Living BIG in our Law Libraries (and beyond)

By Jenny Silbiger (Follow us on LinkedIn)

Living BIG is an acronym standing for: Boundaries, Integrity, and Generosity, and is one of the many lessons that surfaced from Dr. Brene Brown’s decades of research around shame, vulnerability, compassion, and wholehearted living. You may have seen my post on the Gifts of Imperfection as relating to law libraries. Today, we’re pivoting about this particular concept of wholehearted living in setting boundaries, grounding ourselves in our integrity, and coming from a place of generosity.

To sum it up in Dr. Brown’s words: “Living BIG is saying: Yes, I’m going to be generous in my assumptions and intentions while standing solidly in my integrity and being very clear about what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable.”

So, my first question for you: In general, do you believe that people are doing the best that they can?  

Photo provided by author

When researching compassion, Dr. Brown asked folks within and without vocations centered on compassion (nuns, priests, monks, clergy, etc) and teased out what compassion meant for them.  The folks who ‘lived out’ compassion—who served and reached out to others with kindness and empathy, as well as who saw the humanity in everyone and believed in oneness (not sameness—another story) all had something in common. And it was not what Dr. Brown had thought it would be—that there would be a strong underlying thread of spiritual belief(s).  

Instead, the common thread that folks who lived out compassion was that they had a clear set of boundaries in relationships in life. They could clearly see what was okay and not okay for them, and didn’t subject themselves to the abuse of other people. In other words, setting healthy boundaries means staying true to our internal values, caring for ourselves—even at the risk of disappointing others—so that we can come from a centered and healthy place when we relate and maintain our external relationships. Above all, it’s showing respect for yourself as well as respect for others, because when we don’t have boundaries, we are at risk of ‘losing ourselves’ and taking over responsibility for things that belong to others (which can lead to burn-out and resentment).

Now let’s take a look at integrity. According to Dr. Brown, Integrity is choosing courage over comfort; it’s choosing what’s right over what’s fun, fast, or easy; and it’s practicing your values, not just professing them. In a nutshell, integrity is living our values, which builds trust—in ourselves and with others. An example of integrity is enforcing your workplace policies and procedures—i.e. we recently had a run in with a person from the public who was harassing my staff, using inappropriate and offensive language. Over the course of two weeks, almost every one of my staff was exposed to this harassing behavior, and living in our integrity meant that we had to document, report, and then take corrective behavior, by confronting this individual and eventually suspending them physically from our workspace. In this case, it was almost what you would call an ‘easy’ scenario—not at all relating to what my staff and I had to deal with—but ‘easy’ in that the way forward was clear: documentation, reporting to leadership, involving security, so we could address the behavior to provide a harassment-free workplace.

The uncomfortable side of integrity is when we get ourselves confused with people-pleasing, or lowering our boundaries for approval, likes, and/or well-intentioned requests. So let’s circle back to boundaries. Have you ever found yourself approached by someone, especially at work, with a task, new project, and you hear yourself saying “yes” even though your internal voice says “wait, what??” Then weeks go by as the task or project goes underway and perhaps an internal question has turned into grumbling and complaining and transformed into resentment?  And that perhaps, if we could go back in time, we could wave a magic wand, and choose a completely different response?

Here is where a healthy boundary practice can set in—it is about recognizing our self-worth and care, so that when we do say ‘yes,’ we can commit wholeheartedly in doing so. And when we say “no,” we are grounded in our integrity. We can prioritize our self-care, because we know we can do our best work when we come from a place of self-worth and free of guilt. (Believe me, I know this is easier said than done, but it’s worth thinking about as we move forward in our working lives—a tip from Dr. Brown:  Choose momentary discomfort over resentment.).  

And further, boundaries come from a non-judgmental place. Dr. Brown recognizes this in asking:  what boundaries need to be in place for me to stay in my integrity and make the most generous assumptions about you?

So now we’re circling back to that initial question:  In general, do you think people are doing the best that they can?  

When I look back at my lived experiences, both personal and in the workplace, this is how I answer this question:

Yes, I believe that people, in general, are doing the best that they can with the tools that they have at the moment. Those tools can change over time, and so can ‘the best,’ and maybe, especially, this is me talking to myself, that I have work to do and need to improve. This doesn’t excuse crappy behavior at work or in our family lives or in the world. It merely gives context and understanding and is helpful when navigating extremely tricky and challenging avenues. It means staring out at the world and opening our hearts to forgiveness, non-judgment, and understanding, while also maintaining boundaries on what we can and cannot accept.

Dr. Brown asked her husband, a pediatrician, this same question, and his answer was “I’m not sure, but I know that I’m happier and my life is better when I believe that they are.” I share his sentiment, thinking back when I was on the receiving ends of hurts or negative behavior in my personal and professional life, from childhood to the present moment.     

Today, when I experience challenging situations, I do believe that folks are doing their best, which may be why it can be so difficult living in our world right now. Even as the person that we suspended lurched away from our building, I felt like crying. Not at all to excuse the behavior, but because this is her best, and it makes me sad, that perhaps she may have been failed by others doing their best, and it hurts to see people in pain, even as we enforce boundaries to protect folks we work with and care about.

Image by Dariusz Sankowski from Pixabay

Living BIG, in our law libraries and our personal lives, is truly about holding and recognizing the humanity in others, while centering ourselves in our truth, values, and integrity. This can be applied to major, institutional themes (diversity, equity, & inclusion), as well as personal level workplace relationships, and knowing when to say yes or no to a new idea or a new project. It can be living with challenging workplace scenarios, especially for the ones where we have little control over, as well as the ones where we may be steering the ship. Coming from that place of generosity, where we recognize the folks around us are doing their best, can help us live and make decisions around our programs or staffing.

One thing for sure, like many of the things researched and discussed in this concept of wholehearted living, living BIG is a continual journey, rather than the destination. And I feel thankful to be on this journey with you.

Dr. Brown discusses this concept of Living BIG in her final two episodes of her podcast, Unlocking us.  Part 1 here; Part 2 here.


Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. The essays represent their personal beliefs and not that of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.