What It Means to Stay In My Lane

How much do you pay attention to the lane striping on a roadway? Unfortunately for me, I critique notice it a LOT from working in the transportation industry as a field engineer.

Double yellow, that’s easy: don’t cross into oncoming traffic. Dashed white, also called skips: lane changes are allowed. But I mean the finer details. Like when you’re merging onto an interstate, but there’s a long solid white line that slooowly turns into white skips. Ooh, gray area. I bet at least 90% of us cross that solid line before the skips. I can neither confirm nor deny my choice, given where I’m going and how heavy traffic is. These areas are tricky because the lane next to it looks open. So, can’t I sneak on over and be on my way?

The lane lines serve as boundaries of what we can and cannot cross. We don’t own the roadway, of course (as much as we’d like to, some days). And the more I studied “striping” as we call it in the engineering field, the more I began connecting this concept to everyday life. I’ve also studied quite a bit on boundaries in my personal growth, as the notion of it was completely foreign to me until a few years ago. Back then, aside from some obvious ethical boundaries like don’t cheat, I had very few personal boundaries.

I thought saying yes to everything and everyone was both encouraged and expected. “Be a hand raiser!” “Don’t miss a good opportunity!” “Fake it till you make it!” were the mantras told to us as young college students ready to change the world. Seldom were the phrases, “But do what’s best for you” or “But take the time you need to decide what opportunities fit you” added on to remind us to stay balanced. The main message was: get the degree as fast as possible to start making as much money as possible, and the rest will fall into place. An engineering fairy tale at its finest.

I’ve learned that boundaries give us language to say what works and what doesn’t for us, both in life and at work. I think this is really tough for women in engineering to do consistently, because we naturally want to help people out. Sometimes we put up a white solid line (do not cross temporarily) but find that someone urges us to change it to white skips (passing lane, come on in). Like when a manager moves up a deadline when we just admitted (or wanted to admit) we were burnt out and need a short break. Sometimes we put up a double yellow that gets completely ignored, like when we told our significant other that we need to reschedule dinner with the folks, but they forgot and now “we can’t let them down”.

Boundaries are tough, because often others can see our lines, plain as day, yet decide to cross over anyway. The reverse can be true from us to others as well. It takes commitment, strength, and love for ourselves to not only discover our boundaries, but also to hold them, especially with outside pressure.

One thing that took me a while to understand about boundaries is that love and kindness can break boundaries. My rule follower intuitions are so ingrained that default to seeing boundaries in black and white (or, yellow and white, if you’ve stuck with my roadway metaphor this long). We can set our hard lines, but we can choose to open them up and allow them to be crossed over, too. This choice comes from the desire to preserve our most precious relationships and partnerships.

The other thing I learned about boundaries is that it’s more important that I stay in my lane rather than peek over at someone else’s. It’s easy to do this on a road when cars are traveling so quickly; save for stoplights, there’s little time to really check out what the other person is doing. We can try, but a few seconds in, and we’re easily distracted away from our own destination that day. We can easily miss the green light on our side if we’re too focused on someone else’s green.

My own boundary lines help define my perspective of my life. I can choose how much to invest in a friend or coworker who may be temporarily struggling. I can pull over safely near their lane and help support them, but I don’t have to be “in” their lane, problem solving for them and taking over their car. They can get to their final destination better with me as a passenger, not the driver. Boundaries help me stay detached.

Maybe the next time you’re on the road, the road striping will take on a new meaning and new perspective for you. Maybe you’ll wait to merge before the white-lined gore on an off-ramp. Or if someone sneaks over the white line in front of you when they could’ve waited, you’ll smile and think of love and kindness. But if you honk, that’s OK too, since boundaries are all about owning our power and choosing what works for us.