The Need for Boundaries: Tougher examples

I’m afraid by using recent examples, I may have glided past the giant awkwardness of my first 5 years of trying to navigate boundaries.  The dinner example was from 6 months ago, after years of ample practice with this revised version of marital give and take.   If I had offered you an example from even 3 years ago,  it could’ve included another night at the dinner table with a heated discussion about book club, accusations flying and me eventually storming away from the table, tears streaming down my face,  my bare feet agitatedly carrying me down the street to the stop sign where I wallowed in my resentment & frustration with my spouse’s seeming lack of understanding and disappointment in my own ability to be patient.  We still remember that day every time we notice the dent I put in the door frame when I slammed the door with strength I didn’t know I had.  Rest assured this new understanding we’re building over here is coming with some good old-fashioned time and hours of sometimes patient communication.

Here are a few more examples:

Last week we had just returned from a trip out of town and then my little one was sick so at the end of the week I had two days to work through mountains of laundry, put our house back together, and handle numerous other neglected responsibilities before the business of this week hit.   I happened to have a PTC meeting the next morning where we would be wrapping some items for our upcoming event.  Fighting every urge in me to show up, be “responsible” and “supportive” and then handle my resentment later (emotional credit card balance), I emailed the leader of the project and told her that in lieu of attending the work meeting, I was going to spend the time working on my assignment at home and I gave her a report on my status.

For me, having boundaries means letting people down sometimes and I really don’t like doing that.  But when I do, it’s a lot like acknowledging that I have a credit limit and the discomfort of my honesty helps me to assess my commitments and be more realistic about what I agree to handle.  I may have disappointed her and the few others there by adding to their workload but I also know my family experienced a bit more patience from me last week because I managed a limit.   It seems like maybe conflicting feelings are an uncomfortable and necessary part of boundaries.

Example shared with permission from all parties:  Several years ago, RJ and I were both filling leadership roles in our church.  Our congregation operates entirely based on volunteer efforts so people offer extraordinary amounts of time in order for us to enjoy the religious culture that we love.   We found ourselves in an annual family meeting with the leader of our congregation and we ended up talking about the assignments our family was handling.  We explained that our life felt full of a lot of good and important things and that our little family was struggling.  In addition to our church efforts, we were  offering support to our family and friends and we were both trying to soak up the novel babyhood we were experiencing.  We pointed out that we may be 30ish but we were/are rookie parents and we were loving the chance to really focus on learning how to work together to help our little girl grow.  We asked him to consider this information and the assignments we had and we were hopeful that some kind of change would be made for one of us.  I felt real apprehension and shame and embarrassment before and after the exchange because I didn’t think I would ever ask for something like that.   I had questioned myself for months about the validity of my feelings.  I believe Heaven can and does make up the difference.  People far busier than myself offer far more time, etc, etc.  But ultimately I had to come to terms (again) with the the reality of the situation and if verbalizing that reality meant that I was less faithful or less charitable than I thought I was then I just had to humbly accept that and work honestly from there.  At the same time, the pace had stopped feeling needful to us and as I prayed I didn’t feel discouraged from opening up a dialogue.

Because we were responsible folks who were apparently doing a fabulous job of looking put-together, our bishop (the leader of our congregation) was surprised to hear that we were having a hard time.  Thankfully, he was very gracious with the honest information we offered him and RJ’s assignment was changed shortly after that.  With time, it just is what it is but in the limbo phase just afterwards, I was torn between relief and guilt.   I couldn’t get over feeling like we had maybe let our bishop,  or all the people we worship with or maybe even Heavenly Father down.  That was a hard place to be.  (Incidentally, seeking his permission to use this example freed me from some of that self-inflicted guilt).  This man has always been a supportive and loving figure for our family and he could appreciate and champion our perspective once he knew what it was.  I was really, really grateful that he responded with such compassion.

It would’ve been easy to wrap this one up by saying it was Heavenly Father’s will that we change or that it was the right time.  Honestly, it just felt like a choice.  Ultimately, all service is right?  So I owned a choice and owned the consequences.  In hindsight, I realized a lot of healing was happening for 2 broken hearts in this house but it’s only with distance that I’ve been graced with that understanding.  I imagine I would’ve found goodness in continuing as well.  At the time, all it was was uncomfortable.

With love,



The Need for Boundaries: Examples

RJ was sitting at the kitchen table when I explained to him that I needed to start saying “No” more.  He was rightfully concerned that our life may have to adjust a bit to accommodate my boundary education.  So far, his willingness to embrace my desire to grow has yielded a more authentic and forgiving wife so it’s worth it.  I think.  Except maybe when it comes to dinners.  Here’s the first example:

After being stuck in a meal rut, I attempted several new recipes in a row, a few of which were kind of a disaster.  RJ, who enjoys a close relationship with his taste buds, mentioned that he would prefer 2 or 3 new meals a week, spread out and accompanied by several old standbys.  I started to feel really frustrated, resentful and trapped by his lack of adventure until I realized he was simply stating his perspective and I had never actually told him why I was trying to add to our dinner repertoire.  The conversation went something like this:

Lindsay: Even tone, fighting the urge to sound defensive: “I really enjoy eating dinner together as a family.  I know it’s important to both of us and I appreciate all the things you do to help prepare and clean up after dinner.  I work hard to plan our meals and prepare them and I’m happy to do it.  Sometimes it gets really boring to make the same meals again and again and I need to spice things up a bit.  It helps me feel excited about planning and making dinner if I can be creative and try new things.  I know sometimes this means we end up with a dicey meal but I’m learning.”

His reaction: “Oh, ok.”  I cannot overstate my gratitude at my spouse’s level of understanding.  This conversation opened up a dialogue about what stresses me out about making dinner and he is more than happy to offer menu ideas (which I really appreciate) and he has since made an effort to be even more helpful when it comes to meals.

Here’s one more example.  Rest assured that I will feel completely awkward the next time I tell you no.   And I’m trying to be brave but we’re operating on the edges of my comfort zone.  As you will see, I don’t employ all of the ideas every time, it just depends on the situation…

A friend called to ask me if I would be willing to teach a gardening class to a group of women next month.  She openly acknowledged that I may not be able to and if that was the case, asked if I had any recommendations.
I called her back and left a message telling her we’re about to get a puppy so I’m not adding much more to my April calendar.  I offered her the handouts from the last time I taught the class (respecting her need and request) and told her how good it was to hear her voice (love you friend) and I gave her the names of several contacts who may be able to help.  I have always appreciated her down-to-earth approach to service.

I wanted to say yes.  I almost always want to say yes.  As I thought through my response to her, these were some of the questions I asked myself:

If I say yes to this request, how much time will it realistically take?  (I pretty consistently underestimate here, even if I ask.  I don’t take into account prep time, travel time, social time, the time it takes me to get out the door, you name it.)

What will I be giving up so that I have the time?  I like to think that I have more time than the actual 24 hours that are regularly allotted to me.  Oftentimes I say yes, assuming that a few extra hours will magically appear.  Remember “I can fit this in…”  Sometimes I pray for help with managing my time but I have yet to be granted more, heaven has helped me in other ways.

And then, How would this sacrifice of time impact my priorities?  In those first years of our marriage, I would routinely attend to everyone else’s needs first, assuming that our marriage and personal needs would be taken care of on their own.  RJ patiently pointed out numerous times that I was leaving very little time for him or our home.  I figured the frantic pace I was keeping was all in the name of service so somehow our marriage and family culture would just fly on autopilot right?  (Are you beginning to see why my emotional credit card was maxed out?)  Over time, I began to realize that being intentional about my marriage and family meant managing this mortal life of mine a little better and reserving some available prime time, not just serving up whatever exhausted minutes I had leftover.  We all have unique situations and priorities but we are probably similar in our ‘out-of-balance feeling’ when important priorities get subverted for too long.

Is there anything I can offer that would take less time but would still be helpful?  In the Chester Karrass Effective Negotiating course this would represent my efforts to follow the win-win principle.  It takes some creativity but it can be fun to figure out how I might be able to help in a different way than what I’ve been asked that would still allow me to respect my priorities.

These are basic examples: a situation where I realized and defended a need and a situation where I declined a chance to help.  I am working on a few for next time that are a bit more uncomfortable.

Until then, I send my love,


The Need for Boundaries: A Graceful No?

Initially I apologized for my ineptitude every time I turned someone down, confident that a person more put-together than myself could wrestle as many tasks and come out on top.  But after a while I made a habit out of apologizing all over myself and that kind of language made me feel broken and incapable.

Next I tried “wishing” that I could help people and then fumbling around with different excuses as to why I couldn’t.  Eventually I realized this was worse than just saying no because all of the sudden I was publicly elevating cleaning toilets for my upcoming guests over helping someone with a sick child.  As I mentioned the other day, I believe no one else has the insight, information and inspiration to set my limits for me so I can’t expect other people to respond with complete understanding when I lay out the bits and pieces of my reasoning in front of them.  So oftentimes it’s pointless to even try.  However, I still needed something to help me feel comfortable in awkward exchanges and to preserve the relationships I held dear.  After making ample mistakes, I came up with these ideas that I use routinely:

Let me think about it/check my calendar and get back to you.  Perhaps if you aren’t forgetful, this isn’t a necessary step.  However, oftentimes, if I make split-second decisions, I don’t take the time to consider the the priorities, limits and commitments that I’m already working with and I make decisions based on pressure.  I usually do well with some time to think.

If I do say yes, I can offer consent with boundaries, if necessary.  Yes I can help but only from this time to this time, or I would love to be a part of that project but I’m going to need some help during these busy days, etc.

Regardless of my response, I try to:

Kindly confirm regard for the individual/relationship.  This is the most recent addition to my boundary repertoire and for me it makes all the difference in the world.  I know that sometimes it can be SO hard to reach out and ask for help and I feel like it’s especially important to respect that kind of vulnerability and treat it with sensitivity.  I can make a connection and validate the endeavor, the idea, the need, the situation, the request, the person, the relationship, etc. regardless of what my response is.   If I am saying no, I work really hard to avoid using the word “but….” at the end of this part of the exchange.  I just let it be, love floating freely, unencumbered by any subjective interpretation.  My choice or inability to participate does not change my feelings about the person or the task at hand and my communication can reflect that.

If I am saying no, I try to:

Unapologetically state that I will not be able to help or that the request won’t work for me.  This is really really hard for me.  I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that I’m a pleasing praise junkie and that addiction is a slow one to overcome.  I wonder if I’m being judged as not compassionate or empathetic or sensitive and that thought is almost more than I can bear and the apology almost spills out of it’s own accord.  But I can’t control what other people think,  I have limits and I can’t be anyone other than me so there’s no reason to apologize.   Incidentally, this step has alerted me to the numerous times when an apology is in order for an oversight, etc.  Sometimes I’ve made a mistake or not followed through.  Sometimes I’m just a human being with limits.  There’s a difference.

Wait for the inevitable silence and let it be.  My inclination is to fill with something to validate my worth (because I’m not currently being praised for helping) or with random ramblings so I don’t have to sit in the silence of someone else’s disappointment or surprise or need.  Oftentimes if I open my mouth at this point, I’m re-negotiating the boundary I just set and that doesn’t do me any credibility favors.  Sometimes during that silence, I’m weighing any new information I received in the exchange and sometimes I do end up changing my mind.  But I’m learning to hold my tongue and fight the urge to dive in and change my mind right then.  It helps if I can give myself some space to think things through (again).  Depending on the magnitude of the task, I may need minutes or days to reassess, I may need some time on my knees or just a quick glance at the clock but I try to own the decision and sometimes that means not rushing it for the convenience of someone else.

If you try any of these ideas, I would really love to hear how they go for you.  I’m thinking of some examples to share in a bit.

With love,


The Need for Boundaries: Personal Space

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.

With love,