Holding Boundaries and Letting Go Of Other People’s Tasks

What does it mean to let go of other people’s tasks? This is one of the core questions in The Courage To Be Disliked, which we’ve been exploring in The Haven Book Club.

We are interdependent social beings. We need one another to survive. And yet our interpersonal relationships sit at the core of our many challenges.

Boundaries are not about shutting people out but understanding how to separate tasks and discard those that don’t belong to us.

We shouldn’t mistake separating tasks with separating ourselves as humans. On the contrary, the tasks are specific responsibilities only we can carry out through the choices we make as conscious and goal-oriented beings.

But What Are These Tasks?

How do we know which tasks belong to us and which ones are other people’s?

Our task is to cooperate with others to reach common objectives. Cooperating is not the same as conforming; it’s about collaboration. And understanding that everyone sees and experiences the world differently.

Our task is to remember that our way of seeing and experiencing is neither right nor wrong. It’s the same for everyone. No one else can choose our judgements, thoughts, and beliefs. Liking someone or not is our task. Likewise, whether or not someone dislikes us and our actions is their task. When we try to control or weigh into those tasks, we hit a world of potential pain and frustration.

This sits at the heart of courage when dealing with what people think of us. It’s not about hardening our hearts in the face of judgement and criticism. Instead, it’s about seeing our task – recognising what we can and cannot influence. Then, when we are free from the fear of what people might think, we can focus on our most meaningful projects.

Simple, right? Ha.

It shifts our relationship with our interpersonal relationships and helps us see others as comrades, not enemies. Interdependent (non-attached) rather than independent (detached) or dependent (attached). Independence and dependence are both forms of interpersonal power struggles. Conversely, interdependence is a creative collaboration that requires a commitment to meaningful intention, social interest, and community feeling.

This is not easy in a world where no one else seems to get that. But maybe it feels that way because we’re all waiting for someone else to start.

Make The First Move

We should take a first step forward instead of passively waiting for other people or situations to change. Not to interfere in that person’s tasks (their beliefs, thoughts, and judgements), but to decide whether or not this relationship is helping us with our tasks and making a choice based on the conclusion we reach.

Many relationships come to reflect explicit and implicit power struggles. But love is impossible when we restrict the other person and control the parameters of the relationship. Such shaky foundations doom a relationship to fail.. Love is a collaboration, not a competition.

Recognising our inter-relationship patterns is challenging, especially if belonging has been conditional since we were young.

Suppose we were taught to equate self-worth with external factors (e.g. be good, kind, pretty, clever, the best, caring, busy, independent, brave, considerate etc.). In that case, we are more likely to enter vertical power dynamics in future relationships. We experience this when we base our self-worth on demonstrated values (I love you because you’re so kind and caring), rather than on action arising from a foundation of unconditional acceptance, safety, and belonging.

The former message implies that you are only safe and accepted if you show kindness and caring. However, we are no longer free to be kind and caring; we are bound to it as a prerequisite for belonging. Many such messages are absorbed and integrated from various sources growing up.

Encouragement Not Praise

In Punished By Rewards, Alfie Kohn looks at the evidence against the common assumption that people change their behaviour through positive reinforcement like incentives and praise. He points out the conspicuous absence of the long-term in the evidence people use to support rewards, leading us to some unhelpful conclusions.

People DO change their behaviour in the short run when presented with positive outcomes for doing so, but this makes us dependent on external motivation. When the rewards are dropped, so too is the behaviour.

It turns out that we are not incentivised by the behaviour but by the incentive. The rather dispiriting conclusion is that we are less likely to act from intrinsic meaning and community feeling when our reality is built around systematic incentives and rewards.

Instead, we must look beyond behavioural conditioning as the answer to society’s ills. A community that uses behaviourism to change behaviour uses manipulation and control to get people to change. This erodes our humanity and turns us into little more than compliant robots in the factory of life.

Encouragement differs from praise because it starts from a ground of being rather than rewarding a person at the level of acts. It focuses on character, not actions, and reinforces unconditional acceptance and belonging at the core of a person’s sense of self. Thus we are free, not forced, to act.

In The Courage to Be Disliked, Courage is “en-courage-ment”. Or to help give rise to courage in another, supporting them in becoming more of who they are, not who we think they should be (or who we need them to be for our cookie-cutter convenience).

This is what happens in a healthy coaching or therapeutic partnership. It’s the practitioner’s role to support the coachee in expanding, embracing, stepping into themselves, and being alongside them as they figure it out.

There is no place for praise in such a partnership. Praise as recognition comes from a vertical relationship (I am training you to be like I need you to be). It’s given by someone who sets the expectations and judges success as to whether the other person has met those conditional measurements.

The Freedom of Being Disliked

When our sense of self-worth is tied to external rewards, breaking from the fear of what people think (and the desire to be liked) can feel impossible. This underpins people-pleasing patterns.

In this sense, being liked is praise and being disliked is punishment. So we might gravitate towards doing what we hope will get us recognition. And we avoid doing what we’ve learned people reject.

Separating Our Tasks From Other People’s

Interpersonal relationship knots can tighten over time. Letting go of what people think can feel groundless and confusing unless we have a concrete way of imagining our boundaries.

It’s not something you can suddenly do, even if it’s something you decide you’re going to do. It’s the start of a path, not a magic and momentary transformation.

Separation of tasks is a pathway of intention, small steps, and experimentation. It helps us hold ground when we want to run away or shrink ourselves to appease the demands of others. It gives us the perspective to reach beyond binary polarised power struggles and create space for more creative approaches to interpersonal relationship tensions.

Recognising that boundaries are about collaborating with the world around us to create conditions for better outcomes to arise.

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