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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,


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