At a time in my life when I only had a husband, house and a self to take care of, I was hard-pressed to recognize a limit when I ran straight into it, let alone mind the warning signs that it was definitely coming. So I think there’s no shame in needing ample time to experiment with and figure out personal boundaries; especially given all the variables that most of us juggle on a daily basis. There was a lot of learning that happened when I began to pay attention to how much space I needed to breathe.
I started out by saying no to a request to babysit. I could hardly get the words “I’m sorry but I can’t help you this time” out of my mouth. However, as soon as I did, excuses and reasons and guilt followed freely. “I mean, I want to but I’m kind of stressed out right now, I have a lot going on (here in my empty house…) and I just need some time to work through…it’s just that I love being able to help you…I mean do you think you can get someone else to do it?” I don’t remember all awkwardness but needless to say both parties felt it. On the heels of that conversation, I realized that this “no” business was going to be harder than I thought because it was very natural for me to see other people’s struggles and it was easy to place their expressed needs above my own silent ones.
So I started listening to other people (remember Lev, with the social development theory and the zone of proximal development?) who could scaffold my learning on this. In the beginning, I was pretty uncomfortable with the amount of judgment I had to swallow because I had previously not given much thought to the unique strengths of folks who decline opportunities to help. As I started looking for people who said no, I paid special attention to why they said no and when they said no. It seemed like the only thing they all had in common was that they knew themselves fairly well and they felt an allegiance to their priorities that I only dreamed of (mostly because I was still sorting out my personal priorities and it’s hard to be loyal to something that doesn’t exist). Now that I have a little one and a several more years of living on my resume, I have a few things worked out but I still feel like I deal with some slippery, inconsistent priorities on a regular basis. And I will be honest and say that I still look around and try to find people who have similar limits to me, because sometimes it’s hard to validate my own limits. But I’m learning to a little at a time.
Most of my learning seems to be done by trial and error, so I began saying no when I felt overwhelmed or anxious or resentful during a conversation with a request for help. As I did this, I realized that oftentimes those feelings accompanied this type of reasoning: “I think I can probably fit that in.” Instead of having a few endeavors that I really dove into with loving zeal, I had a long, sometimes sobering checklist of people or ways that I “helped.” I could, indeed, cram a number of charitable efforts into my days but I found limited meaning living with that much life-clutter. Surprisingly, “I think I can probably squeeze that in or make that work” is something that I thought fairly consistently, in regards to time, money and tasks. From that realization, I had a place to start building some knowledge of myself and what works best for my soul to feel close to heaven in a relatively balanced way. I believe that place is unique for each of us. I have since realized that at this season in my life, it’s helpful to operate well below my daily limits so that there is space to respond when there is an unexpected or dire need.
As someone who prides herself on her capabilities, it was extremely humbling to begin telling people that I could not watch their children, or that I could not take that meal or that I could not have that assignment. Yikes. It was gut-check time because I had built something of an identity out of my availability and dependability and I had no reason (like kids or a job or a broken leg) other than my own internal anxiety barometer to make those calls. And actually, beautifully, it became reason enough and as I began to get to know myself, I started to feel my soul swell with a bit more liberty. And the helping that I did do became more meaningful.
Next time, more on How.