make mistakes or blunders that show that we lack internal integrity. For instance, we double-book meetings by mistake. Or we “mess up” by submitting work that was not our best, due to time constraints. TG makes us resolve the problem or fault the best we can by making amends (especially trying to learn from the mistake, so as not to repeat it), forgiving ourselves and moving on. It’s not a comfortable feeling, but it is finite in duration.

False guilt (FG), by contrast, is a learned response, triggered by a demand outside of ourselves that we could not or did not meet. This kind of guilt is unreasonable (i.e. you cannot reason with it, logically). It is also inappropriate (the guilt persists, unfairly) and unhealthy. FG makes us feel terrible and like a record stuck in a groove, causes us to blame and berate ourselves (e.g. constantly saying what we “should” do or have done). Ed calls this “should-ing all over ourselves!” There are no options available when one has FG, because you feel guilty in either case, and that is key to its destructive power.

The reason I mention Ed’s distinction between these forms of guilt (that date back to early writings of psychoanalysis) is that anyone who works creatively must be especially vigilant about FG. It leaves our minds stuck, like the proverbial needle in the groove of a record, so we feel there are “no other options available.” When you continue to feel guilty, despite having already apologized to anyone else involved, you have a problem.

Ed reminds us that when we feel FG, we override our internal boundaries, protecting others’ feelings and needs, to a pathological extent, above our own. In simple terms, we allow a client who calls in a rush order on 3:00 pm on Friday, due the following Tuesday, because, well, they’re a repeat client and we can cancel our planned outing with the kids. (Obviously, worse suffering and loss will ensue from decisions made in FG.) 

While TG is a necessary experience when we fall short, learn and grow from our failures, FG can overwhelm us with self-abuse that never goes anywhere positive. Whether we call our internal needs and commitments “boundaries” or not, Ed’s observation that they are often tied to our guilt reflect how genuine they are and that they warrant our respect.

And now it’s your turn. If you analyze your behaviour at work and at home, where do you find true and false guilt arising? How do they help or hinder your internal boundaries? And what effect does each have on your business and life?