Am I A Good Investment? Setting Healthy Boundaries with Mentors.

We all know the term “Return On Investment” (ROI). When we put our money, our time, or our energy into something, we expect to be compensated in some way. Maybe that means seeing your stocks rise or getting your kid into college or mounting your first production; whatever it is we expect to get something out of our investment. Being a mentor is no different. Mentors invest their time, energy and expertise into someone they believe in. It’s an incredibly generous offering of oneself to another person, but like anything else in life there is still an expectation that they’re going to see an ROI. This is where mentorship turns from charity to an unspoken contract.

Some may look at the word contract and get uncomfortable, but all I mean by it is that it becomes a bond and an agreement that needs to be taken very seriously for a few different reasons:

1. It protects your mentor and makes them feel like they aren’t going to waste their time on you, which then allows them to feel more comfortable being generous with you.

2. It’s good for you, because it gives you things to work towards and goals that need to be accomplished in order to bring something to the table.

3. It establishes a mutual trust between the two of you that should not be taken lightly.

Mentorship, like any serious relationship you develop in life, should be treasured and protected. People need to feel confident in the investment they are making in you and you need to feel confident that you are going to be able to give them a return on that investment. Whether we realize it or not, that is how we create trust. The specific and rewarding ROIs I have given my mentors in the past have been:

-Reading books, journals and other texts so that we could have meaningful conversations about them

-Making bold choices in a show I was directing

-Taking their notes on my work and showing progress

-Writing the first draft of a grant and setting up time to review it

-Creating new processes in the office and evaluating their effectiveness

-Working on my leadership skills and reporting back on what worked and what didn’t

-Running an event by myself and collecting data on it for us to review

The beautiful and detrimental part of mentorship is that it gets personal quickly. My mentors know a lot about me. They know who my parents are, how I was raised, the names of my dogs, my favorite ice cream flavor, my struggles with anxiety, who my best friends are, where I want to go to grad school, what my greatest dreams are… and there’s no real way to avoid this. When you do life with someone and trust them, they end up becoming more and more invested in you as time goes on. It slowly becomes harder and harder for a mentor to be objective with someone who they’ve put so much time, energy and love into. In the same way, it becomes difficult for you to make returns on an investment that is so high.

It’s easy to ignore opinions when they come from people you don’t respect, but when they come from someone you trust with every fiber of your being, it is much more difficult. When boundaries begin to break down in a mentorship relationship, your ROIs stop being manageable tasks like the list above and start to look more like this:

-Not hurting my mentor’s feelings by disagreeing with them

-Taking all of my mentor’s notes even if I disagree with them

-Shaping my career path around what my mentor expects of me

-Not taking an opportunity because my mentor thinks it’s a waste of time

-Taking an opportunity I’m not right for because my mentor wants me to

-Not letting this person down

In the defense of mentors, oftentimes we put these expectations on ourselves, because we have gotten so close to these people. We feel like we owe them something and we don’t want to let them down. Therefore, we spend our time trying to think of what they would want us to do instead of doing what is best for us. There are also times when mentors truly do set unreasonable expectations on us and put us in the confines of what they think is right. Either way the relationship becomes unhealthy and unmanageable, because your ROI is no longer healthy or manageable.

So how do we make mentoring work? How do we set healthy boundaries with mentors, but still let them be a part of our lives? How do we give people an ROI, but keep ourselves fully intact?

1.You don’t have to share everything.

Many of us can have a tendency to overshare or feel like we need to tell our mentors everything. This isn’t true. Your mentor is not your therapist. Your mentor is not your mom. They don’t have to know everything about you and you shouldn’t feel obligated to tell them. If you don’t feel comfortable telling them something, then don’t. Fun fact: they will probably also appreciate this.

2.You don’t have to always agree.

It’s best to be up front with this one. Don’t start out as a “yes man” and agree with everything your mentor has to say and then suddenly begin to disagree with them. Make it clear from the beginning that you are going to have differing opinions and that you are going to share them in a respectful way when they come up. A good mentor will appreciate this, because it gives them an opportunity to have a discussion, instead of giving a lecture.

3.You don’t have to follow their path.

Be honest about what parts of your mentor’s career you're interested in emulating and where your plans diverge. It’s good for your mentor to know that you are not trying to copy them and it takes the pressure off of the “following in their footsteps” trope. You’re going to be your own person and that is going to be a very different person than your mentor. They will be okay with that.

4. Be clear what you want advice and guidance on.

When you’re not clear about what you want advice on, it gives the impression that you welcome it in all aspects of your life. You probably do not want your mentor to give you relationship advice. However, if you overshare about your relationship and don’t set professional boundaries, they might feel like you’re asking for their input. If you set particular goals you would like advice and guidance on, then there won’t be any chance for confusion.

5. It’s okay to say no.

It’s okay to say no to opportunities, to meetings and to advice that is outside the boundaries of your relationship. You don’t need an excuse. If you feel like your mentor is pushing you to do something you feel uncomfortable with, it is always okay to say no. If they’re a good mentor, they will respect your decision. That doesn’t mean they won’t want to talk through that decision, but it does mean that you always have the power to say no to things that are not good for you.

Mentoring is a huge investment and we should always be grateful for the extraordinary people in our lives that choose to help us, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t set up boundaries with them. In the end, it’s the healthy mentoring relationships that have the greatest Return On Investment, because they are beneficial to both people and are able to stand the test of time.

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