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Break Through the Invisible Fence

Fifteen years ago, I was walking through a neighborhood in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area when I spotted a lost dog in the middle of the road. As I approached, he did not run off as I had expected. Instead, the dog continued to stroll along contentedly until I caught up to him. After a good old back rub, I checked his tags. “Boomer,” it turned out, lived just a street away.  Taking a firm hold of Boomer’s collar, I led him back home.

As I stepped across the lawn into Boomer’s front yard… ZAP! Turns out, his owners had an invisible fence. Boomer and I both whimpered, our bodies buzzing with electricity, as we made our way to the front door.

Our Own Invisible Fences

On a recent coaching call, I thought about Boomer and the invisible fence. The client seemed to be restricted by a self-imposed limit that was holding her back from becoming the leader she needed to be—essentially restricted by her own invisible fence.

We all have formative personal and professional experiences that define and shape us in good ways and not so good ways. “Formative” is not limited to childhood. Rather, formative applies to something that has a lasting influence on who we are such as a difficult interaction, an early-career boss or even last week’s board presentation.

Just like our formative experiences differ, so do our self-imposed invisible fences. Reaching out for new relationships, letting go of actions and behaviors that you believe are intrinsic to your success or living within the boundaries of what has worked in the past, are just a few examples.

Defining the Shock

In my decade-plus of coaching global executives, trust issues seem to pop up frequently. Typically, a client will explain that their lack of trust stems from a formative experience in which they were deeply hurt as a result of reaching out. This is the shock: the blow, the jolt, the whammy.

The associated trauma usually results in the client, overtly or not, refusing to trust others or to be trusted by others. Over time, this limited ability to trust may corrode relationships and hinder career trajectories.

Failing to trust is one type of self-limiting behavior, but there are many others. Regardless of the type of shock, people tend to react similarly by reinforcing natural inclinations and imposing limits on themselves.

“Break on through to the other side. Yeah.” —The Doors

Breaking through our own invisible fences takes courage, sometimes a lot of it. Essentially, one must feel the shock and push forward anyway, just like Boomer did. Undoubtedly, he would experience short-term pain, but for him, the opportunity to explore was much too great. The shock was worth the payoff.

Fifteen years on, I realize that Boomer was not unhappy when I saw him. In fact, he probably wasn’t even lost! Exploring a wider world with an easy spirit and a contented heart seems about right, in retrospect.

So, what shocks and invisible fences hold you back? If you have the courage to experience discomfort and move beyond it, there’s a whole world out there waiting for you to explore.

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