My second job out of college was with a religious giftware company. I was a product-development coordinator for “inspirational” brands, which meant I was required to do things like write directions on how to bury St. Joseph for a “St. Joseph Home Sales Kit.” My boss sat me down a few weeks into the job and explained that there were four stages to becoming a competent employee. She said I was at number one. (You’ll know what that means in a second.)

I’ve thought a lot about these four steps because they apply also to building personal boundaries.

1. At first, you are unconsciously incompetent.

Say what??? Yep. You don’t know how much you don’t know. And the ignorance can be bliss until you get sick or suffer from stress-related symptoms like dizziness, a weird rash, a neurological disorder, or chronic fatigue. You’re baffled as to why you’re always run down, because you don’t realize how much energy you’re expending in stuff that’s not your problem. I just have too much to do! you say to yourself. And there is no way around it. Right? Wrong. Time to wake up to your boundaries problem.

2. Then you become consciously incompetent.

Holy boundaries! you wake up one day and say to yourself. I have leaks of energy all over and I don’t have the faintest idea how to plug them all. Now you’re getting somewhere! Now you can do something about your fatigue because you’ve identified the problem…boundaries that look like your grandmother’s window screens: with more holes than wire, and totally ineffective. In twelve-step language, I guess this would be the first step: We admitted we had no boundaries–that our lives had become unmanageable.

3. Third, you become unconsciously competent.

It’s a little confusing, I know. All four steps only use two words. In the third stage, you start to erect boundaries and to take care of yourself but you don’t realize it yet. Actually, I think this is where I am. All I know is that I’m using the word “no” a lot lately and I’m feeling extremely selfish, sometimes cruel. And yet I think I must be doing something right because I have more energy and friends are telling me that I look good, even relaxed! Plus my feelings of guilt have subsided a little.

4. Finally, you are consciously competent.

Yah! This is the goal: to be so confident in our boundaries skills that we no longer worry about not being nice or generous or Christian. Our boundaries automatically erect in dangerous (energy-leaking) situations, so that we don’t need to expend so much energy and time analyzing them, or whether or not we are building them the right way. The person at stage four is proof that the stuff of the serenity prayer is really possible: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

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