Do you have bad boundaries? An interview with Sheena Greer

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Editor's Note: This interview originally appeared on the Wild Woman Fundraising website and is excerpted with permission. You can read the full interview here.

Mazarine Treyz: This is Mazarine Treyz of Wild Woman Fundraising, and I am very, very happy to introduce to you today to Sheena Greer of Colludo. She knows so much about boundaries and she’s been teaching about them for a while now. Sheena, thank you so much for being here.

Sheena Greer: Thank you for having me.

MT: This year at the career conference, we’re going to dive deeper into boundaries. So I wanted to ask you, since we’ve both had fundraising jobs and worked in nonprofits for a long time, what happens when people who work at nonprofits don’t have good boundaries?

SG: Well, I think with boundary issues, there’s really no separating work from life. I think that people who have boundary issues – and I can speak for myself, because it’s something that I’ve really struggled with my entire life and have done a lot of reading and research over the years – are prone to taking on too much because they’re prone to saying yes to everything. They’re prone to taking on other peoples’ problems and trying to solve problems, and ultimately probably fundraisers or anyone in this sector are here because they’re passionate problem solvers. Of course, the risk of trying to solve everyone else’s problems is that it leaves us feeling really stressed and prone to burning out. So that’s the toll on the self.

But when you look at inside of an organization, if there’s boundary issues, that starts to muddy the waters of who’s actually responsible for what in your workplace. Suddenly you can find yourself doing someone else’s job or not really knowing where the line is drawn between different people. If you have a whole room of people who have very spongy or weak boundaries, it’s really going to muddy the waters in terms of who’s responsible for what and who’s leading what, and what those ultimate goals are.

I think for the sector in general, when we keep as a sector agreeing to do more with less and for less, this system, this broken system that we’re in just perpetuates it. If people are thinking, well, I’ll just keep doing more with less resources and taking jobs that pay little money, little benefits or whatever...if we keep okaying that, that’s bad for the sector as a whole, I think.

MT: One of the things that you said before we started recording today was about a person who has to hide her gym bag when she comes into work because her boss will get really upset, but maybe silently upset, right?

SG: Yeah, well it was just passive aggressive. Like, oh, it’s nice that you can leave the office on time and go to the gym. Of course that makes you feel bad – and people with weak boundaries say yes when they want to say no and they feel bad for saying no. They get overly apologetic when they do so. So in an example like that, this individual has said no to staying late because she’s committed to giving herself the time to go to the gym after work at 5:00, which I think is reasonable. But then the response to that is this, oh, well, isn’t it nice that you get to do this while I’m stuck here doing my own work? It’s not like she’s leaving early and making her boss do her work. She’s leaving early to take time for herself while her boss hasn’t yet made the decision or commitment to herself to leave on time for herself.

And that’s just one example of that attitude? In that example, that boss has bad boundary issues too, right? She’s not able to cut it off at the end of the day and say yes to taking time for herself, and no to staying all night to do the work that is really never going to be done.

MT: Like you said, the cause is still going to be there whether or not we go home at 5:00 or go home at 7:00 or go home at midnight. For anybody listening who has boundary issues who is recognizing themselves in this conversation, we’ve identified that we have the boundary issues and that it's obviously part of the culture at a lot of our nonprofits. But is there anything we can do with an organizational culture that thrives on bad boundaries?

SG: I think organizational culture is a tricky one. It’s a tricky one for individuals, and I think the problem here is that people that maybe have boundary issues are already trying to solve problems that aren’t theirs to begin with. So first of all, just say, it’s okay for me to have boundaries and recognize that you can’t solve that problem. Because that’s just another problem that you don’t need to take on. I think the first step is really to work on yourself and try to recognize the issues that you may have and why you may have them. I often pick on myself. I love this sector. I’m working exactly where I need to be. I’ve always had a big heart. I’ve always had a lot of empathy for people around me. I’ve always been very responsible in my relationships and my workplaces, and I’ve always been driven to solve problems.

So all of these things that essentially make this sector such a wonderful place to work are also a lot of the reasons why I’ve struggled with boundaries. I care deeply for people and I want to solve problems. So when I see all of these broken things or things that need fixing or people that are struggling or whatever, I can’t help but want to just dive in and fix it for them. But in doing that, I also become this person that welcomes this in. If I step out and solve problems that aren’t mine, people are going to start to recognize that I’m the person to go to when it’s everything from the printer not working to them having a deep existential crises of their own or whatever it is.

So it’s really about starting to recognize those boundaries in yourself. If I was to say no to one thing, how would that affect me and make my life maybe a little less stressful? What would the repercussions of that be? Because of course if we live and work in these spaces where there’s all these fluid boundaries and everyone’s taking on all kinds of things, the moment you step up and say no, like with the gym bag, it’s going to feel really uncomfortable. People are probably going to fight back. So you really just need to recognize that this is really important for yourself.

Sometimes it’s hard, and sometimes it doesn’t work. I’ve left jobs in the past for that very reason. For example, my kid when he was younger, he needed speech therapy. So every Wednesday I had to leave and take him to his speech therapy appointment. No, you can’t schedule meetings for me during that time. I’m not going to skip it because this is something that I need to do. And you just have to stand up for it, as tough as that is, and hope that you can set a good example.

MT: So we actually need to look at solving this for ourselves first and not solving it for everybody in your organization.

SG: Absolutely. And also to try to find a support system, whether that’s a spouse or a family member or friends. If you know other people in the sector, sometimes you’re working so hard you don’t get a chance to network with other people working in the sector. I’ve certainly found that. But finding that network of people who work in the sector to just call up and ask, do you want to grab a coffee? And you know you can talk shop and they understand the sector in a way that maybe a friend that works in the corporate world doesn’t really get. Sometimes it feels like a different universe, right? But find that support system for yourself, while also, within reason, keeping your boundaries and theirs intact. You don’t want to just dump everything on this poor other person who’s already dealing with other things. Start to have these conversations about how do you make decisions around this. Like, my boss asked me to do this and I really don’t feel comfortable and I really don’t want to do it but I don’t know how to say no. If you can find those people that you can have those conversations with, it’s a really great place to start, and then, of course, to be an equally supporting partner yourself.

Like I said, you don’t go and just dump out all your stuff on them or vice versa. But if you can find those individuals or those groups to have those conversations with, hopefully you all come away from those conversations stronger. I think maybe this is a bit grandiose. But you’re representing, hopefully, a vision for a better sector overall, where more and more people are able to stand up for their boundaries and stand up for themselves and honour the things that they need. We can make our sector a little bit of a better place to work in terms of our personal boundaries.

MT: What do you think is a reward of doing this?

SG: I can only speak for myself, but really allowing myself to step up and say it is okay for me to have boundaries. It doesn’t make me a heartless person. It doesn’t make me a bad person or an ungiving person, and all of these things that swirl in our head because ultimately we’re giving people and we want to help people. Somehow saying it’s okay to have boundaries makes us feel like we’re somehow not giving, right? We need to be giving at like 110% all the time. But allowing myself to take things that I want and need to be happy and fulfilled ultimately makes me better at my job. I can’t describe how different it feels to get up and work in the morning, solving problems that I know I can work towards, that I’ve really actually agreed to work towards and not just sort of taken on. If we’re here to really try to change things and save the world, we need to be able to give ourselves some joy in doing it. That’s really such an incredible reward.

MT: That reminds me what you said at the career conference in this last year, in 2015, when you talked about Thomas Merton and how he said the frenzy of the activist neutralizes his work for peace.

SG: Yeah, and he talks about overwork as violence. It’s such a crazy, dark image. But just think of the violence we’re inflicting on ourselves when we’re doing too much, and really, like he says, neutralizing our work. It’s a really powerful passage, and I think it’s something that too many of us are living in our day to day and not talking about it. This is one of those elephants in the room.

MT: really love it that you start where you are. Start with you. Start acknowledging how this affects you and what your role is in this. Don’t blame yourself, but also think about, well, if I can control myself, then what can I do?

SG: We can’t really get to fixing other things and other people if we haven’t deeply reflected on ourselves. That’s difficult work to do, and self reflection is something that we often don’t have time for. We often don’t make time for it. It’s something that maybe feels for some people, a little hippy-dippy. It doesn’t suit their lifestyle. But you don’t need to go to a meditation retreat to do that. You just need to take the time to think about yourself and think about your work.

It’s just taking the time to think about who you are and what you need to be able to give, to be a better fundraiser, to be a better parent, a better spouse, a better community member. A better member of a global community. It’s really important work to do and that’s why I’m so happy that people like you are stepping out and talking about issues of self care, because we really need encouragement. We don’t have to hide our gym bags. I think that’s such a powerful metaphor. We’re all hiding our gym bags if we have them, right? And we shouldn’t have to hide them. We can talk about our gym bags. Ultimately we need to convince ourselves first that it’s okay to have a gym bag.

MT: Where can people find you if they have more questions, Sheena? I know you’re on Twitter at @colludos and Is there anywhere else they can find you?

SG: Those are the two probably best places to find me, but if they want to send me an email directly they can email me at

Click here to register now for the Fundraising Career Conference 2016. It’s virtual, every session is recorded, and you will have access to all of the recordings after the conference is over!

Mazarine Treyz is the author of "Get the Job! Your Fundraising Career Empowerment Guide." Her popular blog has 50,000 monthly readers. Read more at Join her at the 2016 Fundraising Career Conference.


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