Bringing Focus to the “We”
By Joy Reichart, New Ventures West, Guest Contributor
If you are on a developmental path of any kind it’s likely that at some point you’ve had to look at boundaries: saying no to requests, putting a hard stop on the workday, not taking on other peoples’ “stuff.”
Boundaries are an essential aspect of wellbeing in that they help us delineate where we end and the rest of the world begins, determine what is our business and what is others’, reserve our energy for what is important to us, and so on.
In Western culture it seems we’ve begun to hold boundaries as paramount, holy even. We are so busy attending to the demands of our lives that it often seems the only way to protect our time is to put up a fence around it.
What has been your experience with setting and maintaining boundaries?
Our instinct to connect
Setting boundaries can be challenging for many. It certainly is for me. Over the years I’ve learned to orient more to my own knowing and needs, and not respond so automatically to others’. It’s given me a greater sense of autonomy and made me more effective in the world. And, when I reflect more deeply, I discover there is a loneliness there as well.
Most behaviors that don’t serve tend to be rooted in something true and useful. In this case, it occurred to me that we are biologically wired to be connected with one another. The tendency to want to merge is a remnant of how, until very recently, humans survived. Not many generations ago we lived in villages, and before that traveled in nomadic bands. We slept, worked, ate, celebrated, mourned, fought, loved, and lived our lives side by side. We always knew where everyone was, we knew how they were, and when something was wrong, all other activity ceased until the disharmony was put right.
Everything we did was for the sake of the group, in other words. There was no such thing as being too busy for each other. Each other was the point. Each other was how we survived.
Precious few societies still operate this way, though the essence of it remains true everywhere. In this episode of the Aspen Institute’s podcast,* writer Eric Barker cites a study showing the top two factors increasing a person’s likelihood of surviving after a heart attack are (a) whether they smoke and (b) how many friends they have.
Our instincts to turn toward one another, tend to others’ needs, isn’t a failing—except in this culture. Nowadays, especially in the west, “each other” has been replaced by money as our primary means of survival. Distance continues to grow between us, aided by technology, convenience, and productivity. Ironically, our striving to survive on this earth is, well, killing it. And us. And though we can’t suddenly and forever dismantle a way of life that has been woven over hundreds of years, perhaps we can begin to look to where we might restore some balance.
I / We / It
Often in Integral Coaching we use models to help bring our felt sense of a person into more precise focus. One model, “I / We / It”, based on the work of Jürgen Habermas, helps us see where we and others might be out of balance.
The “I” domain is about self-management. It focuses on what is happening in the individual: their thoughts, feelings, behavior. We’re looking at our client’s self-awareness, sense of purpose, motivation / persistence, and self-care.
The “We” domain focuses, of course, on connections with others and ourselves: understanding the relationships we are in and the cultures that shape us. We’re looking here at conversations, compassion, speaking / listening, and support.
Finally there is the “It” domain—the external world with which we interact, consisting of processes, technology, measurement and statistics, environment and aesthetics.
Take a few moments to reflect on the following questions, journaling a bit if you’d like.
- If the I / We / It model was a pie chart, how much of the pie would each domain occupy?
- What might bring the three more into balance?
A “We”-deficient world
It seems that in the west we are focused a lot on “I,” a great deal on “It,” and far less so on “We.” This is a very natural response to the times we find ourselves in. To wit: how do I manage myself, my behaviors, my mindset, in order to survive in the external world?
As we’ve discussed, a popular go-to method is to create boundaries that fence us off from the “We,” which on the surface seems to be consuming us. However, what if the “We” is actually calling for our attention? What if it is a place to rest, be nurtured, and seek support? Could it be that leaning more into the “We” could make it easier to navigate the other two domains?
Yes, boundaries are important—essential even—but when we start to rely on them to defend us against perceived invasion, they can get out of balance easily. Instead, we might examine the “We” domain in our own lives, and look for how it could be the source of the feelings we’re seeking when we push it away. We may indeed find that the “We” isn’t overbalanced at all, but actually rather anemic.
(Social media poses as the “We,” but as has been well documented, its very purpose is to reinforce the I / It cycle, putting stuff in front of us that make us feel isolated, deficient, and compelled to fill those holes through consumption. It does not, as many would hope, work as a substitute for what we get from actual human interaction.)
Here are a few more questions for you to reflect and journal on.
- Where are the boundaries in my life? What were they formed in response to?
- What do they allow in? What do they keep out?
- How do these boundaries serve me? Where do they feel out of balance?
- How do my boundaries shape my relationship to the “We?”
Meaningful moments of “We”
Opening the door to the “We” doesn’t need to be epic or involve raging extroversion. These days, a walk with a good friend can bring my whole day back into balance. Less than a generation ago, I remember my (very busy) mother regularly sitting with a friend at our kitchen table, drinking coffee and chatting. Her way of being was decidedly different in these moments. I know I’m not the only person my age in the US with memories like this. It lives in our DNA.
Communities of practice offer beautiful, well-boundaried places for nourishment and growth. I’ve found that my Aikido dojo—a place filled with plenty of people and much activity—nevertheless gives me a quiet sense of stillness, and of being seen. We are focused together on deepening inside a sacred container built for that purpose. The boundaries (expectations, etiquette, agreements) are clear going in, so that we need only focus on our own growth and support others in theirs.
For many folks, one of the most powerful aspects about our programs at New Ventures West is that the “We” aspect is so present. In reality all three domains are balanced, but against a “We”-deficient backdrop, this can feel revolutionary. In fact, it is. The “We” provides an incubator for the “I”’s development. It gives us some distance from the “It,” providing a deeper perspective on how to engage with the world – perhaps even discovering what might be our purpose, or calling.
We invite you to experience a powerful community of practice in Foundations of Coaching, our virtual introductory course. Take $100 off using the coupon code MINDFULLEADER. Joy Reichart is the Communications Director at New Ventures West, the Integral Coach training school based in San Francisco.
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